Jared Spool: The Secret Lives of Links

The final speaker of the first day of An Event Apart in Boston is Jared Spool. Now, when Jared gives a talk …well, you really have to be there. So I don’t know how well liveblogging is going to work but here goes anyway.

The talk is called The Secret Lives of Links. He starts by talking about one of the pre-eminent young scientists in the USA: Lisa Simpson. One day, she lost a tooth, put it in a bowl and when she later examined it under a microscope, she discovered a civilisation going about its business, all the citizens with their secret lives.

The web is like that.

Right before the threatened government shutdown, Jared was looking at news sites and how they were updating their links. Jared suggests that CNN redesign its site to simply have this list of links:

  1. The most important story.
  2. The second most important story.
  3. The third most important story.
  4. An unimportant, yet entertaining story.
  5. The Charlie Sheen story.

But of course it doesn’t work like that. The content of the links tells the importance. Links secretly live to drive the user to their content.

Compare the old CNN design to the current one. The visual design is different but the underlying essence is the same. The links work the same way.

All the news sites were reporting the imminent government shutdown with links that had different text but were all doing the same thing.

Jared has been working on the web since 1995. That whole time, he’s been watching users use websites. The pattern he has seen is that the content speaks to the user through the links. Everything hinges on the links. They provide the scent of information.

This goes back to a theory at Xerox PARC: if you modelled user behaviour when searching for information, it’s very much like a fox sniffing a trail. The users are informavores.

We can see this in educational websites. The designs may change but links are the constant.

http://xkcd.com/773/

We’ve all felt the pain of battling the site owner who wants to prioritise content that the users aren’t that interested in.

The Walgreens site is an interesting example. One fifth of the visitors follow the “photo” link. 16% go to search. The third most important link is about refilling prescriptions. The fourth is the pharmacy link. The fifth most used links is finding the physical stores. Those five links add up to 59% of the total traffic …but those links take up just 3.8% of the page.

This violates Fitts’s Law:

The speed that a user can acquire a target is proportional to the size of the target and indirectly proportional to the distance from the target.

Basically, the bigger and closer, the easier to hit. The Walgreens site violates that. Now, it would look ugly if the “photo” link was one fifth of the whole page, but the point remains: there’s a lot of stuff being foisted on the user by the business.

Another example of Fitts’s Law are those annoying giant interstitial ads that have tiny “close” links.

Deliver users to their desired objective. Give them links that communicate scent in a meaningful way. Make the real estate reflect the user’s desires.

Let’s go back to an educational web site: Ohio State. People come to websites for all sorts of reasons. Most people don’t just go to a website just to see how it looks (except for us). People go to the Ohio State website to get information about grades and schedules. The text of these links are called trigger words: the trigger an action from the user. When done correctly, trigger words lead the user to their desired goal.

It’s hard to know when your information scent is good, but it’s easy to know when your information scent is bad. User behaviour will let you know: using the back button, pogo-sticking, and using search.

Jared has seen the same patterns across hundreds of sites that he’s watched people using. They could take all the clickstreams that succeeded and all the clickstreams that failed. For 15 years there’s a consistent 58% failure rate. That’s quite shocking.

One pattern that emerges in the failed clickstreams is the presence of the back button. If a user hits the back button, the failure rate of those clickstreams rises to above 80%. If a user hits the back button twice, the failure rate rises to 98%.

The back button is the button of doom.

The user clicks the back button when they run out of scent, just like a fox circling back. But foxes succeed ‘cause rabbits are stupid and they go back to where they live and eat, so the fox can go back there and wait. Users hit the back button hoping that the page will somehow have changed when they get back.

Pay attention to the back button. The user is telling you they’ve lost the scent.

Another behaviour is pogo-sticking, hopping back and forward from a “gallery” page with a list of links to the linked pages. Pogo-sticking results in a failure rate of 89%. There’s a myth with e-commerce sites that users want to pogo-stick between product pages to compare product pages but it’s not true: the more a user pogo-sticks, the less likely they are to find what they want and make a purchase.

Users scan a page looking for trigger words. If they find a trigger word, they click on it but if they don’t find it, they go to search. That’s the way it works on 99% of sites, although Amazon is an exception. That’s because Amazon has done a great job of training users to know that absolutely nothing on the home page is of any use.

Some sites try to imitate Google and just have a search box. Don’t to that.

A more accurate name for the search box would be B.Y.O.L.: Bring Your Own Link. What do people type into this box: trigger words!

Pro tip: your search logs are completely filled with trigger words. Have you looked there lately? Your users are telling you what your trigger words should be. If you’re tracking where searches come from, you even know on what pages you should be putting those trigger words.

The key thing to understand is that people don’t want to search. There’s a myth that some people prefer to search. It’s the design of the site that forces them to search. The failure rate for search is 70%.

Jared imagines an experiment called the 7-11 milk experiment. Imagine that someone has run out of milk. We take them to the nearest 7-11. We give them the cash to buy milk. There should be a 100% milk-purchasing result.

That’s what Jared does with websites. He gives people the cash to buy a product, brings them to the website and asks them to purchase the product. Ideally you should see a 100% spending rate. But the best performing site—The Gap—got a 66% spending. The worst site got 6%.

The top variables that contributed to this pattern are: the ratio of number of pages to purchase. Purchases were made at Gap.com in 11.9 pages. On the worst performers, the ratio was 51 pages per purchase. You know what patterns they saw in the worst performers: back button usage, pogo-sticking and search.

Give users information they want. Pages that we would describe as “cluttered” don’t appear that way to a user if the content is what the user wants. Clutter is a relative term based on how much you are interested in the content.

It’s hard to show you good examples of information scent because you’re not the user looking for something specific. Good design is invisible. You don’t notice air conditioning when it’s set just right, only when it’s too hot or too cold. We don’t notice good design.

Links secretly live to look good …while still looking like links. There was a time when the prevailing belief was that links are supposed to be blue and underlined. We couldn’t have made a worse choice. Who decided that? Not designers. Astrophysicists at CERN decided. As it turns, blue is the hardest colour to perceive. Men start to lose the ability to perceive blue at 40. Women start to lose the ability at 55 …because they’re better. Underlines change the geometry of a word, slowing down reading speed.

Thankfully we’ve moved on and we can have “links of colour.” But sometimes we take it far, like the LA Times, where it’s hard to figure out what is and isn’t a link. Users have to wave their mouse around on the page hoping that the browser will give them the finger.

Have a consistent vocabulary. Try to make it clear which links leads to a different page and which links perform on action on the current page.

We confuse users with things that look like links, but aren’t.

Links secretly live to do what the user expects.

Place your links wisely. Don’t put links to related articles in the middle of an article that someone is reading.

Don’t use mystery meat navigation. Users don’t move their mouse until they know what they’re going to click on so don’t hide links behind a mouseover: by the time those links are revealed, it’s too late: users have already made a decision on what they’re going to click. Flyout menus are the worst.

Some of Jared’s favourite links are “Stuff our lawyers made us put here”, “Fewer choices” and “Everything else.”

In summary, this is what links secretly want to do:

  • Deliver users to their desired objective.
  • Emit the right scent.
  • Look good, while still looking like a link.
  • Do what the user expects.

Have you published a response to this? :