In recent weeks, I’ve been in meetings and in conference huddles where “hard numbers,” quantitative, web analytics behavioral analysis was pitched against qualitative studies from surveys and usability teams. The mantra goes, “web analytics tells you what a visitor did, and usability/survey data tells you why they did it.” I’m not going to argue for or against this mantra right now, but I’d like to raise a slightly theoretical point at this “why they did it” question – and a concern for web analytics.
Qualitative analyses. where subjects are asked to test the usability or satisfaction of a website, have the usual challenges of bias, sampling, people lying, but there’s a deeper bias which could be more insidious: people could behave on (and evaluate) a website based on how they are culturally conditioned to behave on a website, by the universe and culture of website architecture and navigation with which they have been familiar for years. There are whole theories around this kind of social behavior (Bourdieu called it habitus, Giddens called it structuralization). Basically, surveying a heavy web-user about an unconventional website would be like plopping an ancient Greek in front of the Forbidden Palace in Beijing and asking him what he thinks of the architecture.
Let me give an example: usability studies on subjects in the early 2000’s revealed that people’s eyes are drawn to the top-left corner of a website page. So many major portals – Yahoo, AOL, MSN, WebMD, Wikipedia, Martha Stewart, You Tube – put important navigation or important information on the upper-left. Five years later, people surfing the web are used to important information being in the upper-left, reinforcing this paradigm. If asked to comment on a site where important information was on the upper-right, I’m sure they’d complain.
Another example is conversion funnels. Almost every purchase-conversion funnel I can think of asks for payment information at the very end of the process. 7 years ago, this was probably a statistically significant increase in satisfaction; now, I’m sure every survey study would say unanimously that’s where payment information should go.
Other examples: Search (why always top-to-bottom?), Videos (why is it always a box with a >?), Products (always a thumbnail to be enlarged), header/footer (why not lefter-righter?), tabs (why always at the top?), drill-downs (why not drill-rights?).
The danger, I think, is that website designers looking at usability and satisfaction surveys are going to drive the web to a point where every website basically looks the same, much like it’s hard to tell the difference now between a BMW, Corvette, or KIA from afar. In the last week I’ve been asked three times if there’s an “industry-standard” or “universal best practices” for website architecture or design. But if such a “Standard Design” does emerge, my fear is that web analytics for the purposes of website optimization will be obsolete down the road.
The classic studies of module- or link-placement, real estate analysis, funnels, forms, navigation, home page optimization, perhaps even information architecture, will simply become redundant, because there will develop a standard way people expect websites to be organized. All web analytics will be about reporting, content analysis, and marketing, and not site-architecture or page optimization.
Maybe it’s too late to do anything about these ur-templates – this may all have been decided in the 90’s. But what about global websites in Asia, South America, or the Middle East designed by American firms, whose audience has not been similarly preconditioned to the Standard Design and who may have other cultural dispositions against the American or Western paradigm (recall that much of the world reads right-to-left)?
Why not build a site adventurously and creatively, and then use – you knew it was coming – testing on behavioral data to see if the real population respond significantly to these changes? I’d love to see a website with a bottom-nav, tabs on the side, internal search where you scroll right-to-left (think of the advertising potential), new ideas for navigation (I’ve seen some good Web2.0 examples). Let such a site launch in Qatar, and rather than sending surveys to focus groups there, use cheaper behavioral data to see if it rivals the Standard Design?
I’m not a web designer, nor do I have that background. But as a web analyst, I have seen a certain standardization in many site templates which often are driven by focus-groups and qualitative analysis, after which traditional web analytics applied to site or page optimization is reduced to miniscule changes in the ordering of top-nav elements or placement of banner ads. And thus loses its value-proposition for us.