But Why Does it Work?

by David Rodriguez — Dec 23, 2008

Maybe you've been designing Web sites for quite some time now and you have a clear understanding of the importance of good design. But do you know why good design is so important? What cogs turn in the human brain that makes good design so influential? To start, let's take a look at some of the most important aspects of your Web 2.0 design. I know you've probably read these a thousand times before, but I want them fresh in your mind as we cover the Rogers Adoption Curve and how it affects your design.

  • Clean design.
    Don't jar the user with clutter or poor organization!
  • Attractive design.
    Your site should be attractive to your target audience. Remember that not everybody will like every color scheme or layout, so pick your target audience and design something they will find attractive. For example, sports aficionados will appreciate bright colors that remind them of a sunny day, like the greens of an astroturf field and the rich dark browns of the dirt on their cleats.
  • Accessible design.
    Accessibility is important to many users who have disabilities, such as impaired vision. Making sure your site can be read by screen readers and has scalable text is not only courteous to these users, it also helps in SEO and optimizes the range of browsers that can view your site properly, thus widening your potential readership or customer base!
  • Superfluous elements should be eliminated.
    Don't use images that don't need to be on your page, and avoid "fluffy" decoration. If you don't need that bright red "swish" along the side of your page, don't include it. It's not attractive; it's just something else the eye has process and the brain has to ignore when looking for information. Most people aren't looking at your site for the decorations.
  • Make your site self-evident and easy to use.
    Stick with navigation that's easy to locate, and try to build your site in such a way that users can get what they need from it with 3 mouse clicks or less.

In the grand scheme of things, the Web is still fairly new. It's only been in good circulation among the masses for less than a full decade. It's natural, then, that inquisitive types would perform studies to find ways to improve their impact on the Web in these early years. However, it turns out that some of the most revealing studies are much older than the Web itself; one such study is the tried-and-true Rogers Adoption Curve (also known as the Innovation Adoption Curve) developed by Everett M. Rogers in his book Diffusion of Innovations.

Briefly, the Rogers Adoption Curve outlines the steps the human brain takes when someone encounters a new product, service, display, or piece of technology (and no matter what your site is, it falls into one of these categories). The steps are classified as Knowledge, Persuasion, Decision, Implementation, and Confirmation.

  1. Knowledge
    A user encounters your site and becomes aware of it. "Hey, look at this site."
  2. Persuasion
    The user develops a reaction to it. The extremes are "Wow, I love this site!" and "I don't like it." Usually, the user's reaction falls somewhere in between, like "This looks pretty cool," or "What's going on here?"
  3. Decision
    "Should I spend my time here? Should I use this service? Should I buy this product?" Basically, it's at this crucial stage that an individual will decide to click other links on the site or leave.
  4. Implementation
    If the user decides to stay, the implementation is how they go about using the site. If they decide to leave, the implementation is that they've put it behind them and are free to move on.
  5. Confirmation
    The final stage; the user has either decided to stay and is going to be happy/unhappy with their experience, or they have decided to leave and in their mind have set the experience as something in the past, filed it away, and possibly will never reference it again. Either way, the decision is confirmed and acknowledged.

To further the study of the Rogers Adoption Curve, I picked up a book called Web 2.0: A Strategy Guide by Amy Shuen. The book looks deeper into how and why people are more or less likely to adopt something new, like your Web site.

Looking a little deeper, we find that a user will encounter your site and immediately begin weighing it on several different scales to see if it is right for them. These scales are:

  1. Advantage
    The user will think, "What advantage does this site bring me?" This is where clean, accessible, and non-superfluous design come in to play. The user must be able to see what advantage the site brings them in just a few seconds, and nothing should get in their way when this is happening.
  2. Compatibility
    "Can I use this with X product, Y service, or Z other site?" People who are looking to use a new site are most often looking to implement it into their life in some way, and if your site can work as a compliment to a product, site, or service they already own or are looking to own or use, you can drastically increase your chances of gaining a user, reader, or customer.
  3. Complexity
    People want things that are easy to use. Humankind has invented tools since the earliest days of civilization to make large tasks easier, so it's entirely hardwired into our brains to latch on to something that's easy to use. It's in our blood. This is where a self-evident, easy-to-use design is important. Make navigation easily identifiable and don't distract the user with superfluous elements like images that don't need to be on your site.
  4. Trialability
    If you have a service, offer a taste to the user of what it's like to use your service. Let them use it free for a limited time. Alternatively, if you have a product, provide on-screen demos. And here's a small bit that I find many sites tend to neglect: make it abundantly clear that there is a demo of some kind! Use your design to put the demo offer right in the user's line of sight without needing to scroll or read. Next time you walk into an electronics store, notice how easy it is to see the newest products as soon as you walk in. This is the store's design providing you with a clear view of something they hope will interest you.
  5. Observability
    "What does it say about me if I use this site?" If someone was to look over your reader's shoulder and see your site in their browser, how do you think your reader would feel? Design a site that looks inviting and can easily fit into the lifestyle of your target audience. Attractive design plays a strong role here. People love to look smart, edgy, efficient, and any number of other positive adjectives. Simply put, design something someone WANTS to be seen using.

As you can see, the Rogers Adoption Curve shows how and why some new products and services are quickly adopted and spread like wildfire, and others simply don't. These same ideas apply to every site you design, too. Every element of your design should take into consideration advantage, compatibility, complexity, trialability, and observability to give you a successful site. Design in such a way that you don't lose users when their brains are churning through the knowledge, persuasion, decision, implementation, and confirmation steps.

If the taste of this particular study interests you, feel free to check out some more resources on it:

  1. O'Reilly book by Amy Shuen, "Web 2.0: A Strategy Guide"
  2. Book: Diffusion of Innovations by Everett M. Rogers
  3. Wikipedia entry: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diffusion_of_innovations
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