No One Compares Your Products (And What You Can Do About This)

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Before we get to your products and why no one really compares them, we need to talk a little bit about how animals (and people) hunt. 

Before Tim Ash described how your three brains dictate how you behave on the web, before Peter Pirolli and Stuart Card noted that humans hunt for information the same way animals hunt for food, there was an economist who hit the nail on the head regarding how people make decisions online - only he did it in the 1950s.

Bounded Rationality

Simon Herbert could have well been talking about web visitors, but in his now famous work, he talked about chess. He was interested in how most people don’t really compare tons of options when deciding something, especially when the following conditions are in play:

the information is likely to be incomplete
the number of options can reach the cognitive limitations of what people can handle
there’s not a lot of time to make the decisions

The Theory of Bounded Rationality deals with all of those, and tackles the problem of getting maximum benefits (say, finding your best value product) given the search cost (say, navigating through 12 layers of your site). 

The theory can be applied to chess, fire fighting, shopping, you name it, but the basics remain the same: people do not generally go through multiple options and then select the best one; they find something that’s good enough and think about potential problems with that. 

The principle is satisficing, and it figures heavily in usability books like Steve Krug’s “Don’t Make Me Think.” Good enough is what people shoot for, so you shouldn’t overwhelm them with many choices - you should guide them through your best ones.

Information Foraging

Fast forward to the 90s and we have Information Foraging in Information Access Environments, one of the most important pieces of literature on web behavior. Peter Pirolli and Stuart Card talked about the shift in problems relating to information - specifically, that the main issue is not how to collect more information, but how to optimize the user’s time while sifting through information.

In many a way, that’s the conversion rate optimization mantra.

The principle marketers need to get their head around is information scent - that like animals who get encouraged when the smell of berries get stronger, people get encouraged to click through to the next page as long as it “smells” like they are on the right path.

This runs counter to many web theories that the be-all and end-all is trying to reduce the number of clicks to a path. Instead, this says it’s not about the number of clicks; it’s about how easy those clicks are to make.

Key point: do NOT rely on visitors comparing your products on a catalog list or a table; guide them through the path.

The Irrational Brain

Fast forward a little more and we have Tim Ash building on top of those two important bodies of work with the three brains and how they affect web behavior. 

At the risk of repeating ourselves, the triune brain theory states that the archipallium - the part of our brain that is ancient, the thing that we share with reptiles - is the big daddy among our three brains. The limbic system is more complex and it handles emotions, and the neocortex is even more advanced as it handles language, but the archipallium acts like the bouncer at the club door - he gets to determine who passes through.

And the problem is, he’s obsessive-compulsive.

He evaluates whether things are dangerous or novel, and  ignores everything else. And you know what someone who likes to boil things down to dangerous or novel really, really, really doesn’t like doing? Comparing options. 

So there you have it:

1. People tend to compare zero options, they just look for good enough.
2. People will keep clicking through options if it smells/feels/looks like they are on the right track.
3. People can only generally handle simple choices, especially on the web.

What You Can Do

1. Use navigation to help them find good enough. Do not try to present everything, certainly not in one go. Good enough is what they are looking for, and you need to help them find it. Get rid of the listings where details about your products are tough to see. If your products are distinct and mutually exclusive, consider a hierarchical display. If the options overlap, use faceted navigation like Urban Outfitters or Volkswagen to help them narrow down their choice without comparing (but do not use rotating banners or Flash like they do).

2. Follow conventions. People may not be great at comparing options, but they are great at recognizing convention. Follow standard rules and layouts, and make your site as predictable and consistent as possible. This will go a long way in providing the information scent that you need to establish, and keep users on the right track.

3. Reduce options. Radically, especially at or near the landing page. Do not try to reduce the number of clicks by presenting too many options upfront - it’s not the number of clicks that matter, it’s the visitor’s ability to easily find something you offer.