Designing for Decisions

14 november 2003, 07:56

One of the greatest misconceptions about web sites is that they should be designed for selling. The problem with this mindset is that users don’t come to web sites to be sold; they come to web sites with a purpose. Confronting users with advertisements or promotions may be fine for those who still find the web a novelty and are willing to surf and explore, but the vast majority of web users nowadays are coming online for something specific.

Users now come to web sites with the intent of exploring their options to make a decision. By making it easier for users to make decisions, we can create a much more compelling experience than a sales-oriented site. Let’s explore some decision-simplifying strategies that can help to make your web site more effective.

Differentiate the Choices

Take a look at your web site—especially at any page that displays a listing of your products or services. This can include a category page, a set of search results, or even your home page. Now, take a close look at how you differentiate between what you have to offer. Do you list items only by model number with no supporting explanation? Do you use esoteric product names that only your marketing department understands? If so, you’re not alone.

In order to help users decide, we must have clear differentiators between the options presented. Forgive me if I refuse to understand the difference between the B20 and D500 laptop, or if I plead ignorant towards knowing the difference between a Farmington and Huntington bed; but I need a short text description or some accompanying photo to help me choose.

In differentiating the choices, we must specify what the differences are and why we should choose one over the other. Otherwise users are left with no choice but to randomly click through links in the vain hope that something will accidentally match their needs. Although it was said in another context, “differentiate or die” is a phrase that holds true.

Educate Your Users

Some products, like toothpaste, are relatively easy to decide upon. You go to the store and you either pick up the same brand as you normally do or you take a quick look at different packages and decide.

But if you’re contemplating life insurance, planning an extensive vacation, or deciding on a digital camera, you would probably do a bit of research before making your purchase. For more complicated products and services, providing educational material to your users is a must.

Educating users usually involves providing content to help users understand how to evaluate their options. The goal is to provide enough information to help users feel confident that they can make an informed decision and act upon it. Information about choosing products and services acts like a surrogate for having a salesperson tell you that you’ve made the right choice; without this type of reassurance, your users may hesitate and look for some other place to gain their confidence to buy.

Another reason for educating your users is to create an opportunity for upselling. For example, if users don’t know the benefits of a 3 megapixel camera versus a 4 megapixel one, they can’t rationalize why they should buy one over the other. By making users aware of the range of options or features available, they can come to appreciate and potentially value the more expensive choices.

Understand Your Users’ Goals

When users purchase a product or service, they do so in the context of a goal. They don’t purchase mutual funds for the sake of owning them, nor do they hire a lawyer just to have one. So in helping our users to make decisions, we need to maintain the context of their goals.

Suppose you’re looking for a quick flight using When you search for a flight, you’ll see that the results include a matrix of flight options. What’s neat about this matrix is that one axis contains different airlines and the other axis specifies different flight options with different numbers of stopovers. The reason for this matrix is that Orbitz recognizes that users aren’t just looking for a flight – they’re looking for the cheapest flight that meets their schedule, and the proactive display of flights with additional stopovers can potentially provide cheaper options. Keeping your users goals in mind will help you to design your site’s content and functionality with the right nuances that will compel your users to click with you.

Address Concerns

Another way to look at designing for decisions is about eliminating or at least providing perspective on the concerns or issues that might prevent users from making a decision to purchase. Concerns that aren’t addressed don’t necessarily become forgotten and they may cement themselves as roadblocks that prevent users to even consider what you have to offer at all. When the concerns are legitimate ones, it still is important that you address them so that you can provide some perspective over the issue rather than have it fester as a lingering doubt.

Apple is one such company that must constantly address potential computer buyers’ concerns over using a Macintosh computer in a predominantly Windows world. That’s why Apple created its successful “Switch” campaign in order to address user concerns and provide compelling reasons to adopt the Macintosh platform. Concerns about running PC programs are countered by an extensive list of available Macintosh software; concerns about e-mail and instant messaging are tempered with explanations on how easy it is for the Mac to get online. By addressing concerns up front, Apple is effectively removing the barriers that may prevent users from making the switch. A positive way to look at concerns is to use them as a segue for extolling what your products and services have to offer.

Be Purposeful

On a closing note, when it comes to helping your users make decisions, be purposeful. Think about subtle ways to influence your users decisions – particularly if you have a preference for what you’d like them to choose. You may consider strategically ordering the presentation of options or purposefully place certain options side by side in order favorably cast a particular choice. In any case, designing for decisions will only help your users do what you want them to do anyway, and that is to do business with your web site.


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