Designing for user expectations: changing behavior on the sly

In summary In the end, the key to changing user (or consumer) behavior is in making the difference obvious and convenient.

Website functionality contains the word “fun,” and that’s what we aim for as we approach each new website. Web designers have one audience in mind when beginning a new web project. No, I’m not talking about our clients (sorry, guys).

I mean the end-user. The person who will sit on the “other side of the screen,” clicking through the information presented. It’s common sense that the end result should match up with the expectations that user has come to expect from the brand, experiences on similar websites, and experience with the web as a whole.

This does not mean that every website across the internet is expected to perform exactly the same. It is a statement, however, that every website that falls into a certain category (e-commerce, banking, forum, etc.) should function similarly to other sites within the same category. Users would not expect a banking site to behave as a forum, and vice-versa.

The best way to determine what users are expecting out of a website is to research. Research sites with a similar function, competitor sites, and the existing company’s site if the project is a relaunch.

But, what if what we WANT is to change user behavior on a website?

First and foremost, understand that there’s a delicate balance that needs to be achieved when changing user behaviors. Nothing is keeping your users from leaving the site if they become frustrated or don’t understand what actions are expected of them. With that said, it is possible to change user behavior provided there is sound reasoning, obvious visual clues and response mechanisms, and a sense of familiarity left intact.

My favorite go-to inspiration for changing user behavior while remaining sensitive to expectations is product design.

“Green” products are changing consumer behavior. Or, trying to.

There’s no denying that in this day and age, it’s hip to be green. It also goes without saying that “going green” is often associated with making personal sacrifices in daily habits and choices. What, give up my morning Starbucks in favor of making coffee at home? Suddenly, it’s a lot more appealing to leave “being hip” to the hipsters and tree-huggers.

Green-conscious product designers are rising to that challenge by designing reusable products that mimic their disposable counterparts in look and feel. The only differences lie in the materials used to make them (glass and porcelain vs. plastic and paper) and the fact that they don’t get chucked in the bin after only one use. Even better, these newer products are built for the dishwasher, unlike the hard plastic coffee mugs of yore (if you read them, most should be hand-washed for durability; but who does that?).

In other words, they’re putting the effort into the design to make switching to reusable, “greener” choices as easy for the consumer as getting a cup or bottle on the go.

Google made the submit button obsolete.

An on-screen example of a behavior shift is evident in Google’s 2010 redesign. The biggest, yet still subtle, difference the search company made was to remove the need to hit ‘Submit’ in order to show search results. Results are now live-updated as you type, actually eliminating a step previously needed to be performed by the user.

To be honest, I needed the change to be pointed out to me before I realized anything was different. This is exactly what you want in a behavior shift – for users to not even realize it’s happening. Users expect search results to arrive quickly, and the live-updating of results is a logical improvement in functionality.

Make it easy, make it obvious.

In the end, the key to changing user (or consumer) behavior is in making the difference obvious and convenient. Users are not going to change if it requires them to make the extra effort, or is noticeably different from what they are used to.

It is possible to change user behavior, while keeping them happy by meeting their expectations. It’s all about researching the audience and finding what works naturally.