The brain's view of a website

May marketing madness usability week, post #31

By, Todd Follansbee
President, Web Marketing Resources

Understanding how the brain works helps in building a great web user experience.

Distracting, no? Your brain doesn't like it when things don't appear as they should.

One of our goals as user eXperience (UX) consultants is to make it easy for visitors' brains to form "mental models" of a website. Put another way, we understand that the brain is trying to predict how a site will behave and if we fail to meet those expectations, confusion results.

The brain can only hold 7 + 2 random pieces of information in short-term memory at one time. Yet, it has an incredible ability to process volumes of information if it can fit it into a pattern. The brain's skill at finding patterns also makes it excellent at recognizing when something is outside the norm.

For example, something simple like a piece of spinach on a friends tooth can be so distracting that we often must concentrate hard to hear what they are saying over the "noise" our brains are making about the spinach.

Simply put, the brain doesn't like things that don't fit right. More accurately, it doesn't like things that don't fit the way it expects them to fit.

One basic example of why pattern recognition matters

When a visitor lands on your homepage, his brain is looking for clues to patterns it recognizes. Often the first thing to look for is a hyperlink, the basic key to web information. If hyperlinks aren't obvious or don't consistently fit a recognized pattern because one is blue and another is green, flags go up. The brain keeps trying to make sense but when things are too random, the visitor is soon too distracted to focus on content.

When click heatmaps show many random clicks on unclickable items, be suspicious.

Let's assume that your hyperlinks are instantly recognizable and show what happens when clicked i.e., download, buy now, new site, video, new page etc. As the visitor looks for his objective, the brain continues forming the mental model while checking that all hyperlinks behave as predicted. Even one random hyperlink, like the piece of spinach, will upset the model so I strive for 100% compliance with key guidelines and you should too.

A visitor on the former Optima Homepage is unsuccessfully trying to get to a product page. He is clicking on a title that is not a link to the product it describes.

How do some sites get 20% conversion rates?

Certain large retail eCommerce sites exceed 20% conversion rates while the web average is only 2.1% and cart abandonment averages over 70%. Why are so many sites doing so poorly?

Forrester research may hold a key; they tested over 1200 sites and found that less than 3% passed their usability test. I won’t guarantee site success, but I can state unequivocally that the more guidelines you comply with, the better your User eXperience, and that is always a good thing. The high converting sites I have tested all scored highly in guideline compliance.

Do I have a UX guideline problem?

Unless you used a UX professional or followed an approved set of UX guidelines, then it is likely you have a problem. FYI all the template based sites we've seen fail to meet basic UX guidelines as well.

Can I see the problem on my site?

Clicktale can help show if your hyperlinks are not obvious or consistently presented. When Click Heatmaps show many random clicks on "unclickable" items, be suspicious. Individual visitor recordings should demonstrate similar confusion such as scattered clicks and unfocused behaviors.

The visitor's willingness to tolerate a poor UX will vary according to level of motivation, among other factors, but it is possible that a large percentage will exit without a click if they cannot form a mental model. I see it often in my one-on-one user testing. Be mindful we are only touching on hyperlinks here and hyperlinks represent about 2% of our basic UX guideline requirements.

OK, What should I do?

If you are building a new site,

  • Download a set of accepted guidelines and tell your site developer that you expect compliance.
  • Contact a UX professional for a quote, statistics show the ROI on usability work for new sites to be very high.
  • Test your site for compliance prior to launch.
  • Ensure that the site has proper analytics tools in place at launch to monitor behaviors.

For existing sites,

  • Least expensive approach is to review your site for guideline compliance and make necessary changes.
  • Review online UX resources and forums like this blog, for compliance information.
  • Consider a UX course at the Online User Experience Institute.
  • I've built a compliance-testing tool for the layperson called The Dudley Tool. It uses a set of guidelines to help you determine a UX grade for your site. It takes 1/2 hours to "score" your site and identify problems. To help you comply, each guideline in the tool has examples and links to "how-to articles" plus an on demand video course. The cost for everything is under $30.
  • Hire a UX consultant; be sure to choose someone whose focus is on Usability, conversion or UX work, not a jack-of-all-trades. See Usability Professionals Association


Usability guidelines were developed from understanding how the brain works, for example the importance of pattern recognition and our weak short-term memory. The purpose of UX guidelines is to simplify sites and make them easy to use, not complicate them. Curiously enough, as users, we rarely "recognize" usable sites because if the site fits a good mental model, the modeling takes place subconsciously while we just buy.

Industry leaders invest in usability because they recognize that the quality of the online experience is the single best predictor of online success.

The brain's ability to recognize patterns and form mental models also helps us to identify and remember good and bad sites. Make sure that your visitors' first visit to your site is a good one by ensuring that you meet basic guidelines and they will be more likely to return.

This post is one out of Clicktale's month long May Marketing Madness series. Each of our daily posts will highlight and explain today's best practices, useful tips and smart tools to measure and improve your online business performance. This week's theme is usability.

About the Author

Mr. Follansbee's sales and marketing career spans over 30 years. He is currently the usability and conversion columnist for the nationally known eNewsletter "Web Marketing Today", which reaches over 140,000 web-marketing professionals every week.

Mr. Follansbee focuses on persuasive architecture and usability testing. His approach combines usability, psychology and a thorough understanding of web marketing strategies and the web sales experience to build a clear and compelling online presence to improve site results.

For much more about Mr. Follansbee and his work, have a look at Web Marketing Resources.

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