OPINION: The default holds power in user experience

14 Sep 2013

Gareth Dunlop, owner of user-experience consultancy Fathom

Across European countries, there’s an enormous disparity in the percentage of people who donate organs when they die. The deviation is so great that in virtually all countries either more than 85pc of citizens donate, or fewer than 28pc donate. In just a small handful of countries, the percentage of citizens donating is between 28pc and 86pc.

So which countries have the highest donation rates and what cultural, political or social elements do they have in common? Perhaps they are all socialist countries with left-ish political leanings? Or maybe it is the progressive democracies of the Scandinavian countries who are top of the pile? Possibly the focus, precision and scientific thinking by which we have come to associate the Germans pushes them higher?

The answer is none of the above.

What the more than 86pc countries have in common is that each citizen is opted into organ donation at birth and if they don’t wish to donate they need to proactively opt out. Not surprisingly, therefore, the fewer than 28pc countries have opted-out citizens who need to proactively opt in.

Top of the pile are Austria, France, Hungary, Poland and Portugal (100pc of citizens opted in) with Denmark, Germany and the UK bringing up the rear (on 4pc, 12pc and 17pc respectively). Thus across a broad range of political, social, cultural and ethical environments, the default position is the single largest influencing factor on the likelihood of an individual citizen donating an organ.

Time and space preclude me elucidating further. However, the annals of social and behavioural psychology are replete with experiments outlining the impact of the default, the status quo and the group on individual decision-making.

The great online crime

This has a fundamentally important ramification for the design of persuasive user experiences. There may be no greater online crime than losing a sale after a user has emotionally decided to purchase an item, however, there is no worse reason to lose the sale in that circumstance than not making the default clear to the user.

We carry out around a hundred user tests and dozens of conversion-rate-optimisation projects each year, often focused around buying selection and check-out psychology, and the vast majority of conversion killers have to do with not making the default obvious enough. In particular, inconveniencing the majority with minority exceptions drives users mad and just as importantly drives them anywhere but the finish line.

There is a range of techniques by which the user-experience architect infers the default choice. It can be easy not to implement these techniques on our own websites because we miss them on other websites, and we miss them on other websites because they are the default, and thus as users we barely notice them (which, of course, is the entire point). However, we need to notice them, value them and implement them.

Don’t put a register button anywhere unless the user has specifically asked to register. The user may be asked to “continue”, “next step”, “advance”, “go forward”, but must not be asked to register if they just want to buy.

The most important call to action must always be the clearest item on the page. Apply the blur test; look at your screen and focus your eyes into the distance, the only thing you should still be able to see on the screen is the default action.

Visual cues

Give your user all of the visual cues and clues they require to help them understand the default. Use good colours, simple layouts, clear forms and logical relative font sizes, to help them understand what is primary and what is secondary.

The reason that information architecture and content strategy are now a constituent part of the design process is because they inform colours, fonts, layouts and calls to action. These must be founded on the task requirements of your users and once these are established, they must not be compromised for the myriad exceptions which will undoubtedly crop up.

Set good defaults and at all costs avoid making your user have to think.

Gareth Dunlop

Gareth Dunlop owns and runs Fathom, a user-experience consultancy which helps ambitious organisations get the most from their website and internet marketing by viewing the world from the perspective of their customers. Specialist areas include user-testing, usability and customer journey planning, web accessibility and integrated online marketing. Clients include Fáilte Ireland, Telefónica, Invest NI, Ogilvy, and Savile Row. Visit Fathom online.

Gareth Dunlop runs Fathom, a UX consultancy that helps organisations get the most from their digital products.