8 - Optimize for Anxiety

Anxiety is the undoing of many transactions - customers seem to suddenly "feel funny" and decide to break off rather than move forward. This does not happen without a reason. Something, and possibly something quite subtle, sends a danger signal to a prospect, whose intuition tells him it is not safe to proceed, and the deal goes south.

Many of the strange-sounding practices in marketing and sales are an attempt to reduce anxiety triggers. For example, a retail store may avoid hiring clerks who have tattoos, not because a tattoo would have impact on a person's ability to do the job of a clerk, but because it is a subtle "danger" signals to the clientele, who become uneasy and less likely to purchase. It's likely even the clientele are not aware of the reason they feel uncomfortable in a store setting and would claim that they are not bothered by tattoos - though their behavior suggests otherwise.

Similarly, there are obvious causes of anxiety that can be mitigated, but even subtle things can make a difference - so you cannot go by your own feelings or the reported feelings of your clientele, but must test to determine whether a given element is reducing the success of your site.

Privacy Anxiety

Concern over privacy has been a significant issue online, though the author makes a succotash of concerns about security (hackers breaking into your system and stealing the data), privacy (you do not release the information to anyone else), and responsible use (you use the information only for the reason it was provided).

In general, users balk at completing a transaction when they come across a form that asks for information that is not necessary (asking for a social security number to participate in an chat forum is going to result in an empty forum). One study (Janrain) suggested as many as 88% of online buyers intentionally left information fields blank or used bogus information when it was required to create an account at a web site

The obvious solution is to refrain from asking unless there is a legitimate need - but even when there is a legitimate need, to provide assurances to the user that will help them understand why it is necessary and the way in which you will use and safeguard anything that they provide.

The author strays off-topic to make some general observation about the length of forms rather than whether they requested any personal information - the general impression is that long forms are bad, but he's encountered situations in which adding a few items resulted in higher completion.

It's also noted that privacy policies often do more harm than good - sites provide a link to a "privacy policy" written by their legal department that is onerous to read (one was 3,700 words long) and causes users to be suspicious that something sinister is being hidden in the volume and complexity of the language. In other instances even the link to the privacy policy, being so small and inconspicuous, raised concern.

(EN: There's some further speculation here - which is a danger of optimization: your test results prove that a change resulted in a difference in behavior. To speculate as to the reasons that this occurred is often stepping beyond the bounds of expertise to guess at why the results were witnessed, and that's irresponsible.)

Usability Anxiety

Problems of usability occur when a person is unable to complete a task using an interface. Usability anxiety is a different thing: it pertains to the user's assessment of their ability to complete the task, even before beginning it, and bailing out on a task that they presume will be difficult or onerous to complete.

In essence, the user may feel intimidated by a page with too much text, or text that seems to be written in a way that is difficult to understand or a form with a lot of text-entry fields, etc. and quit without even trying.

Usability anxiety runs high when a user makes an error. The messages that are displayed when this happens are often particularly bad, in that they are vaguely worded and do not provide a clear way out of the trap. As such they merit scrutiny and testing. Ideally, usability testing during design can identify areas in which users are prone to make errors, but some need to be identified after the fact.

Web site speed still matters. While people are no longer flying at modem speed, there is still the expectation that pages should render useful content in a reasonable amount of time, and optimization tests bear this out. The author refers to an optimization test for Google Maps, which showed that traffic to the site increased by 10% when the size of the page was reduced by 25 KB

This is said to be particularly important for the first page a user sees after clicking through from a search engine - if it does not render the user assumes the link isn't working and returns to their list of search results to find another site (or in plainer terms, to take their business to a competitor).

Effort Anxiety

The author makes the subtle distinction between usability anxiety (in which the user is unable to figure out what to do to accomplish a goal) and effort anxiety (in which the user understands the task but does not feel it is worth the effort). (EN: The distinction is subtle and I have the sense the author has crossed the line already.)

The example of a long form with many fields has been mentioned previously, but it also pertains to the effort of even finding information on your site. That is, most users understand that there is a menu that sorts content into categories and know how to click from one page to another, but if the category names are unclear they foresee an onerous Easter-egg hunt to find what they want, and give up trying.

A mention is made of old-school rebates on products, in which the customer is required to mail a form with proof of purchase (typically some item from the packaging along with the original receipt) and then wait for a check to be sent which they must then deposit. It's been suspected that marketers offered rebates knowing that the offer would be attractive in getting customers to purchase, but the effort of redeeming the offer meant that many would not. When customers figured this out, it nullified the appeal of rebates.

