Why faster online experiences aren't always better

Content is the lifeblood in any user experience. It's the current that impels us forward, coursing through screens or pages or rooms. We design to present information and facilitate decisions. We often want those decisions to be fast. But pace is a variable.

Why slow down?

Efficient experiences aren't always the most effective. Users may miss important details or click Confirm too soon. If you want them to focus, learn or engage more deliberately with a decision, let them slow down. Affordances of design and content strategy can offer them the space to do so.

Consider the experience of an outdoor enthusiast trying to choose a new harness for an upcoming climbing trip. The websites of most outdoor retailers make it easy to compare gear loops and buckle systems so that her purchase can be fast and easy. How can that customer choose a new harness, enter her credit card information, and move on with her day without a second thought?

Second thoughts undermine efficient ecommerce experiences. But if we only value efficiency, we ignore opportunities for learning and validation that characterise effective, less transactional experiences.

As our rock climber packs for the trip, she starts to hesitate. When her new harness arrived in the mail, she noticed it didn't look quite the same as it appeared online. Now she's questioning her decision. She also realises that she should have picked up a couple of new carabiners for the trip.

Online experiences often prompt users to make decisions quickly through the use of design elements that don't impede the process. Users glance through bulleted product attributes then complete transactions we optimise for fewest clicks.

But that kind of experience is foreign to the longer history of commerce. Consider the experience of shopping offline for that climbing harness. You might wander into an outdoor gear shop and banter with the clerk, prompting him to recommend a model. He suggests you might want to look into new shoes too. The grubby ones you've been wearing at the gym won't cut it.

After you pull on the harness, another employee helps you fix the buckle; you didn't put it on properly at first. You notice the wall of carabiners and remember you should buy a new one while you're there.

The offline shopping experience is circuitous but effective. Consumers take in information along the way. They may trade efficiency for satisfaction, but with many pauses to deliberate, they gain greater confidence in their choices.

Foster good decisions

We can create similar circumstances online by acknowledging that not all transactions should be optimised for speed. If a purchase is so routine the user doesn't need to give it a second thought, we don't need to get in their way. But many activities aren't like that. They demand a second thought, and the content to support it.

Brands like Patagonia, Waitrose and Crutchfield help users engage more thoroughly with their choices by using longform content, longer sentences, and a conversational tone. IKEA fuels learning by simulating the in-store experience of exploration; its online shoppers can swipe open cabinets and navigate detailed kitchen vignettes. And by dividing forms into multiple screens, Barclays helps its account holders slow down and review the impact of important financial decisions.

Design for questions

These content types and design patterns aren't necessarily the fastest way for users to complete transactions. Instead, they help users engage with purchases with greater confidence, satisfaction and certainty. When content pushes us to weigh options and wrestle with difficult concepts, it pushes us to ask questions – and place greater weight on their answers.

Words: Margot Bloomstein

Margot Bloomstein is the author of Content Strategy at Work and principal of brand and content strategy consultancy Appropriate, Inc. This article originally appeared in net magazine issue 255.

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