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Customer Habits And Online Conventions

Posted on the 15 June 2012 by Onlinere @onretailblog

Habits Illustration

I recently found myself thinking about all of the stupid rules that somehow touch our lives. For example, as a child my father forbade me coughing in bed. I can’t really give you a good reason for this but I can tell you that even though I’ve been in my own place for many years, I still find myself stifling the reflex to bark out when beneath my duvet.

Whilst painting a somewhat freakish picture of my childhood this also illustrates the point of this blog post… habits are hard to break, even the ones that don’t really make sense.

To give you a web based example; I can’t tell you the number of people I’ve watched typing a full URL into a Google search then clicking on the relevant PPC link. I try to explain that they could simply enter the URL directly into the address bar and save time. At this point I’m usually told (sometimes politely) the orifice in which I can store my advice. The common reasoning is that this is just the way the culprit is used to doing it. They simply don’t want to change.

If you’ve stuck with me thus far you’ll be glad to hear that I am going somewhere here. What I am driving at is this; every time you ask someone to break from their habitual behavior, you force them to think, and they don’t always like it!

To a greater or lesser extent everyone is a creature of habit and contrary to popular opinion, not all habits are bad. Our most established behavior patterns can be acted out quickly and easily, they often don’t even require conscious thought and can be carried out in a split second. This can be a huge advantage in a world where we are often trying to cram too much into every single moment.

Here lies the crux for online retailers. One of the great appeals of shopping online is the convenience and efficiency we offer to our customers. We have reached the point where reducing our sales process by a click or two can be the difference between a sale and a bounce. So making the customer’s experience simple is key.

According to Google benchmarks for 2011 you’ve got an average of 6 seconds to appeal to your visitor once they’ve landed on your site (in the UK). The more you can make them feel at home straight away, the more familiar visual cues you can adhere to, the better your chance of keeping them and potentially making a sale.

It is no secret that subconscious behavior patterns play an enormous part in how our customers shop. We’ve all become totally accustomed to logging in to our account at the top right of the page or to bright, colourful ‘buy now’ buttons that pave our route to a purchase. It is exactly these kind of visitor expectations that online retailers ignore at their peril.

For a while Avis car rentals used the asterisk symbol on their web forms to indicate an optional field. Unfortunately for them, the rest of the web had come to use the asterisk to highlight required information. Who decided this should be the ‘right’ way we may never know but by default it simply became the expected behavior and thus a rule was born. Unsurprisingly Avis have now updated their forms to fall into line with everyone else. I can only imagine the drop out rates they must have experienced as annoyed customers voted with their feet.

Recognising these inbuilt rules is really where intuitive web design begins. A simple understanding that the customer should lead and the retailer must follow is essential. Every visitor landing on your ecommerce website arrives with a pre-loaded cognitive map of how it should look and function even before they see it load. The more established a user is, the more entrenched the rule will be, so if your site attracts customers higher on the savvy scale, you need to pay even more attention to the conventions.

Looking at this from a ‘glass half full’ perspective, there are some very real advantages for online retailers. For example, you don’t have to re-invent the wheel with every site you create. So long as you know what your customers expect, you can save yourself the hard work of spelling everything out, all you have to do is stick to their plan.

For me personally this brings with it an uncomfortable tension. Prefab websites and pro-forma layouts sit really uncomfortably in my designer’s soul. It all feels a little too much like painting by numbers.  But then structure in itself isn’t inherently bad and the old mantra that form should always follow function is true. The user should always be at the center of good design and the thing that sets apart great designers is knowing when and where to break convention for good reasons. Throwing in a little something that goes against expectations can act as a stopper to make your customer think consciously, just for a moment. It’s risky of course. The moment you abuse your customers’ rules you are crossing the streams… It may just work, but on the other hand it may result in total protonic reversal. Perhaps the best approach is to view the rules as your toolkit, to be used, or in rare cases skillfully bent, to create fantastic user experiences.

Interestingly, I spent a little time searching for great examples of retail websites that have broken with convention to good effect. I wanted to illustrate how it was possible to go against the flow when done skillfully. Unfortunately, in every single case where I found a blog or news item lauding such a site for it’s wonderfully rebellious approach, the site had since been updated to something much more conventional. I found that fascinating!

I guess the most important thing is to know the rules. Understanding conventions makes life so much simpler. Here is the tricky bit though (there’s always a catch isn’t there), the rules change all the time and vary from industry to industry. However, if you’d like a little guidance, perhaps I could recommend that you have a look here

Otherwise, if you’d like to comment or perhaps suggest some rules of your own please add your two penn’orth below:


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