What lessons can conversion optimizers learn from multiple choice test creators? Columnist Brian Massey explores.
My daughter is planning for college. It’s her last semester of high school.
Among the key drivers of her choice are her scores on the SAT and ACT. These are two aptitude tests that will, in part, determine two things:
- Her ability to answer multiple-choice questions.
- Her ability to get into certain colleges.
I was interested in the psychology of this staple of standardized testing, the multiple-choice test. As it turns out, my curiosity was rewarded, because the psychology of the multiple-choice question can be applied to your website home page.
Stay curious, marketers!
The goal of a multiple-choice question should be the opposite of the goal for a homepage. The test question is designed to get the person who guesses to pick the wrong answer. The multiple-choice test is a competitive endeavor; it’s you against the person who designed the test. Like search optimizers, test-takers are looking for ways to game these tests and outsmart the test designers.
The multiple-choice question is designed to test us. It is designed to nestle one correct answer in with a number of “distractors,” or wrong answers.
Unfortunately, when we evaluate our clients’ home pages, we often find that they are testing their visitors, too. These pages seem designed to punish visitors for guessing wrong.
There is a lot on the internet about how to design a multiple-choice question that will test a student’s knowledge. Some of it is a little creepy, like the test makers are competing with the test takers.
Is your home page secretly trying to test your visitors?
The Job Of The Home Page
The job of the home page is thus: “Help me choose.” Its primary goal is to get the visitor into the site and on the right path — not to distract or confuse.
Too often, the home page is just a place for billboards. It is treated like a truck stop on the side of a highway, yet neon lights are rarely required.
If your website is not well-designed, a visitor will find your home page despite your greatest efforts – for if you had done well, they would have landed somewhere more specific to their needs. The homepage is the default, the easy find, the quick hit. It’s best to get visitors off of it and into your site as quickly as possible.
Most home pages are fraught with political intrigue. Every department wants a piece of it. This is why home pages come to resemble the walls of a subway station, plastered with ads and handbills.
If your website can’t decide which answers to present, does it make sense to present them this way?
If your home page is designed to help visitors find the right answer out of multiple potentially correct ones, then it should follow the form, but not the function of a multiple choice question.
The Stem: Why Did You Visit Our Website Today?
Ultimately, your home page answers the question, “Why did you visit our website today?” What you have to decide is which answers you want to provide links for.
Any answer that makes sense is considered the “right” answer. Any answer that doesn’t is considered a distractor.
Home page: Why did you visit our website today?
Visitor: To share it on Facebook.
Few visitors would claim that they came to your site so they could add it to their Facebook news feed. We consider social media links distractors. However, many home pages place them in a prominent position.
Home page: Why did you visit our website today?
Visitor: To check prices on a product I want.
Clearly, this is a desired action for an e-commerce site. This is a “right” answer.
Identify the stem, the answers, and the distractors on your home page and you will find opportunities to optimize.
What Else Can We Learn From Multiple Choice Tests?
I found a checklist on the Scholastic website for designing multiple-choice tests. Let’s select some of the principles from the list to see if your home page is – for better or worse — designed like a multiple-choice test.
1. Use Answer Choices That Are Believable Or Could Make Sense
It is important that the links, images and navigation are believable and make sense. This is self-evident. There is a caveat to the phrase “make sense,” and that is this: The choices must make sense to your visitors, not just to you. Navigation choices and calls-to-action should be written in the voice of the visitor for best results.
Use proof to enhance believability. Bold claims and hyperbole may sound impressive, but left by themselves, they don’t make for believable choices.
2. Always Write The Correct Answer First
The home page corollary is to “put answers to immediate questions above the fold.” Someone who is coming to repurchase a product shouldn’t have to scroll down before they can login. Those visitors coming for a sale should see a link to the sale page at the top.
Visitors ready to take action should see options immediately. Visitors who are browsing or looking for education on your product or service (top of the funnel) are more likely to scroll down.
3. Always Have A Minimum Of Three Answer Choices, But No More Than Five
On a home page, it’s hard to know how many options to offer. However, if you could narrow your choices to less than five, you’d be doing very well.
If a multiple choice question was a home page, it might look something like this:
Oli Gardner of Unbounce uses the metric “Attention Ratio,” which is the ratio of total possible actions (links) to desired actions. It shouldn’t be hard to calculate this for your home page.
If a home page looked like a typical multiple-choice question, it might look like JShoes.com.
The J Shoes home page gets pretty close to “five or less” choices. Unfortunately, the big graphic in the center isn’t clickable. The little arrows in the upper right of the hero shot don’t work in Chrome.
4. Vary The Position Of The Correct Answer
On your home page, don’t vary the position of the correct answer. For returning visitors, predictability is important. For new visitors, familiarity is helpful. Your site should function similar to other sites like it.
Familiarity will help your visitors choose.
FinishLine.com completely changed the look and feel of their website. They lost $3 million in sales in just weeks and restored the old site to their perplexed visitors.
If you visit FinishLine.com today, though, you’ll see that they have significantly reduced their attention ratio (as compared to the “Before” picture above).
6. Avoid Using Distractors With Minute Differences
Your site needs a “visual hierarchy” in which the “right” answers are more prominent than distractors. The top questions your site will answer should be the most visually conspicuous items on the page.
Anything else is a distractor.
If your web design firm recommends something like a parallax design, recommend them to your competitors. Any design the doesn’t contribute to the visual hierarchy is counter-productive. How do moving stars support the home page message for Alquimia WRG?
Over-developed websites are slow to load. This directly impacts conversion rates. No matter how cute the treatment, if your home page requires a “Loading” message, you’re probably in trouble.
8. Avoid Using Answers That State All Of The Above, None Of The Above, Or A And B
One of the important jobs of interactive design is to come up with a logical grouping of pages. If you try to do everything on your home page, you are probably going to confuse your visitors.
Don’t ask your home page to do more than it should, or visitors will never find what they are looking for.
9. Organize The Answers In A Logical Order, I.E., Alphabetical, Numerical, Shortest To Longest
Logic is a good idea, but only for a portion of your visitors. In broad terms, there are deliberate decision-makers and quick decision-makers coming to your home page. You need to have answers for both.
A logical navigation and categorization structure is key for deliberate visitors. Linked pictures, search boxes and other tools that allow the visitor to jump into the site are key for spontaneous visitors.
In general, we want the answers for quick decision makers to be near the top, but can put information for the deliberate decision makers lower on the page and deeper in the site.
Don’t ask your quick decision makers to hunt for what they are looking for. They can only stand so many distractors before they bolt.
The Helpful Multiple Choice Home Page
To design a home page that gets visitors into your site, start by identifying your key questions (stems), identify the answers your visitors are looking for, and eliminate distractors.
Listen to the Column