Tags: jaredspool



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.


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.

Revealing Design Treasures from The Amazon

I’m at An Event Apart in Boston where Jared is kicking things off. He’s pinch hitting for Eric who can’t be here, alas. (Do you like the way I’m casually using baseball references like pinch hitting to ingratiate myself with the local audience?)

Jared’s talk is entitled Revealing Design Treasures from The Amazon and I’m guessing he’s not talking about the South American river. He begins by talking about milk. Two years ago, you could buy Tuscan whole milk on Amazon. The reviews are hilarious. Jared reads an over-the-top literary travel piece to everyone’s amusement. Another review is written as a romance novel. Another is written as Coleridge’s Kubla Khan. Another is in the style of a rock music review. Some of the shorter ones are hilarious too, Okay product, but you have to buy a glass to use it.

Here’s a comment that comes up at lots of planning meetings, I like the way that Amazon does this, why don’t we do it like Amazon? People don’t say that about QVC. What’s so special about Amazon? Well, for a start, it’s a very, very popular and successful site. Jared quotes the stats. But there are other little things that are almost invisible but are very appealing. For example, the search results tell you when something will be delivered—most sites provide this information on the product page, but not on the search results page. They also keep iterating lots of subtle little things like the add to shopping cart button. So it’s understandable that people want to do things like Amazon. But to do that, you need to know exactly what it is that Amazon does. Jared will now reveal all. Jared has spent a long time watching people shop on Amazon.

It all starts with the content. In the case of Amazon, that’s reviews. People read reviews on Amazon and then sometimes buy the product somewhere else. Amazon knows this and they’re okay with that. Jared compares two reviews of a Harry Potter book. One talks about the content of the book, another talks about the experience of getting the book delivered from Amazon.

As more and more reviews get added over time, quality reviews get pushed down the page. This isn’t good because reviews are so critical to purchasing decisions. Amazon solved this problem with a small, simple device. They added a little question, Was this review helpful to you? This small addition gained Amazon approximately 2.7 billion dollars in revenue. That vital little feature was rolled out without much fanfare. With that extra data, people can now view most valuable reviews, least valuable reviews, etc. It turns out that the only people who want to see reviews ordered by date are the author of the book and the people who wrote the reviews. It’s just not that valuable for customers.

For a lot of products, such as alarm clocks, you’re only going to write a review if you have a negative experience. How does Amazon get people to write reviews? Most people don’t leave reviews. About 0.7% of people who buy something leave a review. But because Amazon has such a huge amount of customers, that equates to quite a lot. So the next time someone says, we should have reviews; that works really well for Amazon, you can respond with sure, we should have customers too; that works really well for Amazon.

Frankly, review writers are the lunatic fringe of customers …and you need to encourage that lunatic fringe. This is what the discussions, listmania, and customers ultimately bought.. features try to do. Some of these ideas and experiments work but some of them don’t.

Remember the Amazon gold box that would wiggle at you from the top of the page? The idea was to show people products in a “treasure chest” to encourage people to buy those products. The goal was to let people know about all the other stuff that Amazon sells; they already know from your shopping history what you know about so they specifically showed you stuff you didn’t know about. People got really frustrated with this. People wanted to see things they were likely to want to buy but that wasn’t the goal of the gold box. After a while, people stopped clicking on the gold box.

Amazon added tags. Two of the most popular tags are book and dvd. Those aren’t very useful for navigation. Neither is a tag like not interested but people use that tag a lot.

One of the products Amazon sells is an ethernet cable selling for $500. Boing Boing picked up on this. People starting havig fun with the tags for the ludicrously overpriced product; snakeoil, IQ test, waste of money, etc. Well, try clicking the waste of money tag; there’s a lot tagged with that. Why would Amazon allow people to tag their products in this way? The tag defective by design is a protest tag for anything that uses DRM.

Here’s the lesson. If your people are saying we should be more like Amazon, that should really mean don’t fear new ideas. Experiment. Some experiments don’t work. Know when to drop the ones that aren’t working; you’ll need a good metrics system to know what’s working.

There are also lessons to be learned from the experience of using Amazon. Notice that they don’t ask you to log in with your password until you absolutely need to. That really matters. Some customers never need to give their password. Amazon has amazing security levels that they’ve put a lot of effort into:

  1. Amazon doesn’t know who you are (no cookie).
  2. Amazon knows you from a cookie—you can receive recommendations.
  3. Amazon wants to reveal something only you should know (password required).

There was a lot of negotiations with credit card companies to make the purchasing experience as good as it could be.

This is all about increasing Goal Time and reducing Tool Time. Struggling with security and remembering passwords is Tool Time. Finding the product that’s right for you is Goal Time.

Every time Amazon changes something, they are dabbling in changing the Tool Time. Amazon has changed a lot of over time. But most people don’t notice because the redesign happens slowly over time. This is in stark contrast to, say, Facebook’s sudden redesign. People don’t like it when things change suddenly. Amazon doesn’t have that problem even though it is constantly changing. Most users didn’t even notice when the mega dropdown was replaced with link list navigation. Here’s how they rolled it out:

  1. Show the new design to 5000 non-cookied visitors per day. That means switching on the new design for 45 seconds. These non-cookied visitors are the least risky; they haven’t visited Amazon before.
  2. After three weeks of that, show the new design to 1 in 5 non-cookied customers.
  3. After another three weeks, show 5000 cookied customers the new design.
  4. Show 1 in 5 cookied visitors.
  5. Show everyone.

That’s twelve weeks to roll out one change.

Search can be hard. How do you find the first Tom Clancy book to feature Jack Ryan? How do you find an inexpensive but high quality SLR camera? How do you find a good toy for your six-year old niece? How do you find all the novels by Nobel Prize winning authors?

Let’s say your new to Salsa music and you want to get the best Salsa artists. First you have to limit your search to music to avoid getting food products. Even then, you get greatest hits albums but you don’t know who the artists are. CD Baby handles this better than Amazon because they have curated content.

Finally, never forget the business. Jared will now share the secret of Amazon’s business.

You can buy an iPod nano on Apple, Best Buy, etc. for about $149. Amazon sells it for $134. That’s probably cost price. It turns out that Amazon can sell almost everything at cost price and still make a product because of volume. It’s all down to the Negative Operating Cycle. Amazon turns over its inventory every 20 days whereas Best Buy takes 74 days. Standard retail term payments take 45 days. So Best Buy is in debt between day 45 and day 74. Amazon, on the other hand, are sitting on cash between day 20 and day 45. In that time, they can invest that money. That’s where their profit comes from.

You have to start with a great business model to produce a great experience.

Jared leaves us with some homework. Visit the Amazon page for the Playmobil security checkpoint. Let that be a lesson to us.

  • Be careful when emulating features.
  • Some experiments don’t pan out.
  • Not every use case is the same.