Websites: watch what I do, not what I say

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By: Wise Marketer Staff |

Posted on July 25, 2001

Websites: watch what I do, not what I say

The best way to retain customers is to give them what they want. That's not always easy, even if you know quite clearly what they do want. And this may prove to be more difficult that it seems: some new research shows that in many cases, the customers themselves don't even know.

According to psychologist Susan Weinschenk, who studies users' responses to Web sites and heads the Weinschenk Consulting Group, going by what people say about their experiences on the Web, rather than actually observing  how they interact with a site at the time, can mislead an organization into making changes to its Web site which actually make it worse rather than better. Observing them in real time provides a more valid picture of how well the site works.  "When we compare videos of what people said and did while at a site with what they say afterwards, there are sometimes striking contradictions," says Weinschenk. "Sometimes they'll say they didn't like the site, but at the time they were using it, they said they liked it. Or they'll call a site easy to use when during their visit they were obviously struggling and frustrated. Overall, self-reporting is unreliable about 25 percent of the time."

Take, for example the instance when a video captured the user of a website expressing surprise when he learned, after answering pages of questions at an insurance Web site, that he would get the quote in the mail. Yet when questioned just half an hour later, he said he didn't expect the quote right away. Another time, a man buying fragrance on the Web said while shopping that he liked the site's use of purple. An hour later, he said that he got tired of all the pink at the site while he was shopping. "Not only did he forget that he liked the colour, he forgot what colour it was," says Weinschenk.

Why does this happen? Surely it can't simply be poor memory? According to Weinschenk, poor memory is only a minor factor. It goes deeper than that. "More often the descrepancies occur because it's difficult for most of us to report our own mental processes. When asked to do so, we may say something that just comes into our head but isn't accurate. In addition, people often try to please an interviewer, without realizing it."

According to Weinschenk, by understanding the limits of self-reporting, organizations can avoid redesigning sites according to what people say they want, which probably doesn't reflect their actual reactions. And, of course, this applies equally to what people say about products and services off the Internet. The Weinschenk Consulting Group offers free guidelines for assessing the usability of a Web site, at

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