Insights | By Howard Tiersky

The Two Enemies of Digital Success

We wrote recently about the importance of the role that emotion plays in driving your customer’s or audience's behavior in digital channels.


When creating digital touch points, it is natural to focus on the capabilities and content that we believe customers will want, need, and hopefully love. This is essential as your digital touchpoint must have a strong ecore value proposition to the visitor in order to be viable.

However, it's important to be aware of a psychological factor called Negativity Bias.  What Negativity Bias says is basically that our negative emotions are more powerful in our psyche than our positive emotions. We might be excited about going on vacation, but if we are worried it might rain, those negative feelings can outweigh the positive ones.

At FROM we spend a lot of time testing websites, mobile apps and other digital experiences with real end-users and we get to observe their emotional reactions first-hand.  After watching hundreds of these tests, I would have to say that our research confirms this idea of negativity bias. Simply put, no matter how promising or worthwhile a site is when it starts to trigger negative reactions in users, they usually abandon it quickly, no matter how initially interested they may have been.  Note there is an exception to this rule which we call the Bruce Springsteen Rule--perhaps showing our age. For many years the TicketMaster site was quite terrible and yet when the moment came that a new Bruce Springsteen concert opened up for sale, tens of thousands of people would flock to the site and frankly just suffer through the purchase experience in order to get those tickets.  So if your site experience is the digital equivalent of a Bruce Springsteen ticket (Millennials, please substitute Justin Bieber), then you may have found a way to neutralize negativity bias. Otherwise, read on.

So what are these negative reactions we get from users? There are a variety of possibilities, but there are two primary emotional villains that lead the pack: confusion and frustration.

Confusion is usually the first emotion we see. A user begins perhaps looking for a product or researching a topic, but he/she doesn’t fully understand the interface, the results they are getting or the labeling or language used. They start to feel confused.  Confusion is a harmful emotion because it tends to make people feel that they are at fault. They are perhaps too stupid to figure out how to use the site or app.  You might think," Well that’s better than them blaming us!" but in fact, it’s not.  They say the best thing you can do to have a great first date with someone is to leave them feeling great about themselves, and so it goes with digital experiences. If a user feels they aren't smart enough to figure out your site or app, they may not blame you, but they leave nevertheless, so the outcome is basically the same.  

And by the way they may in fact subconsciously blame you for making them feel dumb.

So how to avoid confusion? Study users’ paths through the site via task analysis, as we do here at FROM. Anytime we test a site, even a very successful one, we always find many points of confusion. It’s a matter of basic hygiene:  sites are constantly changing, and it’s hard to make sure that every tweak is totally clear to everyone. Doing quarterly or at least annual user tests to make sure you are aware of any confusion "bombs" that may have been planted on your site is just good business.  Furthermore, confusion-related problems are often inexpensive to fix. Sometimes it’s simply about rewording a button or moving a call to action.  Sometimes it’s about just removing a feature that’s causing more confusion than benefit.

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The second emotional villain is frustration.   When you are frustrated you aren't feeling at all confused — generally, you know exactly what the site is supposed to do;  it just isn't doing it!  Frustration can be triggered by site defects, slow performance, check out process that are more steps than the user feels they "should be," policies that don’t give the user the outcome they want, or missing features that the user perceives "everybody else has" which may actually just mean that Uber and Amazon have them.  It's quite easy to frustrate users today as their expectations are so incredibly high.  Creating frustration in digital users is super-damaging to your brand because many users create a meaning around the frustration which is that the brand just doesn’t care. Users believe that brands should know what they expect and that if they aren't providing it, there can be only reason:  they just aren't bothering. This, of course, may be a completely erroneous conclusion… in our experience very often clients don’t realize the points in their customer experience that are creating frustration until we conduct the user tests that reveal these problems.

Frustration problems are often easy to fix,  but sometimes they can be very challenging because they may stem from underlying technology issues that are expensive to remediate. Nevertheless, it's essential to understand where these problems exist and gauge the impact they are having on your business results, so that you can make an informed decision about whether or when to invest in addressing them.

In our experience, sites that offer something of value and manage to avoid creating confusion or frustration for their visitors are winners.  The first step to getting there is a user-research focused assessment so that you can face the reality of the emotional reactions you are creating. Once that is understood, a roadmap to improvement can be developed and results measured along the way.