Website Visitors are Not Prey

Ballerina couple dancing.

You may not be consciously aware that each time you visit a website your natural human instincts haven’t suddenly checked out. You’re still in fight or flight mode.

How we interact with the places we visit on the web is so personal and unpredictable that there is no possible way any user interface design will meet the needs of every single one of us. However, it’s not for lack of trying.

Advanced user interface designers are taught how to develop user personas, for example, to be used as representatives of specific groups of people with similar life experiences like marital status, educational backgrounds, dreams for the future, income, and gender. Entire websites are built based on guesswork about who will eventually use it because testing with actual people during development is an added expense and time consuming.

The simple truth about us is that no two humans are alike. We are completely unique. Our life experiences, genetics, and personalities shape us. We are unpredictable. Each of us reacts to stimuli differently, and yet certain design practices that reach fad-like proportions are not challenged or researched to see what the impact may be on us. Light gray colored text is one example. Millions of us can’t see online text unless it is black. It doesn’t matter how well written a web site’s content may be. If sight impaired, color blind or color contrast sensitive people can’t see it, they flee. This shows up in analytics as abandonment. Abandonment percentages have stories to tell, but rarely is anyone interested in hearing them.

Fear Triggers

Horse leaning over fence.
Convince us you are not going to eat us.

Convince us you are not going to eat us.

You may have heard the term “herd mentality,” especially as a negative judgement call. For horses, the herd is how they protect and defend themselves from predators. Riders and trainers attuned to horses know well the body language of the herd. Behavior problems are often directly related to the horse’s innate understanding that it is prey, and our job is to communicate safety and trust when we work with them.

This is exactly what our websites must also do. Every visitor has to be assured their transaction is safe, or data is protected or that all claims are true. Most of us require an immediate signal that the page we have landed on from a search engine will not harm us, although we don’t exactly call it that. You’ll see all kinds of instructions on how to hook a first time visitor in 5 seconds, but rarely will you see anyone cut to the core of the human-ness of us, which is “Cut the crap, make me safe and show me what I came for.” Or in short, convince us you are not going to eat us.

How we respond and react to websites is not just highly personalized and based on our own individualized selves. The type of website we visit can create emotional responses in us. In fact, all websites do, but this is rarely tracked as a performance metric.

We have all experienced the frustration of ecommerce. Making purchases online is complicated and no matter how dedicated to testing the user interface and functionality of the process may be, there is no human salesperson there to help at the precise decision making moment. Persuasive design techniques are based on online behavior studies, but companies must hire those designers trained for conversions design. To not do so decreases the web site’s competitiveness and certainly reduces referral rates.

The same can be said for .gov and .edu websites, which are coveted by search engine marketers for their presumed “power” as referral links. This has always fascinated me because those verticals are the first places to look for the most confusing, frustrating, and complicated user experiences.

Less understood is the design of social websites. The moment there is a large gathering of people online in one place, all bets are off regarding predictable behavior and our responses to conversations. Clear communication is critical to social online discussions. In any online community, from forums to Facebook, typing is an extension of our Being and if we are unable to accurately type in words during a conversation, we are more likely to be misunderstood.

Not only that, but because we are emotional, feeling beings, we can sometimes be offended by actions, or non-actions. For example, unfollowing someone on Facebook can hurt feelings and to help us deal with rejection, Facebook changed the options to hide the follows and unfollows, friends and unfriended and more privacy controls.

Also on Facebook, we interpret actions and non-actions as being how we might act off-line. Too much attention towards someone may be perceived as stalking or flirting because that’s how we might interpret that behavior in real life. Sentences may be typed, sent, and absolutely misunderstood by the receiver. Hence, we add emoticons to help communicate our intent.

Twitter produces the most opportunities for gaffes, ridicule, confusing one sided conversations, aborted ideas and thoughts limited to 140 characters. The result is tremendous drama, situations that are easily instigated by clever social manipulators and the spreading of ideas, opinions, and content unfiltered and untargeted to anyone in particular. Our responses vary from not having any reaction to what is shared on Twitter, to becoming completely inflamed and emotionally stirred up.

Dude, I’m Grossed Out

A hand and arm placed on a foggy window.
We can be scared by the images we see online when our fears are triggered.

We can be scared by the images we see online when our fears are triggered.

