Influencing the subconsciousRail passengers in Holland were recently subjected to a rather smelly test of their behaviour. The researchers wanted to find out if smell could be used to change the behaviour of people on a train carriage. By injecting a fresh, “just polished” kind of smell into a train carriage the researchers were able to significantly reduce the amount of litter that was dropped. In train carriages where no artificial smell was created there was plenty of rubbish left behind by the travellers. But in carriages which had the special smell produced most people cleared up their rubbish into the bins or took it away with them.

The study shows that much of our behaviour is subconscious. Presumably the clean, freshly polished smell made people less likely to drop litter because they didn’t want to mess up something clean. It is an indication that subconscious expectation stimulates behaviour. And that is precisely the “trick” that web designers can use to ensure that the visitors to their pages do what they want them to do.

For instance, imagine you have a blog and you really want lots of comments. People are much less likely to comment if the subconscious expectation produced by the page is that comments are not important, that they are relegated in some way and not highlighted. If the design of the page makes it look and feel like comments are expected, that they are important and valued, then more people will comment. True you can try all sorts of other tricks too, like being controversial, or simply asking for people to comment, but the subconscious trigger is an important one to consider as well. Putting comments within the blog article, for instance, or even before the article itself, could be ways of triggering the notion that comments are important and expected. So, if you want active comments on a blog, the placing and design of commenting features becomes vital in ensuring you produce the right subconscious trigger.

Similarly, if you are working on an e-commerce site it needs to look like a place to buy things; it needs to look like a shop. But it also needs to look  like a busy shop. Web designers I have met are quick to criticise the design of Amazon. Some people say it is somewhat higgledy-piggledy and poorly spaced out. But that could well be deliberate. The subconscious impact is of being a place with “loads of stuff”, thereby inviting you to take a look around because there is so much to see. The busy design approach of Amazon could well be one of the most significant reasons for its success, because it provides a subconscious trigger for us to “go shopping”. If Amazon had taken the advice of some designers I have met, suggesting it needs greater clarity and to be less busy, the company could well have lost money…!

The study on the train is merely a reminder that creating expectation in the minds of your website visitors is often more important than the design itself. The look, feel, colours, typography and so on are all clearly important, but much less important than the overall subconscious trigger for the behaviour you want to create.

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