Expectation of Control in Web Design UX

On average, people are constantly struggling for control of their surroundings. Our DNA has programmed us to crave control over our environments… because it offers comfort! When things feel out of our control, our bodies may respond sharply with negative stress, until we can remedy the situation.

This neurological response is the same regardless of the trigger. For example, if you lose control of a relationship or that rude driver knocks you off your zen driving cloud, you’re likely to react in the same way – negative stress. For businesses, understanding the human need for control offers a powerful tool for enhancing your customers’ experience. One example that you’ve probably come across yourself is the auto-play ad or video when visiting a website.

I recently helped a large publisher analyze customer behavior on their website. The organization wanted to push video content by having it play automatically on their homepage. Yes, the video offered valuable & interesting content, but the business hadn’t considered the jarring effect it had on customers. It made them feel a loss of control! What we found when we studied customer behavior is that they tended to click the “pause” button as soon as they encountered the video, or closed the site entirely. The efforts of the business to force this video, actually created the opposite effect they had desired.

This response can be explained by a psychological effect called the expectation factor. People go into situations expecting a specific thing. This effect applies to all aspects of life, including interactions with your company or brand. You go to a job interview and expect the hiring manager to ask certain questions. You go to a birthday party and expect to eat certain foods and have a certain level of fun.

Manage Expectations

When customers visit your website(s), the expectation factor is at play. If you present your customers with an experience that strays too much from what they’ve anticipated, they will feel a loss of control… and will do what is necessary to regain control. Perhaps this means completely ignoring that video that you spend thousands to produce. Or they exit your site entirely, and more onto a competitor! There is indeed an expectation of control in web design UX.

In order to manage this relationship between websites and customers, it is important to understand the power of perceived control. Visitors like to think they are in charge of their actions. When a video plays without visitors initiating any interaction, they feel the opposite. If a customer feels that a website is trying to “sell” them something, or push them into viewing certain content without permission, they will resist by trying to take back the interaction and intentionally avoid that content. This occurs deep within our subconscious and triggers biochemical prods that are part of a primitive neurological mechanism.

 

The Stress Response

Why do we react so strongly to such stimuli? The reasons are rooted in our deepest DNA. The first humans had to be constantly on alert for changes in their environment, because unexpected sounds or sights meant only one thing: danger. When we click on a website hoping to read an article and instead are confronted with a loud/flashy video, the automatic response is no different than our ancestors, walking in the forest and stumbling upon a lion.

Our body reacts first to eliminate the stressor, and then (because we have an inner need to be sure our thoughts & behaviors are consistent) we then subconsciously rationalize our decision. “If I stopped the video, it must not be interesting.”. By forcing the video upon your customers instead of letting them choose to click “play,” the business significantly decreased the chances of anyone ever seeing their carefully crafted message and branding!

Auto-play videos are not the only web item that promotes stress response. Visitors also start to feel control slipping from their hands when they encounter very long web pages, lack of clear navigation, and pop-up ads. scrolling. Websites that harness an understanding of human psychology can avoid such situations. Employ sticky navigation (menus that stay in a familiar place as the customer browses) is one example.

Remember, the need for control is rooted deeply within us and has a subconscious impact on our online behavior too.

Tom McCoy

Tom McCoy

An avid people watcher, Tom has always been fascinated by the way humans perceive and interact with the world. This, combined with an eye for style, led to a successful career of enhancing the way we appeal to customers.

As a consultant, entrepreneur and artist, he offers design & marketing expertise to anyone willing to listen to him ramble like a mad scientist. In his spare time, Tom likes to work with his hands – painting works of art, fixing up old cars & old houses.

Check out his LinkedIn profile for more information!
Tom McCoy

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14 thoughts on “Expectation of Control in Web Design UX

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