The same is being seen in the present age, particularly in "contests" in which participants must provide contact information and give consent to be marketed in order to find out if the code under the bottle cap is a winner (so there may not even be a reward for their efforts) to similar effect. Ultimately, this means that the purpose for which a firm undertakes a campaign (to get more people to buy) is nullified by their attempt to minimize their expenses in conducting the campaign. Thus considered, it's likely they should go to the extreme of minimizing their expenses and not run such campaigns at all.

(EN: It's a broader problem than just these campaigns - often tasks are complicated by the firm's attempt to gather additional information that is not necessary to a task and thereby make a simple thing onerous. The difficulty comes in tasks that are onerous by nature - the minimal amount of information necessary to apply for a mortgage or get auto insurance is quite a lot, but techniques can be used to reduce anxiety, to assure the user it's not as hard as it looks.)

(EN: Also worth noting that the author seems limited to the "first glance" reaction of a user, and fails to mention that drop-out occurs all along the funnel as users begin a task and get partway through it, and suddenly begin to feel overwhelmed. This causes significant losses in completion.)

Fulfillment Anxiety

Fulfillment anxiety occurs when users doubt that the goal of their process will be achieved. Specific instances of this anxiety are:

There's a brief mention of security of personal information in the buying process, but that's a component of "privacy anxiety" mentioned earlier in the chapter. He also notes that over-emphasizing security actually stokes anxiety rather than calms it - so it merits testing to determine the happy place between not enough and too much.

There's also a mention of disclaimers and fine print. Firms may intend to provide disclaimers that provide more information or proof, but users seem to take the perspective that an asterisk instantly invalidates any claim or statement. The author's ideal is to make an offer in a way that does not require an asterisk, but he acknowledges this can be a tall order.

The reputation of a brand has a great deal to do with anxiety: people deal with unknown vendors with caution. Even known vendors run into reputation problems when people have experienced service failures or have heard about service failures experienced by others (in traditional or social media).

The author suggests that setting expectations accurately is important. Some firms seek to attract customers with false promises of an easy application or fast delivery and then do not deliver on their promises. He makes the vague suggestion that this is harmful to brand, but no indication of how it might be tested.

(EN: Likely this is more of a review of historical data rather than an optimization test: to compare purchase history of customers for whom the promise was fulfilled and others for whom it wasn't.)

Likewise a "satisfaction guarantee" immediately arouses suspicions of what is guaranteed and how the company will make amends if it fails to meet its promises. The word "guarantee" has been so causally used by marketing that it has lost its value. He suggests that disclosing the details of any guarantee is requisite - and if the details are unappealing, consider whether it's worthwhile to make a guarantee.

He also notes that opting-out is a big issue for people who sign up for marketing: more people will sign up to receive promotions if there is an easy way to opt-out - and there must in fact be an easy opt-out procedure. (EN: I am doubtful of this as many firms send unsolicited advertisements and use the opt-out link to send suckers to a form where they provide personal information that is then sold to other firms. Chances are that the phrases "opt out" and "unsubscribe" gets your message ignored automatically - sometimes literally so, as span filters will delete the message even before the user has a chance to ignore it.)

(EN: It's worth mentioning that fulfillment anxiety is a broader problem than just user experience. The author focuses on a single transaction, but reputation and trust is build over a longer period of time - the present Web site encounter cannot overcome a long history of bad behavior, and any damage done during an optimization test will linger, so this is an area in which optimization should be approached very cautiously.)

Exploiting the Anxiety of Inaction

The author notes that anxiety is not always a bad thing and can sometimes work in your favor. For many consumers, they may stick to a known vendor even if they are dissatisfied because they are anxious about other vendors and would rather stay with "the devil they know."

There is also the sales trick of the take-away, which suggests to the user that they have an opportunity that they will lose if they fail to act on it. A "limited time offer" that's available "while supplies last" may generate fear that failure to act will be detrimental, and thus spur some consumers to act quickly.

(EN: These practices, while common, are ethically questionable - but more to the point they are well known tricks that customers tend to ignore. It may also be detrimental to brand reputation, as customers associate them to dishonest firms and will be less inclined to engage with your brand if it employs sleazy tactics.)