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Is Online Behavior Independent of Environmental Elements?

Brick and mortar retailers invest a lot in environmental factors. Lighting, temperature, music, and even how the items are spaced on a shelf are known to affect purchase decisions.

But online, environmental factors do not affect buyers, right?


Very, very wrong, according to website optimization studies that prove otherwise. In fact, environmental elements affect web visitors as much as their offline counterparts. The only difference is the type of elements.

While visitors to a neighborhood supermarket are affected by its lighting, temperature, and aisle width, online visitors are influenced by fonts, colors, white space, and amount of text.

Web psychologist, Dr. Liraz Margalit, explains that web visitors are often unaware of the variables that influence automatic decisions. In her research, published on UXmag, she explains:

“When dealing with a cognitive task, we subconsciously evaluate the amount of cognitive resources required for that specific task. If we have the available resources and motivation for the task, we will move forward with it.”

Easy does it

The human mind craves simplicity and avoids decisions requiring high level processing. Dr. Margalit says, “Internet users prefer to make decisions as quickly and effortlessly as possible.”

Case in point: VisualWebsiteOptimizer client, Device Magic Mobile Forms, tested their homepage with a technical video and bullet points highlighting their value proposition against a new, simple design. The minimalistic version increased conversions from homepage to signup page by 35%, and the total increase in subsequent signups was 31%. 

Perception is reality

Many psychological studies have proven that it doesn’t necessarily matter how complex a task is; what makes the greater difference is how complex it seems.

In a 2008 study by Song & Schwarz, participants read instructions for a simple exercise. When the instructions were in an easy-to-read font, readers assumed that the exercise would take 8.2 minutes to complete. But when the same instructions were presented in a difficult-to-read font, readers assumed it would take nearly twice as long: 15.1 minutes.

Margalit explains, “People equate the difficulty of reading instructions with the difficulty involved in the exercise itself. Similarly, Clicktale's analysis of 10,000 visitors to a major global brand’s website revealed that short articles with the ‘View More’ option attracted significantly higher percentages of visitors compared to the percentage of visitors who were presented with the same article in its full length.”

Let’s examine an article on the ABCNews website. Which would you be more inclined to read?

Is shorter always better?

Nope. It is not quite that straight-forward (but wouldn’t that be nice for us simplicity-seeking humans?).

There have been many case studies published that actually showed that a longer version of a page increased the conversion rate.  In this one, for example, a 2-page checkout funnel is made into one long page; the long page outperforms by nearly 22%. It appears more direct: the user can see what is involved in the entire process.

Is there a guideline to follow?

There absolutely is.

Unfortunately, it is not as straight-forward as “always design shorter” (though I realize that is what our simplicity-seeking human mind would like).

The guideline is this: make it seem easy, straight-forward, and direct.

Remove friction and unnecessary steps.

And, most importantly, always test the changes you make with your actual visitors. Track and monitor their interactions with your site. Study their clicks and their hovers; assess how far down they scroll and what interests them.

Only when you are armed with this information can you truly optimize your site’s customer experience and the contributing environmental factors. 

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