Monthly Archives: August 2016

Hick’s Law, making choices and leaner websites

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The other day, I hit the up button for the Culkin Hall elevator and a rare thing happened: Both elevators showed up on my floor and opened at about the same time.

My reaction was confusion. It goes against the natural pattern: Hit button, see door open, get in. Now I had to make an additional choice.

How many times have you encountered this unnecessary layer of decision-making in your daily life … especially when visiting a website?

There’s even a scientific theory related to this: Hick’s Law. Also known in some circles as the Hick-Hyman Law, after psychologists William Edmund Hick and Ray Hyman, it posits that increasing the number of choices will cause the time for humans to make a decision increase logarithmically (or by a lot, if you prefer).

True of the elevator story: Normally, shuffling in would take about a second, instead I was confounded and took a few seconds. No harm no foul, but with websites it has more important connotations. (It’s the titular reason one of the seminal works of web usability is Steve Krug’s Don’t Make Me Think.)

Jason Gross of Smashing Magazine took this theory Hick started developing about 75 years ago and translates it to design, especially for the web:

So, let’s step back and consider the thought process that users go through and how many levels of decision-making a Web design can consist of. For example, instead of just regarding each link in a navigation menu, sign-up form or toolbar as its own option, we should consider the process of interacting with the navigation a decision of its own. For that matter, any given design contains a whole array of top-level “options” that demand decisions of the user.

In choosing whether to read an article, navigate to a new page, fill out a log-in form or perform a search, the user has to mentally process several options before making even a single click. Are they interested in the content on this page? They might decide to skim the headlines to see what stands out to them. Perhaps they are shopping for something. Before even hitting the “Add to cart” button, they have to choose between making the purchase, looking at product details and reviews, and shopping around for something else.

Inciting indecision

More than increased time to decision, the greater danger is that people decide not to choose one of your options because they become frustrated or interrupted. “If you choose not to decide,” the band Rush notes in “Freewill,” “you still have made a choice.” I have opted out of confusing websites, forms that ask for too many fields or transactions that are too complex or take too long. Which is to say, sites not observing Hick’s law can cost themselves transactions, actions and certainly user happiness.

My friend Kyle James (now with NuCloud) gave a conference presentation years ago where he said something to the effect of “if you want your user to take one action, design a landing page with one link.” (Or something, sorry Kyle if I screwed that up.) And it’s true. The opposite is what we find on too many websites — pages overflowing with links, many of them poorly labeled or redundant, which increase user frustration and decrease the chance of completed tasks.

Many in our industry love specialized jargon or vague acronyms or phrases that they understand within their own circles but that are unfamiliar to students, prospective students and parents. Our suggestion is always: Speak like your user. Give them phrases they recognize, especially in your links. When creating web content, there’s no prize for showing off how big your vocabulary is or how many insider buzzwords you know.

Make actions possible

For whatever website you create, three key considerations remain constant:

  • Who is your audience?
  • What do you offer? (Or “what is your value proposition,” if you prefer.)
  • What action(s) do you want them to take?

Other key questions about content strategy exist, of course, but those three should drive your creative. Showing what you have to offer (why a visitor should apply to your college, sign up for your service, buy your product, etc.) and then trying to move your audience toward a related action should take priority.

Long rambling paragraphs about your mission statement, links appearing for vanity sake and a barrage of irrelevant graphics that might bury those calls to action and things your visitors are actively seeking work against the success of your site … and of your business.

With the web, less is more. Especially now that so many people use mobile devices requiring a leaner experience. For last month, more than 40% of our external traffic arrived via mobile device, and 50% of our first-time external users were on mobile. They don’t want to scroll past some irrelevant “happy talk” paragraphs and they sure don’t want to roll through 37 links to find what they want.

Let’s use a different elevator analogy. You get on an elevator and it has a set of numbers (1 to 10) on one panel and a set of letters (A to J) on the other. You’re pretty sure you want a numbered floor, but the added choices leave you unsure. Sounds outlandish, right? Yet this is what a lot of websites do by crowding in extra information and links and shiny objects.

