Beyond Usability II: Is Your Web Site a Tool?

Way back in the early days of GrokDotCom, I wrote Beyond Usability, in which I said usability is great stuff, ‘cause it removes obstacles that make it hard to move around or accomplish things on a Web site. But it can’t tell you where you ought to go or what you ought to be doing. This is where Persuasion Architecture comes in.

One of the biggest problems affecting most Web sites we see is that they are designed to function as tools – software applications. But the art of persuasion is a dialog. There’s a big difference in the metaphor of Web site as tool and Web site as dialog – and it’s a difference that will affect your online success.

The Software Tool Analogy

Tools are designed to make our tasks easier. Ideally, the tool is intuitive, easy to use and requires a short learning curve on the part of those who will actually use it. Umm … I did say “ideally.”

Usability has received so much attention because it fits within the framework of the programmer’s rules and established order. Alan Cooper writes,

“Since the earliest days of software development, the sequence of events has been program, bug test, tweak …. The main reason why empirical user testing has been accepted in the high-tech business is that it fits easily into the existing sequence …. programmers are comfortable with this piggybacking of a new form of testing because it doesn’t upset their established sequence.”1

Commercial Web development today remains tool-oriented, even state-of-the-art stuff. And the most human-centered professionals in the software world – usability and information architects – are still primarily focused on building a better tool.

Take an article I just read by Jared Spool, a renowned usability specialist.2 Jared wants you to “Design for the Multiple Personalities of Users,” except he’s not really talking personality differences; he’s talking skill-set differences. He distinguishes between “core competencies” (the stuff we’re really good at doing) and “ring competencies” (the stuff that we’re not terribly good at doing), and his organizing question is “How do we design an application for both core users and ring users?” Look at the words: competency, application, extension of skill-sets and knowledge. Tool words, not personality words.

Building an exceptional software tool is probably sufficient if you are trying to sell products to people who know exactly what they want and if your products have unique identifiers, such as’s straightforward business model of “book title,” “author,” “subject” or “ISBN”—how many other ways are there of looking for books? If you are lucky enough to be in that kind of business and have the stomach for the inevitable price competition, you should focus more effort on improving the tool.

The tool analogy may apply to certain business models and the back end or other technical applications (we all want checkout systems that are a breeze to use), but you’ve got to ask: “Is this really what I’m looking for in my Web site?”

Persuasion Is a Dialog, Not Only a Tool

If you think of a commercial Web site as only a tool, you constrain yourself in the wrong metaphor.

The purpose of your site is to attract, engage with and retain prospects, leads and customers – and it accomplishes this in a medium that is difficult to control. Your visitors are more than simply “users” of the “software.” None of them is required to be there – they interact with you because they expect to find something relevant to what they seek.

Grasping the fact that Web commerce is voluntary and participatory is central to understanding the character of “selling” and “buying” on the Internet. Unlike the majority of other marketing media, the Web is a “pull” (not a “push”) medium. Research shows that most visitors get to a Web site via four channels: they type in the url directly; they locate a link through a search engine, they respond to a link in an email communication; or they follow the advice of a friend. Your visitors make a decision to visit, and in doing so, broadcast their needs, which they look to you to meet.

Supplying motivation – and it can only be done in a persuasive dialog between you and your visitor – is the key. Let’s face it. Some of the most abysmal (and amazingly successful) sites out there are adult sites – and even the most inexpert users manage to figure out how to use them. Motivate your visitors and you’ve accomplished the lion’s share of the job.

More than any other medium, commercial Web sites attract folks who know exactly what they want – a chicken-and-the-egg proposition that reinforces the idea commercial sites should be designed as tools. But these folks represent the smallest part of your prospect base.

Two other types of traffic – those who know approximately what they are looking for and those who have an interest but may not actively be in a buying mode – constitute almost every commercial Web site’s sweet spot. They are also the folks Web sites most often neglect. (If you think these two don’t count, try taking your significant other on a purely window shopping stroll through the mall.) And think about all those B2B prospects who may not be actively looking for you but might buy from you if you could just meet them.

The persistence of the tool metaphor is the principle reason these critical types of traffic remain underserved in commercial Web sites. It is much harder to apply a tool to fuzzy objectives like persuasion.

So think about the needs of all those folks who would buy from you with a little bit of help on your part. Think skill sets, to be sure, but dig deeper and think persuasion, personalities motivation. Change the metaphor: it’s Dialog, not Tool!


1 The Inmates are Running the Asylum. Alan Cooper. Indianapolis, Indiana: SAMS (a division of Macmillan Computer Publishing). 1999. pp 205-206.

2 “Designing for the Multiple Personalities of Users.” Jared M. Spool.

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It’s Not About Mind Control

Lisa walked into the offices the other day and told us about this new poster her chiropractor had on his office wall. If you know chiropractors, you know they value educating their clients. So this poster wanted patients to consider the meaning of several words that folks use to describe what a chiropractor does: crack, manipulate and adjust.

Naturally chiropractors don’t like you using the first two – which put a bad spin on things and aren’t exactly correct. Who wants to have his spine cracked? And subjecting yourself to manipulation sounds like you’re going to get scammed. Chiropractors hope you think of what they do as adjusting – bringing things into accord and alignment, achieving a proper relationship, making things fit.

That got me thinking about what we do when we undertake creating persuasion architecture systems. Lots of folks might consider that we practice form of manipulation. And this is where a little perspective mixed with precision in our word choices helps.

B J Fogg defines “persuasive technology as any interactive system designed to change people’s attitudes or behaviors.”1 I know what he means, and probably do you too. But there are those who might bristle and feel a bit Big-Brotherish about this statement. Let’s take this definition to it’s most ridiculous extreme: “You mean, a Web site can change me into a neo-Nazi and make me want to shave my head?”

Is this stuff about making folks think things they wouldn’t otherwise think or do things they wouldn’t otherwise do? Hardly! The truth of the matter is, you aren’t going to change anyone’s mind. You may offer an intellectual or emotional argument that helps clarify an issue. You may get your visitors imagining how wonderfully they will benefit from your products or services. You may provide brilliant justifications why you are the company with whom they should do business. You may convince them to upgrade from 256 Mb RAM to 512 Mb RAM. But you’re not really going to change their minds.

The goal of a commercial Web site is to get a person to take an action – to buy something, to opt-in to a mail list, subscribe to a newsletter, register and so on. To take this action, the person has to be persuaded there is value in taking the action.

You remember that we’ve talked about the four types of traffic a Web site gets? There are those who landed in the wrong place – you can write them off. Then there are those who have some degree of “propensity to buy”: one knows exactly what she wants; one knows sort of what she wants; and one isn’t overtly in a buying mood, but might buy if she came across the right thing.

The thing is, these three groups of visitors wind up on your Web site because they chose to come – we’re in a participatory, voluntary environment, right? They come to you because you have something that interests them. And it is the job of your Web site to help them identify what they want, supply them the information they need in order to make a decision, and then motivate them to take action.

Persuasion is not manipulation – at least, it isn’t if you’re telling the truth. Persuasion is about providing “the full story” that helps your visitors take action,2 it’s about keeping things simple, facilitating decisions, providing motivation and inspiring desire. You might persuade someone to make up her mind, but you aren’t fundamentally going to get her to change it.


1 Persuasive Technology, BJ Fogg, 2003.

2 “Why Are Customers So Indecisive? Sean D’Souza. PsychoTactics: Unlocking the Mystery of the Business Brain.  

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