User Research and usability testing are (should be) two of the cornerstones of any company’s efforts to improve revenue generation through their online channel.
User Research allows us to create hypothesis that are aimed at improving the website’s user-friendliness, but more common, conversion. Usability testing allows us to test those hypotheses.
The resources needed to research, document, setup and execute usability testing are not dramatic, but they aren’t effortless either.
How can we validate intuition and optimize our websites without even testing? Is this sanity speaking? In the real world however, and I think this is the situation for many companies, internal processes just don’t allow for the more in-depth approach. Insights need to come quick and solutions need to be agile.
Should we even consider anything non-scientific to tell us what to test? Will intuition based decision-making make up lost ground on the scientific approach to online optimization? Maybe we should skip testing all together and lead by intuition alone.
As conversion rate optimization specialists [or enter whatever fancy title you have here] we face the daunting task of fighting that uphill battle against the vested rulers of e-commerce.
In all honesty, how many of you have had the conversation in which you ended up defending your optimization hypothesis against a manager’s argument in which he recalls some advice his next door neighbour gave him during a BBQ last weekend?
I have lost count. I have shown my trump card in the heat of the battle many-o-times, that’s when I take a moment to explain the necessity of performing usability testing to prove a user research based hypothesis. I don’t think that I stand alone.
History Repeating Itself
Are we the first of our kind to run into this problem? When did people first try to get rid of the ‘gut feeling’ motives? Believe it or not, people have been at it for at least 5 centuries…
As far back as the 16th century scholars and scientists have been pushing for a more scientific approach to finding out ‘how nature operates’.
As Leonard Mlodinow write’s in his book ‘The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives’:
“Galileo’s was a precise and practical observation, and although simple, it signified a new approach to the description of physical phenomena: the idea that science must focus on experience and experimentation – how nature operates – rather than on what intuition dictates or our minds find appealing. And most of all, it must be done with mathematics.”
Let’s be clear, I am not a mathematician. You won’t find me doing a Good-Will-Hunting at MIT any time soon, but I am confident that many of us have the basic skills to appreciate the effects of intuition when discussing website optimization processes with the powers that be, even if we know that testing is the only way to prove a hypothesis.
Maybe intuition is just ‘how nature operates’. The irony is mind-boggling.
We might need to face the fact that even though scientific research can give us proof, trusting intuition might give you the business advantage in this cut throat, fast moving digital age.
Intuition based optimization can be a better balance between time, resources and money than user research and usability testing can ever be…
What is intuition though? Shouldn’t we simply be avoiding it?
The Compulsory Wikipedia Quote
As any other self respecting blogger, I feel that is my duty to in some way incorporate a Wikipedia quote…
“Intuition is the ability to acquire knowledge without inference or the use of reason. The word ‘intuition’ comes from the Latin word ‘intueri’, which is often roughly translated as meaning ‘to look inside’ or ‘to contemplate’. Intuition provides us with beliefs that we cannot necessarily justify.”
‘Cannot necessarily justify’… can you hear those scientists cheering? But alas, while the statement was being cheered on, it got challenged…
Based on experience, be it personal or professional, we prime our unconscious minds to react to situations. It is possible to know the right solution to any problem, which can validate making that quick decision and avoid using up valuable resources on user research.
In other words, with enough experience, of a subject matter expert of course, intuition could be justifiable. [cheering dies down]
Recognition Primed Decision
The Recognition Primed Decision model, developed by Gary Klein [and others] in 1998, proved (scientifically, ironically enough) that people can make relatively fast decisions based on prior experience avoiding the need to compare/weigh options.
Gary Klein states in his research that pressured by time, shifting scenarios and personal responsibility [sound familiar?]; specialists called on their vast experience to identify similar scenarios and choose the most valid solution.
This process is driven by complex pattern recognition capabilities in the brain. In the red corner, supporting the scientists Neuropsychologist and neurobiologist Roger Wolcott Sperry states that “intuition is a right-brain activity while factual and mathematical analysis is a left-brain activity”.
What is the right way to go, left or right? How reliable is intuition? Does the amount and type of experience matter?
In short, subject focus, proven experience in time, practice and insight translation seem to be the ideal recipe for recognizing reliable intuition sources.
I think we can all agree that to put a brain surgeon in charge of your car’s maintenance or vice versa does not feel reassuring at all. *Although I would rather have a brain surgeon work on my car than the other way around.*
So, when taking intuition into account, the key is to match the relevant intuition source to the problem at hand.
To Change Is To Err
“To err is human, to get positive results in every single one of your tests is highly doubtful”
Changes to the website can effect all visitors, both positively and negatively, we just tend to shout ‘Victory’ whenever the positive outweighs the negative.
It seems unrealistic that every single usability test performed will result in a positive gain, even after having performed extensive user research. So where do we draw the line between ‘to test’ and ‘to bypass testing’ when using intuition as our source?
In my opinion there is little harm and with the effects of common work floor time pressure, I think that in many occasions, it will be an acceptable way to go.
So don’t be too hard on intuition. It’s a short cut, but a short cut that could possibly be more beneficial than we might think. We can seriously cut back on time, money and resources as long as we trust the sources of intuition.
Let me be clear though, if I get the chance to test, I’ll test, but I am realistic enough to bypass testing if business [deadlines] dictates it.
We should always try to promote the more scientific approach to online optimization, but we are not in the Land of Oz anymore, we are back in Kansas. We need to make sure that we do our best to support the company and our customers in any way we can, with proper research or just gut feeling.
- Mark Plant ‘Agile UX’
- Gary Klein ‘Recognition Primed Decision’
- Leonard Mlodinow ‘The Drunkard’s Walk’ (shameless affiliate link included)