We should all be leaning toward lean websites. Let’s make it easy for visitors to get on our sites and go where they want without unnecessary confusion or work. If they can reach their desired web destination on a smartphone while traveling a few floors on an elevator, you are moving in the right direction.

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How losing a job 25 years ago made me a better person today

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I got laid off from my first professional job 25 years ago (give or take a few days). It seemed crushing back then, but ultimately it was a needed wake-up and “grow-up” experience.

The recent trend of posting #sevenfirstjobs (or #7firstjobs?) has been a great reminder of the number of grunt and entry-level jobs many of us worked before finding our paths. But it also reminded me of how what seemed like a dream job got away at the time.

In spring 1991, I was hired to be the office manager of the Sterling Renaissance Festival. The fest was not just a business or attraction, but where I grew up — I spent summers there since I was 9 years old because my mother was a craftsperson there. (Maybe one day she’ll let us build a website for her woodworking business, The Wooden Unicorn.) I did a little bit of everything there over my summers, from fetching thrown objects and knocked-down bowling pins at games to running the Ladder of Truth for four years (helped pay for college!).

So when the owners, who I’d known since I was but a wee nipperkin, interviewed me and offered the job, I was ecstatic. I could use my communication skills in a variety of promotional and administrative ways to help a business I grew up loving.

But it’s not always simple when you’re new out of college and at a place that was long your playground. I was immature, I didn’t have the best attitude and my work wasn’t as good as it should have been. My boss, one of the owners, expressed disapproval but I didn’t take it as seriously as I should have and did not level up accordingly.

One morning toward the end of the season, my boss asked me to sit down for coffee and let me know I would not be renewed for the off-season and next season. At the time, I was rather heartbroken. I worked out the rest of the season and my last day was my birthday. (Happy? Not so much.)

It’s not you, it’s me

At first, I did what many an angry young man would and blamed them for what had to be a mistake. But as weeks of unemployment stretched into months, the truth set in: I should have done a better job. I should have had a better attitude. I should have taken it all more seriously.

Rest assured, that when another special-events job that I really wanted came along — publicity coordinator for Oswego’s Harborfest — I was ready. I went all-out in applying. I didn’t have a news release sample (since my background was more journalism that PR), so I took a risk: Instead of a cover letter, I wrote a news release (“Tim Nekritz applies for Harborfest job”) with the credentials I’d put in a cover letter. I figured it would either get me an interview or tossed aside as too weird.

I got an interview. It went pretty well.

They offered the job to somebody else. She quit after one day.

Then they offered the job to me. I said “yes!” (I had to stop myself from screaming “yes!”)

Work is serious, but fun

I read up on public relations as much as I could and learned a lot about PR on the job, as fortunately the organization had board members and volunteers who were willing mentors because they saw I (now) had a work ethic and a desire to learn. I did not want to let this job slip away, and promised myself I’d be more professional, responsible and responsive to criticism. The learning curve and workload were challenges, but I made it through the first season (as a part-timer) and they offered me a full-time job.

A key lesson is that work is, well, work and requires a serious attitude. That doesn’t mean you can’t have fun — it was a very fun job! — but that you have to produce, be part of a team and (if you’re lucky) do what you can to make the people around you better.

I learned and grew as much as I could and seven years later, now with expanded responsibilities as Harborfest’s public relations and marketing director, chose to return to my beloved field of journalism to become arts and entertainment editor of the Palladium-Times. I felt like a different person leaving the job than taking it, having matured and learned and realized every day was an opportunity to grow.

Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if I mustered the maturity to get retained at the Sterling Renaissance Festival. Maybe I wouldn’t have gone down the path to where I am today. I certainly wouldn’t have learned many of the things I have. Two roads diverged about 25 years ago, and what seemed awful at the time actually paved the way toward many awesome opportunities.

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