February 1, 2011, 12:00 AM

Site Psychology

Can I eat it? Will it kill me? How visceral reactions to visual cues figure into site design.

What makes a consumer decide to browse and buy on one web site and click off another's home page? Psychological cues play a big role. These are the same cues that drive basic human behaviors that helped us survive as our species evolved: the urge to eat, reproduce, fight, run, and be social. By understanding how the human mind reacts to visual and verbal images Internet marketers can increase conversion rates and sales.

For example, research tells us that pictures of people looking straight at us grab our attention. If the people are attractive they get our attention even more. And if we think they look like us, we pay special attention. Look at AmFam.com, the site of American Family Insurance. The happy, smiling families portrayed there are just the sort of images likely to resonate with consumers.

Now look at your web site from the customer's point of view. Are there pictures? Are the people in those pictures looking right into the camera? Are they pictures of attractive people, or people that look like your target demographic? Making your pictures more powerful is a first step in grabbing the customer's attention.

To understand the role of images, it's important to understand that there are three parts of the brain that play distinct roles in how we perceive the world and act. There is the "old brain" that controls involuntary actions like breathing and digestion, the "mid brain" where feelings, emotions, pictures, and stories are processed, and the "new brain" where logical and conscious thought occurs.

When we look at a picture, our mid-brain, that part that handles emotions, reacts first. Eventually, the new brain will get a message from the mid-brain about those pictures, but before that happens we've already made decisions, and maybe already clicked.

The "old brain" can also be decisive in responding to certain types of visual cues.

The old brain is constantly asking, "Will it kill me?" "Can I eat it?" "Can I have sex with it?" This is why references to sex, food, or danger on a web site instantly grab our attention.

Sites like HarryandDavid.com and VictoriasSecret.com have an advantage since the products they sell lend themselves to showing pictures of food and beautiful women in sexy lingerie. But other retailers have learned how to speak to the old brain. For example, Bloomingdales.com and Zappos.com have both featured home-page images of beautiful women, and enhanced their old brain appeal with innuendo or suggestive poses.

Design strategies

After you've grabbed the attention of visitors' mid/emotional and old brains, what else makes them click where you want them to?

Limited choices. The research is clear that if you want people to choose something you need to limit the number of choices you give them. Too many choices and they won't choose anything at all. Instead of showing all the products available and risk overwhelming the buyer, research shows people are more likely to make a choice if you show just three to four products initially. You can then allow the visitor to search or sort products and bring up more items to view.

Social validation. When people are uncertain what to do, they look to others for cues about what action to take. This is why online user reviews and ratings are powerful persuaders. The more detailed the reviews are, the more powerful their effect. Take eBags.com, for example. Not only does that site include standard fare such as "32 of 34 (94%) of reviewers would buy this item again," but it includes the reviewer's first name, location, occupation, gender, and how the reviewer uses the item and how often. That makes the reviewer more real, and easier for the visitor to identify with.

Reciprocity. If someone does something for you, you feel obliged to return the favor. If a web site offers free information about a product and then asks readers to sign up for more information, the reader is likely to feel obliged to do so. Research shows people are more likely to fill out a form correctly with their name and e-mail address after you provide free information, than if you ask them to fill out a form beforehand to access the information.

Commitment. If you want people to commit to something, get them to do something similar but smaller first. At Amazon.com, for example, a consumer can interact with the site in several ways. She can make a purchase, join Amazon Prime and get free shipping, or sign up for the Amazon credit card. Each represents a different level of commitment.

The best way to pitch membership and credit card offers is to start with the shopper who has made a purchase, a relatively small commitment. Then pitch her to become a member. The visitor has now formed a self-image as "someone who shops at Amazon" and is more likely to become "someone who is a member of Amazon." The best time to pitch the credit card would be after the buyer has been a member for a few weeks and made more purchases. Each interaction is a step down the road of further commitment.

Barriers to clicking

You will also want to follow well-known principles of usability to make sure you aren't creating barriers to visitors clicking. For example:

Progressive disclosure. Show people just enough of what they need to know and then let them click to get more information, instead of overwhelming them with too much information. For example, on Newegg.com, customers looking to buy a laptop first see a picture, brief description and price, and then can click for more detail.

Build a habit. Make it easy to use your site over and over. Staples redesigned its site to make it easy to see what was recently ordered and order it again. That was based on research showing most buyers were re-ordering the same products, rather than ordering new ones. Staples added an Easy Reorder link that brings up a list of frequently purchased items; all the customer has to do is enter the quantity and click Add to Cart. Amazon has one-click ordering so you don't have to even add items to a shopping cart, and you can skip checkout entirely.

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