OPINION: The central role of ignorance in human folly


18 Aug 2012

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Gareth Dunlop, owner of user-experience consultancy Fathom

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Totalitarian states suppress their media outlets, or simply run their media directly, because they recognise the power that knowledge has to change the world. The sad corollary is that they understand the key part that ignorance plays in the suppression of their people, their potential and their aspirations.

While it is sad that many live in ignorance and fear due to harsh political regimes, what is sadder still is the fate of those who can access knowledge and the power it brings, but choose not to, due to laziness or pride. John Heywood’s paraphrase of Old Testament prophet Jeremiah appears to be on the money: “There is none so blind as he who will not see”.

The web has revolutionised the world because it has empowered everyone who uses it with the potency of knowledge. It is unsurprising to learn that the world’s most successful online businesses are committed to mining that knowledge on a never-ending journey of self-improvement. We do well to follow their example.

We can now know what content should be on our homepage. We can now know what our calls to action should be. We can now know how our content should be structured. What imagery invokes the greatest response; what time we should send our emails for maximum impact; what our buttons should be called; what title we should put on our social media posts. All of these facts can be known, not surmised or guessed, because our users will inform us, if we bother to listen to them.

Google and A/B testing

Unsurprisingly, Google was the very earliest adopter of user-driven design, launching its first A/B test as far back as 2000.  An A/B test is where a website provides a user with two (or more) alternates of a certain web page and when enough volume has been generated to provide statistically meaningful results, the better performing page is retained and the lesser page archived. Google wanted to know what number of search results per page was optimal for users, so 0.1pc of users were shown 20 results per page, 0.1pc shown 25 results per page, 0.1pc shown 30 results per page and the remainder were shown the default 10 results per page. The findings provided a crucial insight that tenths of a second had a big bearing on user satisfaction and experience.

And so A/B testing became a way of life at Google and has been woven into its DNA ever since. In 2011, Google carried out more than 7,000 A/B tests on its search algorithm alone. At any one time it is running so many A/B tests that it is difficult to know what the “real” Google is.

To wit: Obama’s election campaign

The greatest e-marketing project of all time, US President Barack Obama’s election campaign 2008 (admittedly being pushed hard by the astonishing quality of the online coverage across a range of channels for the London 2012 Olympics) put user knowledge at the heart of its design processes. With the aim of motivating website visitors to leave their email address (the singular most effective channel for converting them into donors) on the site, the homepage featured a touching photo of the Obamas and a call to action button.

Can we prove that a button reading “learn more” is objectively superior to a button reading “sign up now”, or that a black and white image of the Obama family is evidently better than a colour picture of Barack doing his thing at the podium? 

Yes we can! Given the choice of calls to action, “learn more”, “join us now" or "sign up now”, the highest-performing option was “learn more”, scoring 18.6pc more sign-ups per visitor than “sign up”.  The black-and-white Obama family picture outperformed the podium shot by 13.1pc on the same metric. The result? A nearly 40pc increase on the effectiveness of the homepage to do its job.

As far back is 1597 Sir Francis Bacon stated that knowledge is power. We harness that power by putting the user at the heart of the design process.

Gareth Dunlop

Gareth Dunlop owns and runs Fathom, a user-experience consultancy which helps organisations get the most from their websites and internet marketing. Specialist areas include user testing, usability and customer journey planning, web accessibility and integrated online marketing.