Is Web Usability Persuasive? Let’s ask FedEx.

Can web usability be persuasive? Honestly, I hadn’t really thought about it up until a few weeks ago. We think of great writing and speeches as being persuasive. . .but usability?

J. Anthony Blair in “The Rhetoric of Visual Arguments” (a chapter from Defining Visual Rhetorics, edited by Hill and Helmers) takes on the question of rhetoric, argument and persuasion in regards to images. He explains that historically, rhetoric, argument, and persuasion have all been connected to “verbal phenomena” (41). Ultimately, Blaire concludes that “arguments” can only be assigned to words not images, because images “cannot provide reasons for accepting a point of view” (44).  Although visuals can “[supply] grounds for beliefs, attitudes, or actions,” visuals arguments cannot be a substitute for verbal, and the two work best when combined together.

So what does this have to do with usability (and FedEx)?

 Web usability describes the the ease of use and learnability of a web site. Web sites that are usable offer clear choices to their users, which allows them to make decisions and complete tasks to meet their overall goals efficiently.  The usability of a site is determined by its layout and design, content language, and organization of information.

As we just saw, Blaire argues that visual and verbal elements work best as arguments when combined–and both of these elements make up what we think of as web usability. But can usability be thought of as persuasive? (I realize there’s a big distinction between the terms “argument” and “persuasion,” but for the sake of keeping this post a manageable length, let’s just collapse the two.)

Not long ago, I had the task of rush shipping 2 boxes of notebooks to Florida. It was a Wednesday morning and the books had to be in Orlando by 10:00 Friday morning. I don’t ship packages very often, so I don’t have any particular loyalties to any one shipping service. I pulled up both FedEx and UPS’s websites to see if I could find a drop-off location and estimate a shipping price. After about 20 minutes, I settled on using FedEx.

After boxing up the notebooks, I drove down to a locally owned office and print services shop to send them off. The man shook his head at me when I asked if he shipped FedEx. “No, but I can send it UPS.” Seeing me hesitate, he asked why I had to ship with FedEx.

I stopped, realizing for the first time why I actually decided to use FedEx. “Um. Their website was easier to use. I figured if they couldn’t pull together a working website, they wouldn’t be competent enough to get my packages where they need to go.”

The man behind the counter looked me as if I had suddenly sprouted a second head. “Well, if I were you, I’d go with UPS. I broke off my agreement with Fed-Ex over a year ago because they were consistently late. UPS will get your packages there on time.”

As he weighed my packages and calculated the cost, I just stood there, lost in my own thoughts. My answer had surprised me, as well. I consider myself a fairly rational and intelligent person, but I found myself seriously questioning my recent decision-making process. I had based my entire decision on which postal service to use on the usability of their websites. I had unconsciously rationalized that if UPS had such a horribly unusable website, how could I possibly trust their workers to deliver my packages safely and on time?

Clearly the website designers and UX teams working for FedEx and UPS have no direct influence over whether or not my packages will arrive at their destination on time. In the competition for my business FedEx’s usable site persuaded me to give them my business.

On both sites, I was required to seek out the same information. I needed to input values for weight and size, along with my zip code and the shipping address zip code. Finally I had to select a pickup and delivery date. Although I struggled with the UPS site for what seemed like forever (in reality it couldn’t have been more than 9 or 10 minutes), I wasn’t able to figure out where to submit values for weight and size.  The process with FedEx was a relative breeze.

Stephen P. Anderson in Seductive Interaction Design: Creating Playful, Fun, and Effective User Experiences (Voices That Matter), opens in the first chapter of the book by (appropriately) explaining why he would choose the adjective “seductive” to describe a type of design. He defines seduction as “the process of deliberately enticing a person to engage in some sort of behavior,” which is something he challenges his readers to learn how to do. Anderson sees usability and interaction design as methods to entice users, drawing them in and prompting some sort of action.

In my case, FedEx offered the right enticement–a website that provided me the answers to my questions quickly and without frustration. And consequently this enticement influenced my behavior when I made the initial decision to use them over UPS.

So can usability be persuasive? Based on my experience I would argue that yes, it can be. But what do you think?


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