Is Online User Behavior "Fuzzy?"
Flames nearly broke out recently in the usually placid confines
of the STC (the techwriters' professional organization) usability
SIG discussion list. The topic was an article written by David Walker
suggesting that e-commerce has had a rude awakening that users aren't
embracing it, and the reason is that users are in some mysterious
way, complex or irrational.
the article first, then compare your reaction with mine. If
it's no longer available online, here's
a cached copy, like they do on Google.
La, de da, la de da. You're not cheating and looking at my answers
yet are you? Go read the story.
Now, understandably, the article isn't a treatise on usability
but a news story. This, however is a usability site and the topic
was discussed on a usability list. And from the context of usability,
I found the article to epitomize all of what's wrong with most everyday
talk about usability. Let's dissassemble the article so you can
see what I mean.
"By now the great error of e-commerce's first
boom is becoming apparent: people don't act like programs."
Although not all people are "structured thinkers" and
not all humans take the same path through a flowchart, the web is
and always will be "programmatic." The solution isn't
adding artificial intelligence; it's writing programs that "act"
responsibly and thoroughly and intuitively and visibly and trustfully.
It's just taking time to write all the code. I'm not apologizing
for incomplete functionality, just pointing out that the only misunderstanding
is on the part of anyone who thought that incomplete, crappy functionality
somehow implies that I as a user am expecting something that's hard-to-synthesize.
Build the technology to let customers buy, went
the late-1990s theory, and buy they would. No, technology
alone attracts "early adopters," not 200 million consumers.
Anyone who thought otherwise is a dummy. When we try to substantiate
the notion that the press creates perception instead of merely reporting
the news, this is where that sort of thing happens. Who ever thought
that the vast majority of the public would buy right away???
But people still most often use the web to
research products and services. Then they go to a store or ring
up. The web is an information medium even when that medium
is used for interaction, music, graphic, motion video, conversation,
community, or commerce. And as such it's strength is research. This
is not a surprise to someone who had both feet on the ground. I
personally don't like to select clothing online, but I'd love to
reorder it. If every piece of clothing had a reorder URL and item
number in it, think how much gasoline would be saved. There are
some initial purchases that will always be better in a store and
others that will be better online. Just today I purchased fancy
screws (to fix a squeaky floor) online because I could compare prices;
this wouldn't even be possible in brick-and-mortar terms.
"Online shoppers frequently choose to buy
from more expensive suppliers even though a lower price really is
just a click or two away." Whatever the medium, shoppers
have always placed varying weights on reputability, service after
the sale, speed, and other factors than price. This isn't news or
insight. And it sure isn't fuzzy. And when I chose one site over
another this morning, it was because one charged US$7.50 for shipping
and handling plus US$2.00 for tax, plus US$0.50 for Instant Replacement
coverage... wheras the other added only the calculated(!) shipping
cost and nothing else. In this case, I did(!) shop for price but
the reason was that it was quick. However, "quick" meant
about 3-5 minutes and perhaps 100 clicks even on a T1 line. For
the vast majority of users, this speed is not the norm so any expectations
of lower prices being a click or two away, even allowing for poetic
license, are silly in 2003, let alone in 1999. There was no "great
error"; the variety of vendors, speed, and functionality are
simply, finally, coming around.
People will happily transact online... where
the web can add a valuable experience or take away an experience
we hate.... Shopping... is not merely the accumulation of goods
and services by a calculating consumer. And there's something
fuzzy about this? Some drivers would never decide between two cars
without driving them, yet others would. Prediction: car-buying sites
will never replace the driving experience. That surprises some pundits,
or worse, some website authors? Does it mean that cars aren't bought
with the web? No. Does it change the fact that the best car-buying
site will be the fastest/best sorted/most interactive/lowest-priced/friendliest???
Behavioural economics probes the situations
where... people start doing things less than rationally... has already
pointed out a few truths that e-commerce should ponder: People want
immediate gratification. So the people creating e-commerce
thought that people preferred, as they do in England, to line up
in queues (for the social interaction) and that the online commerce
would be more effective if it took several tries to get a transaction
to succeed??? Ahhh, now I understand.
A surprisingly high number of people would rather
have $10 today than $11 tomorrow. Amazon has intuitively understood
this with its "one-click order" system, which promises
to provide people with their books and CDs for the minimum possible
effort. Yes, my irrational obsession has been to accomplish
a task with the fewest possible keystrokes. Amazon understood no
fuzzy logic of behavioral economics! They understood the Computer
Users Bill of Rights.
People dislike risks more than they should,
and systematically overestimate the dangers they pose. In an online
environment still seen as relatively "risky", consumers
may need an almost unnatural degree of reassurance. Excuuuuuuuse
me?! Whereas most of the article might be harmless, this claim is
downright nasty. Just yesterday Iwith 20 years of coding experiencehad
to spend a whole evening researching and exterminating the LOB and
FreeScratchCard viruses (a new blight called 'parasiteware') from
my system. And he thinks everyday Joes are unjustified in trusting
their credit card balances to the wretched, untamed ether of the
web? Wow. Exactly how much should people dislike identity theft,
loss of creditworthiness, and financial devastation?
Enough already, right? OK, so by now you either understand my point
or not. Why is this such a big deal to me that a layman writes an
article that misses what I think the point is?
- Because there's nothing fuzzy about what people want: speed,
price, accuracy, trustworthiness, convenience, understanding,
feedback. The same things they've always wanted.
- Because usability problems are being solved but not nearly fast
enough for me.
- Because people think that fancy new solutions are needed, yet
the problems have come up over and over with every technological
sea change, and the solutions are the same: do the basics. (For
instance, many if not most web sites need tables-of-contents and
indexes in the same way that documents have needed for 1500 years.
Full-text search is awesome for some purposes but it isn't always
a substitute.) This is probably my biggest concern with the theme
of the story. It's a newsman's job to find news but there is none
- Because new programmers, high-school students, don't have a
prayer of solving the problems if they read articles like this.
- Because we are the ones that must correct the message.