BBC Radio Four’s James Naughtie has been very naughty this morning. Live on air he renamed Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt using a consonant for his surname which was rather nearer the start of the alphabet. The slip up stood out like the proverbial sore thumb because it was so abnormal, unusual and different. Much of the stuff we hear on radio literally goes in one ear and out of the other. It is entirely predictable. Every day, the Radio Four Today programme introduces a Government minister. We literally do not notice it. Only when it goes wrong – as it did this morning – does it become so noticeable.
The human brain constantly tries to minimise the effort it has to make in order to understand the world around it. There are very good reasons for that. If you had to constantly pay attention to everything, you would take more time to actually engage with the world. Even the simplest tasks, like reading this, or making a cup of tea would become cumbersome and time consuming. Just think of that tea-making action for a moment. You don’t have to remember what the kettle does, nor where the switch is. Neither do you actually look for the tea-bags because you keep them in the same place. Indeed you probably reach into the packet or canister without much of a glance. You add the milk and sugar without thinking as well. It is all rather automatic.
It’s the same reason we rarely remember seeing road signs – they are all where we expect them to be, so essentially we feel we ignore them. We know they are there, but they get little processing in our brain, whilst we concentrate on other things.
The way we perceive the world is very much on “auto-pilot”. We don’t check every last detail of things around us because it simply would make engagement with the world around us far too slow and cumbersome. The same is true for websites. As you read this you have ignored almost everything else on this page. Indeed, because the picture is in the same place as it almost always is, you have probably only given that a small, fraction of a second glance (until I have just mentioned it now…!). And you haven’t really looked at the menu, though you know where it is. And you haven’t checked the other features in the left hand column, but you know they are there.
The predictability of all this website stuff means you can engage with this site easily. When a website is unpredictable, we find it difficult to cope with. What about those websites that don’t have a menu bar, but which expect you to click on portions of an image? They take you longer to use. And what about websites who don’t use the standard blue underline for a link? You often miss seeing the links themselves because they are so unusual. The designers reckon that because it is unusual it makes us stop and take notice. In other words the theory is that being unusual, being unpredictable, makes your web page stand out and makes visitors pay more attention.
However, new research on perception from the University of Texas shows that this does not work at all. In an interesting study on the perception of sound, really unusual sounds in a sequence went unnoticed by participants in the study because they were so unusual. In other words, predictability helps us to engage with the world around us more than we think. We do notice things much more than we might think. It is because road signs are predictable that we know they are there. It is because your tea bags and kettle are so predictable that we are able to make tea. And likewise it is because websites which all look much the same are so predictable that it makes it much easier for us to engage with them. We don’t actually see much of what is on a web page, but if it is there in the predictable place we know it is there.
In other words, striving to be unusual online actually works against you. Perhaps that is why Facebook, for instance, is so successful; we can engage with almost anything, whether a message, an application, a discussion or a group, because they all look the same on Facebook. It is the sameness, the predictability, that is part of its success.
So, rather than try to make your website stand out and be different, make sure it is predictable and similar to all the successful sites. Your visitors will find it much easier to engage with your pages if you do that. If you don’t, you will truly stand out, but rather like James Naughtie, probably for all the wrong reasons.