Friday, September 24, 2010

Please Stop Annoying Your Users

Once upon a time, I worked with a company that was addicted to interstitials. Interstitials, for those of you who don’t know the term, are web pages or advertisements that show up before an expected  content page. For example, the user clicks a link or button and expects to be taken to a news article or to take some action, and instead she is shown a web page selling her something.

Like many damaging addictions, this one started out innocently enough. You see, the company had a freemium product, so they were constantly looking for ways to share the benefits of upgrading to the premium version in a way that flowed naturally within the product.

They had good luck with one interstitial that informed users of a useful new feature that required the user to upgrade. They had more good luck with another that asked the user to consider inviting some friends before continuing on with the product.

Then things got ugly.

Customers could no longer use the product for more than a few minutes without getting asked for money or to invite a friend or to view a video to earn points. Brand new users who didn’t even understand the value proposition of the free version were getting hassled to sign up for a monthly subscription.
Every time I tried to explain that this was driving users away, management explained, “But people buy things from these interstitials! They make us money! Besides, if people don’t want to see them, they can dismiss them.”

How This Affects Metrics

Of course, you know how this goes. Just looking at the metrics from each individual interstitial, it was pretty clear that people did buy things or invite friends or watch videos. Each interstitial did, in fact, make us some money. The problem was that overall the interstitials lost us customers and potential customers by driving away people who became annoyed.

The fact that the users could simply skip the interstitials didn’t seem to matter much. Sure people could click the cleverly hidden “skip” button – provided they could find it – but they had already been annoyed. Maybe just a little. Maybe only momentarily. But it was there. The product had annoyed them, and now they had a slightly more negative view of the company.

Here’s the important thing that the company had to learn: a mildly annoyed user does not necessarily leave immediately. She doesn’t typically call customer service to complain. She doesn’t write a nasty email. She just gets a little bit unhappy with the service. And the next time you do something to annoy her, she gets a little more unhappy with the service. And if you annoy her enough, THEN she leaves.

The real problem is that this problem is often tricky to identify with metrics. It’s a combination of a lot of little things, not one big thing, that makes the user move on, so it doesn’t show up as a giant drop off in a particular place. It’s just a slow, gradual attrition of formerly happy customers as they get more and more pissed off and decide to go elsewhere.

If you fix each annoyance and A/B test it individually, you might not see a very impressive lift, because, of course, you still have dozens of other things that are annoying the user. But over time, when you’ve identified and fixed most of the annoyances, what you will see is higher retention and better word of mouth as your product stops vaguely irritating your users.

Some Key Offenders

I can’t tell you exactly what you’re doing that is slightly annoying your customers, but here are a few things that I’ve seen irritate people pretty consistently over the years:
  • Slowness
  • Too many interstitials
  • Not remembering information - for example, not maintaining items in a shopping cart or deleting the information that a user typed into a form if there is an error
  • Confusing or constantly changing navigation
  • Inconsistent look and feel, which can make it harder for users to quickly identify similar items on different screens
  • Hard to find or inappropriately placed call to action buttons
  • Bad or unresponsive customer service

It’s frankly not easy to fix all of these things, and it can be a leap of faith for companies who want every single change to show a measurable improvement in key metrics. But by making your product less annoying overall, you will end up with happier customers who stick around.

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Also, come hear me speak on Wednesday, Sept. 29th, at Web 2.0 Expo New York. I’ll be talking about how to effectively combine qualitative research, quantitative analytics, and design vision in order to improve your products