Web usability is currently determined by watching typical customers use a website, then changing the website later to accommodate future visitors. If certain high priority tasks are difficult for users to accomplish, web designers fix the problem by making the navigation more clear and simple.
What if you could skip that second step? What if the website could redesign itself?
In other words, what if a website automatically adjusted to user behavior, while they actually used it?
"Adapting Websites to Users" (June 9, 2008)
As mentioned earlier, adapting a website according to past behavior on the site, and surveys, is not new. Amazon has pioneered this site personalization approach with great results. What's new is automatic click analysis, whereby a user's mental strategy is analyzed according to what objects are selected as the user navigates the site.
Instead of personalizing the site for your next visit, auto-morphing sites will be personalized as you use it in your current visit.
If you tend to click on photos rather than text, or comparison charts rather than customer reviews, this behavioral data is collected, click by click. How you use the website now, rather than who you are according to past use and questionnaires, is what causes the website to "morph" or change.
The changes would be subtle. "Suddenly, you're finding the website is easy to navigate, more comfortable, and it gives you the information you need," [John] Hauser [professor of marketing at MIT Sloan School of Management] says. The user, he says, shouldn't even realize that the website is personalized.
The researchers built a prototype website for British Telecom, set up to sell broadband plans. The website is designed so that the first few clicks that visitors make are likely to reveal aspects of cognitive style.
For example, the initial page that a user sees lets her choose, among other things, to compare plans using a chart or to interact with a broadband advisor. "You can see that someone who's very analytic is probably more likely to go to 'compare plans' than to the direct advisor," says Hauser. Within about 10 clicks, the system makes a guess at the user's cognitive style and morphs to fit.
"If we determine that you like lots of graphs, you're going to start seeing lots of graphs," he says. "If we determine that you like to get advice from peers, you're going to see lots of advice from peers."In addition to guessing at each user's cognitive style by analyzing that person's pattern of clicks, the system would track data over time to see which versions of the website work most effectively for which cognitive styles.
Another new wrinkle is auto-morphing an ecommerce site, for it has already been implemented in various education applications.
If this technology succeeds, online shopping could become a new, and more efficient way to quickly find what you want on a complex ecommerce site. In effect, the rich complexity of the site would become invisible, and you'd see only what you need to see.
Web usability guru Jakob Nielsen has said for many years that the main thing a website should do is help the user ignore most of the site, so they could get to what's relevant to their needs. Automatic morphing sites seem like a fulfillment of this goal.