People would rather your web site took longer

People always want to do things quickly don’t they? Everyone seems to be in a hurry these days. And that seems to be true online as well. Few people stay on a web site longer than a second if the can’t see exactly what they are looking for. One quick glance and if they can’t see what they’re after, those visitors are off, rushing down the information superhighway eager to find the site that can deliver.

The result, is the apparent need for web sites to show people “everything they’ve got” so that people can scan, see what’s available and then pick what they need. However, new research suggests this focus on speed may be doing us more harm than good when running an online business.

Psychologists at the University of Virginia and their colleagues in Sweden looked at how people fill in online questionnaires. They compared several, rather long, questionnaires which were presented in two different ways. In one situation, the questionnaires were presented in one go; in the other test condition, the questionnaires were split up into one question at a time and the respondents had to click through several screens to complete the survey.

The “need for speed” merchants would have us believe that by presenting the questionnaire all in one page, people would be able to complete their answers more quickly and would therefore prefer this format. The “clarity kings” would have us believe that by presenting the questions one at a time, the users would be less distracted and would therefore be able to complete their answers more easily, albeit more slowly.

So which side won? The “clarity kings”. It seems that when we have to submit information in online forms we prefer to be able to answer one thing at a time, moving between questions by clicking buttons to the next page. Even though this is slower, the new research revealed that this is what people actually prefer. And we are not talking about minor changes in preference; the study showed the preference for the single question per page was significantly higher than for all the questions together. In one test condition, 94% of people preferred the single question per page version. The lowest preference was still extraordinarily high at 67%.

What does this all tell us? It suggests that people prefer clarity on your web site, at the expense of speed. We don’t need to go fast when we have got what we want. Once we have the material we want, we then want to be able to deal with it in bite-size chunks.

If you have any lengthy online forms it therefore makes sense to break them down into page-based questions. Equally, if you have long articles – probably more than 1,000 words or so – you would do better to break them into separate pages for people to click through each “section” of your story.

Once you have engagement with your web site, people like to go more slowly, one step at a time. And that may mean you need different ways of presenting material. Fast and speedy as people get to know you, but slow and well-paced, once they are on your side.

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