The social web is a bizarre party with a mixture of friends, enemies and strangers participating together. Personal preferences are difficult to communicate with people you don’t know and especially those who don’t care how you feel or think. One common habit is to unfriend people whose beliefs are completely out of sync with your own, such as politics or religion. We have triggers.

Mine is bugs and some reptiles. In fact, I will avoid pictures of bugs and reptiles. The other day it was a water moccasin and a lizard devouring a spider on video in Facebook. I’m in that herd of humans watching my posts rolling by in my news feed and there is no one there to warn me that I’m about to be grossed out. I’m more cautious about a person’s posts once I’ve been freaked out. It’s my trigger. We all have them. Facebook picked up on that, so that you can request to not be shown certain pages or hide someone’s offending video, picture, or post from your newsfeed.

Too Lazy to Leave the Herd

Do you check facts before jumping to conclusions when you read an article online? How do you decide what’s credible? We know about the habit of sharing articles without actually reading them first or believing headlines. There are few automated ways used to judge accuracy, bias, and trust, so even online we’re left to fend for ourselves and hope we follow smart people. There is an interesting study called “Overcoming Bias to Learn About Controversial Topics” that looked deeper at bias, relevancy, trustworthy documents, and understanding which claims we are to believe.

Something as common as students doing homework research at home is a behavior we take for granted. Researchers explored, “Does explicit display of contrasting viewpoints help users understand controversial topics better?” and “Does human bias affect the credibility judgement of documents?,” as well as several other questions. One of their conclusions gets to the crux of one of today’s failings with the news media, where they insist that “unbiased information is critical to satisfying information needs in many domains.”

Of their findings, this one speaks to our tendency to be lazy and not extend too much energy into getting facts and opposing views on controversial topics. One of the conclusions found,

“We find that users do not seek contrasting viewpoints by themselves, but explicitly presenting contrasting evidence helps them get a well-rounded understanding of the topic.”

They went on to say that sharing sources, and the context in which the source provides the evidence, affects what users read and how they decide its credibility factor.

Unfortunately, on social websites, contrasting viewpoints are sometimes provided by trolls whose only mission is to stir the pot.

If You’re Happy and You Know It, Click This Website

The act of sharing happy information was shown to enhance the sharer’s happiness.

The act of sharing happy information was shown to enhance the sharer’s happiness.

Of course, when we’re not feeling preyed on, or herded into websites we hate, there is another special piece of our being human overlooked by web designers, marketers, and social site users. Happiness. We may know of friends who post funny content, and we know that if we visit their space on the Web we’ll be rewarded with safety, laughter, and stress relief. Turns out they are the wise ones.

Another research paper, “Sharing “Happy” Information”, took this topic and asked, “What are the factors that motivate and impact individuals’ sharing behavior of happy information?” Most website owners and internet marketers aren’t thinking about happiness and wellbeing because the core truth is that all online businesses are not supposed to be for us. No matter how many ways this one is played, all companies are interested in their own bottom line and users are a means to that end.

The researchers gathered up volumes of data and the final conclusion is that sharing happy information impacts both the giver and receiver. In fact, the act of sharing happy information was shown to enhance the sharer’s happiness. We’re motivated to share happy stories, they found, more often than not motivated. We like to offer hope, share humor, encourage others, and by sharing, we discover other people who share the same interests or experience.

Sharing creates relationships. It’s a means of maintaining contact. Our first choice is face — to — face, but after that we choose text, Facebook, the phone, social apps, and email. Sometimes, the study found, we are even protective over our happy information. If you’ve ever felt left out of a conversation online, this is one of the reasons. In the final conclusion of the study, they wrote,

“If the smallest imaginable happy information creates sufficient emotional impact to generate a smile, then this can be considered a powerful source.”

Perhaps one day web designers and internet marketers will explore this when gathering information on the humans they are targeting.

Originally published in Medium September 27, 2016


Vydiswaran, V. G. V., Zhai, C., Roth, D. and Pirolli, P. (2015), Overcoming bias to learn about controversial topics. J Assn Inf Sci Tec, 66: 1655–1672. doi:10.1002/asi.23274

Tinto, F. and Ruthven, I. (2016), Sharing “happy” information. J Assn Inf Sci Tec, 67: 2329–2343. doi:10.1002/asi.23581

Website Visitors are Not Prey
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