Web Stress

We know that slow, balky, and confusing websites aren’t a good thing. Traffic metrics show this, as does conversion data. Google, whom some think of as passively indexing the web, believes quick-loading pages are essential to a good user experience. Google is, in fact, actively trying to speed up websites (and keep their search users happy) by making page load time a ranking factor. (See Barry Schwartz‘s article at Search Engine Land describing Google’s Matt Cutts commentary at Pubcon.)

Now, neuroscience is underscoring the importance of quick-loading pages and easy to use web sites. A study sponsored by Computer Associates and conducted by Foviance, a customer experience consulting firm, showed that poorly performing websites demanded more user concentration and increased stress:

CA partnered with Foviance – a leading customer experience consultancy – to explore ‘web stress’ in relation to application performance, and its impact on consumer behaviour and buying habits.

Brain wave analysis from the experiment revealed that participants had to concentrate up to 50% more when using badly performing websites, while eye tracking, facial muscle and behavioural analysis of the subjects also revealed greater agitation and stress in these periods. [From It's Official - Web Stress is Bad for Business.]

The study used a combination of EEG, eye-tracking, and other metrics to evaluate how users responded to issues like slow-loading pages. An interesting characteristic of the study is that although the slowness was created by cutting the connection speed to the user’s computer, the users quite naturally blamed the website itself for the sluggish performance.

Search Frustration

The biometric measures showed that in addition to slow-loading pages, poor site search functionality also jacked up user frustration:

For most websites, search is one of the primary navigation features. It enables customers to find products they need quickly, and provides an opportunity for retailers to suggest other products they might like to try based on an understanding of what they are already looking for. When the product range is vast, or where the product itself is complex, good search functionality is vital if customers are to serve themselves and find answers to all their queries. In the experiment, participants were visibly frustrated by inadequacies in search engines, which made it difficult for them to complete the tasks. [From Web Stress - A Wake Up Call for European Business.]

I certainly find this to be true. Google and Bing have set a high standard for interpreting search strings and finding what the user wants even with poorly phrased queries or even misspelled search words. A site that doesn’t index its content well or requires user perfection in entering a search query will indeed frustrate users.

This study is typical of what we see in the neuromarketing field – things we already know from intuition and experience are confirmed when brain studies are performed. Still, this data is good ammunition for individuals meeting corporate resistance to investing in web site improvements. No business wants to increase the stress levels of their customers or potential clients, and a frustrating website experience could even impact the firm’s brand perception. A subconscious memory of a bad web site experience might easily steer a customer to a competitor’s site the next time.

So, keep your customers and get new ones by reducing “web stress” – make your web site fast and easy to use!