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An Open Letter to Webmasters and Clients: Think Beyond Links, Build Compelling Sites with Rich UI and UX

Think Beyond Links, Build Compelling Sites with Rich UI and UX
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No serious SEO can ignore the elephant in the room: black hat works. For every post informing us that we need to create compelling content in order to rank, there are hundreds or thousands of junky posts ranking on purchased links, private link networks, and tiered linking schemes. Black hat doesn’t work for long, but it does work.

So why are we sitting here telling you to “think beyond links?” Are we just industry sheeple, regurgitating Google propaganda about how you need “great content” in order to show up in the SERPs?

No.

We’re here to tell you that compelling sites take you further than rankings alone, and that UI and UX are musts if you want to optimize any relevant KPIs, as opposed to just optimizing for search. If you still aren’t convinced, take a look at our full explanation.

Today, we’re going to talk about how to do it.

1. Embrace Responsive Design

Responsive Design

At the end of 2012, Mashable redesigned their entire site. The content now resizes itself if you adjust the size of your browser. They’ve done this to respond to their changing user base. As more people switch over to tablets and mobile phones, fewer of them are willing to put up with sites that force them to use horizontal scrolling or zooming just to use the site.

Mashable is far from alone in recognizing this need.

2013 is the first year where projected PC sales are expected to be lower than the previous year. One hundred million tablets are expected to be sold by the end of the year, and smartphones already outnumber traditional cell phones.

Meanwhile, very few businesses will be able to design apps accessible from every device. Apps are certainly a good way to put yourself in view among your core customer base, but it’s much more difficult to convince a user to install an app than it is to convince them to visit a website. Add to that a huge number of conflicting platforms and it starts to get very difficult to reach as wide an audience with apps alone.

Using media queries, you can determine the resolution of the user’s browser and adjust the presentation accordingly. Some screens are too narrow to accommodate side bars or large images.

In addition to responsive design, “adaptive design” is another important element in the future of site development. With adaptive design, you detect the type of device and adjust features accordingly. You may want to enable swiping, or adjust button sizes to accommodate fat fingers as opposed to tiny cursors.

Simply saying “we need responsive design” isn’t enough, though. You need to eliminate age-old habits you didn’t even know you were using. You can’t just create a mockup of what you want the site to look like and let the designer make all the calls. You’ll need to do things like:

  • Assign a hierarchy to each page element
  • Assign a hierarchy to each part of the content (because lorem ipsum just isn’t going to cut it)
  • How does navigation change on smaller screens?

It’s not just a matter of making things smaller so they fit the screen.

Smashing Magazine recommends starting with a mobile wireframe design that makes the hierarchy and priorities immediately clear. You can then hand this mobile mockup to a designer. A good designer should be able to immediately envision what the desktop size version should look like. (Here is there example, starting with a PDF of the mobile version and ending with the hi-res desktop version.)

It’s much easier to design for mobile and envision how things will adjust when the screen gets larger than it is to go in the other direction. This is central to effective responsive design.

2. Understand Split Testing

Split Testing

You’re not going to maximize conversions, user engagement, or create the most positive user experience if you don’t perform split tests, or don’t perform them correctly.

Danny Inny at CopyBlogger compared split testing to sex in high school: everybody says they’re doing it, most of them aren’t, and most of those who really are probably aren’t doing it right. Truer words have rarely been spoken.

Here are a few of the biggest mistakes people make when they split test their pages:

Statistical significance is not some vague feeling that you’ve run the test long enough to verify that one page works better than the other. When you ignore statistical significance, you surrender to statistical flukes and your own biases. You need to reach 90 or 95% confidence before you decide that one page is working better than the other. If you don’t know how to do that, you can take advantage of this free tool by Firepole marketing, you can learn what a two-sample t-test is, and you can take advantage of Google’s own split-tester right in Google analytics, or use the Premise WordPress plugin right from the WordPress menu.

You need a lot of traffic to spot small changes. 100 impressions is only enough to spot a 20% difference between two results. It takes 10,000 impressions before you can spot a 2% difference between options. That’s why, unless you can afford to pay for the traffic, you should start with major changes like:

  • Entire landing page concept
  • The headline
  • Price
  • Content
  • Images

Some will argue with me on the first point, but I think that’s unwise. I maintain that changing the entire page is still “changing one thing at a time,” and it’s probably the very first thing you should test. The landing page concept contains within it hidden assumptions about how your audience acts. You need to test what kind of audience you’re working with before you test individual things.

Testing individual page elements will help you get the best version of a page, but it will not get you to the best page concept.

3. Behaviors Speak Louder than Words

Behaviours Speak Louder than Words

Split testing is great for maximizing conversions, time on site, etc., but there is another kind of testing that is absolutely vital for UI and UX: usability testing. It’s very important to understand that usability testing is pretty much nothing like split testing.

The purpose of usability testing is to see how users actually use the interface. It’s user-centered design at its best, and it helps you build an interface that accommodates the way people actually expect it to work. This results in an intuitive user experience that flows naturally.

So how does usability testing work?

In usability testing, you present users with the interface and ask them to perform a series of steps. Their interaction with the interface is recorded, observed, and documented.

Unlike split testing, a very small number of users are actually needed in order to arrive at conclusions. The reality of the situation is that most people, especially those relatively inexperienced with technology, will respond to the interface the same way. It almost never takes more than ten users to spot a design flaw or opportunity, and typically takes fewer than that.

