There are 3 types of errors in online marketing:
- Minor, accidental slips that users make (e.g. choosing an end date that is earlier than the start date)
- Major mental model mistakes users have about the interface (e.g. making wrong assumptions about how a booked flight is changed)
- System errors
Sometimes, your visitor will live through one of these and still convert. If all three happen relatively often, however, your conversions are probably tanking hard.
To prevent these errors, you need to understand the differences in what causes them, and make subtle and not-so-subtle tweaks to address each.
Let’s dive in.
Minor mistakes typically happen when a user is on auto-pilot, and he or she shouldn’t be.
Generally speaking, you should help users avoid strenuous tasks when simple tasks can do the trick, something we’ve talked about before as avoiding Daniel Kahneman’s “system 2.”
Every now and again, though, they have to select a location with a zip code, enter flight and hotel information, and if they’re still on system 1 auto-pilot, they’re likely to make minor slips.
Even if users are on auto-pilot, though, you can do a great deal to prevent minor errors:
- Set up good defaults. If you’re a business in North America, and your country dropdown is alphabetical and Afghanistan shows up first, you’re making it more likely for your users to slip up. Defaults matter.
- Prioritize user needs. If there are a ton of choices, dropdowns work best due to scrolling issues. If there are just a few options, though, get users to scan more easily by using radio buttons. Figure out what what trade-offs offer the most to your users, then implement.
- Suggest the top options. If you track on-site search and you use web analytics tools to determine which product categories people need most, you can suggest things effectively. For search results pages, you can offer “suggested pages.” And on product navigation, you can funnel people to the most viewed categories (featured categories) after they have made some selections.
People are still going to slip up, time and again, but it’s not because your site isn’t guiding them towards the right place.
Mental model mistakes
Mental model mistakes happen when there’s a mismatch between what designers create and what users expect.
Let’s unpack that, and get to the root.
Interfaces are essentially delayed conversations between the designer and the user. Sometimes, designers think of something one way, and hit the nail on the head. Other times, users think of the design in unexpected ways that are nowhere near what the designers expected. Because the feedback is delayed, you wouldn’t know an interface is broken until after a ton of users have made mistakes, and you captured the web analytics and voice of customer data.
There are some general guidelines you can take to prevent mental model mistakes:
- Show signifiers and reduce memory load. Some mental model mismatches happen because interfaces rely too much on a user remembering something. The key is to always have signifiers on the page – try and be like Kayak, with colors and spacing always reminding users which items you can interact with, and what a user is working on always highlighted.
- Follow the rules. Conventions work because most people navigate tons of web sites, and most of the time, the thing they are on IS NOT YOUR SITE. Shocking, right? So if they are used to seeing the menu at the top, and they know that will take them to the home page, and the primary navigation will always sit at the top, you should probably be boring in this instance and follow the conventions.
- Confirm before doing something potentially frustrating. If an action your users can take will wipe out a 15-field form, you owe it to them to warn them ahead of time.
Again, like with minor mistakes, mental model errors will still happen if you’ve taken these steps. The key is to track how much you’re reducing errors, and figuring out what the weak spots are left using the right tools.
In March 2015, something very unusual happened: Google briefly went down.
This is one of the largest businesses on the planet whose money comes (more or less) from user searches. They have a huge incentive to never being down; they are backed by a multi-billion architecture to prove it. And yet March happened.
But on the flip side, the errors need to only happen occasionally, your users need to KNOW something odd is happening, and your site needs to help users recover.
This means your feedback and recovery strategies need to be rock solid:
- Provide feedback. If users know something is up, they might be a tad more patient. You need to know when to use looped animations versus loading bars.
- Help users recover. You can correct all the internal links you have and still have your users get 404 errors. People mistype things. Other sites link to you badly, or link to content that no longer exists. When you do need to show a 404, you need to remind people why they like your brand in the first place, and help them find what they need. Search boxes are not a bad start, and this article helps.
After you implement these, your recovery rate will not be perfect, but it’ll be significantly better than when you started.
Putting It All Together
Different errors can happen for lots of different reasons.
If you drill down to the sources of the errors, you have a much better chance of preventing and addressing them. If you break errors down to minor slip ups, mental model errors, and system errors, you can fine-tune your strategies for each area, and prevent (most of) your users from getting frustrated.