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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.

Read 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.

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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 I—with 20 years of coding experience—had 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?

Summation

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 here.
  • 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.

"My interest in usability arose from the pain and tears of patching the wounds of suffering interface designs with the inadequate bandages of help files and user guides." — Daniel Cohen

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