User testing is not market research. It is not about asking users what would make them like the interface more or asking for feedback. It is entirely about observing behavior. The truth is, people rarely know what they want or what would make the interface work better…at least not consciously. It is only by observing their behavior that you can learn what the product is missing, or where opportunities lie.

Jakob Nielson of Sun Microsystems popularized the concept of a large number of very small usability tests during development in the ‘90s. All that is typically necessary is five or six random users. This has come to be called “hallway testing” because of the implication that the users to test will be random people picked up off the hallway.

Put simply, as soon as you spot two or three people struggling with the interface, you don’t gain very much by watching hundreds or thousands of other people go through the same problem.

Statistically speaking, samples this small aren’t really representative of the general population, but that’s not the point. You can almost always spot problems of some kind with samples this small, and it’s pointless to test further until the problem is fixed. Testing larger samples is unnecessary until no problems can be detected with such small samples.

The point is to focus on iteration. Usability testing is much less scientific than split testing, and is driven primarily by the experience and intuition of the designers, combined with the behavioral data of users. With enough iterations, the overall sample size does become large, but the benefit of using this method is that initial problems are resolved early on and never encountered again, so that smaller problems can be uncovered by subsequent tests.

Usability testing can be made more effective and efficient by using tracking software, heat maps, and eyeball tracking tools.

It doesn’t have to be expensive, however. One method that is being advocated for startups is called paper prototype testing, and it’s exactly what it sounds like. This involves using paper mockups, which may even be hand sketched. It involves a user, who interacts with the paper mockup, a facilitator, who takes notes and delves into the problems with the users, and a “human computer,” who is familiar with the interface and manipulates the mockup to simulate the final interface.

Such paper prototype testing has been working quite effectively since the ‘80s and is unlikely to go out of fashion any time soon.

While usability testing isn’t the same as market research or qualitative questionnaires, it can be useful in some cases to mix them together. Face to face interviews tend to be most useful, particularly right after a user testing session. These interviews can help uncover the root issue behind the behaviors. They can be very informative, as long as you remember that behaviors speak louder than words.

4. Build Consumer Psychology into the Site

Consumer Psychology

User experience is all about what is happening mentally, so it’s important to understand a few things about consumer psychology when you design the interface and decide on the content. We can start with Robert Cialdini’s six principles of influence:

1. Reciprocity – Humans, in general, are more inclined to do favors for people who have already done favors for them. The more value your website offers to its users, the more inclined they are to offer value of their own in return.

2. Commitments – People are more likely to follow through on something if they make a commitment, no matter how small, and even if it is a mental commitment. For example, you are more likely to get a positive result in most circumstances if you ask “Will you…” instead of “Please…” Small commitments also open up the door to larger commitments in the future.

3. Authority – We tend to trust people with credentials and expertise more than people without them. A seal of approval, a group membership, or an endorsement from a trusted authority can go a long way. This is also the entire premise of content marketing: that you can become a trusted authority by offering valuable, helpful content on subjects that matter to your target audience.

4. Social Proof – We’re more likely to be influenced by somebody who is trusted by others, especially if they happen to be popular in groups that we associate with. This is even truer when somebody that we personally know endorses a product, organization, or person.

5. Scarcity – The more rare something is, the more valuable we tend to think it is. Unfortunately, this tactic has been used so often, and has become reminiscent of so many “don’t miss your chance” infomercials, that consumers rarely trust it anymore. It’s best to allow them to come to the conclusion that your brand is rare on their own, by producing content, products, and an online experience that is hard to come by.

6. Rapport – This is where market research and user targeting can get especially helpful. The more consumers feel like they have in common with you, the more likely they are to trust you, and to eventually buy from you.

In addition to these six principles, we can add 4 cognitive biases and heuristics that affect the way we think:

7. Loss Aversion – Generally speaking, the fear of loss is more influential than the promise of reward. We’re more willing to take a risk to avoid a loss than to earn a reward, and this is true even when the outcome is exactly the same. This has been scientifically validated many times. It’s the reason we fear the unknown, and it’s why stock market players hold on to losers too long and let go of winners too early.

8. Status Quo Bias (Default Bias) – If we’re given a series of options, we tend to choose whichever one seems to be the “default.” Anybody who’s ever been overwhelmed with decisions by the restaurant waitress (or the confusing menu) knows what I’m talking about. We like options, but don’t like being forced to make a decision. This is why smart restaurant menus highlight just a few dishes with special coloration and pictures, and why smart site designers make it clear where they want users to start.

9. Anchoring – Humans don’t think in absolutes. They think in relative terms. We tend to anchor things on our first impression or our most memorable (probably most emotional) one. As an example, if we see the highest price first, the lowest price will tend to seem lower. If we start with the lowest price, the highest price will seem much higher. The same goes for any other quality we might evaluate. This is why it’s important to be very careful with first impressions, and how we move forward from there.

Conclusion

Hopefully this introduction has given digital marketers something to think about. The careful balance between UI and UX is every bit as important as off-site SEO, and it is a crucial part of the buying cycle. Master these basics and you will be worlds ahead of the competition.

What are your thoughts on UI and UX strategy?

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Manish Dudharejia is the Co-Founder and President of E2M Solutions, a full service digital marketing agency based in India.