Jared Spool talks about calls to action

Paul Boag

In episode 4 of season 1 we discussed calls to action. This included a short segment from usability expert Jared Spool. Now we are releasing the full interview.

Paul: I want to talk about calls to action today, and I thought it would be a really good place to start, for you to just share what your definition is of a call to action, because I guess a lot of people when they think about calls to action are thinking about, say, making a purchase on an ecommerce site, but I’m guessing your definition would probably be broader than that.

Jared: Yes. I think, in a bigger picture, the call to action is a stimulus that basically creates a response of taking something to the next level or step. It could be something very explicit like “for more information click here”, or it could be something very very subtle that could be an image that says “oh wow, ok, this feels like I should go here next”. So it’s hard to say the subtle thing is not a call to action – it may not be an effective call to action, it may not call out to people, but from a behaviour standpoint, I would say that a call to action is anything that actually has the stimulus and response, so you can point to something and say “this is the call to action”, but if people don’t click it, it’s not the call to action.

Jared Spool

Paul: So it’s only a call to action if it actually works.

Jared: Exactly. And that’s where you get into trouble, right, is because folks confuse what they would like their call to action to be with what actually is the call to action.

Paul: Yeah, because it’s often very easy on a website for you to introduce an element or something into the design that actually overrides what you think your call to action is, and sets users off in a different direction.

Jared: Yeah, that would be one thing, or to make your call to action so subtle or so unappealing as to not actually call anyone to action.

Should every site have a call to action?

Paul: So on that basis, do you believe that every website should have some form of call to action? Are there exceptions, are there some sites that shouldn’t?

Jared: On a theory basis I would think that websites don’t need calls to actions, but it depends on the purpose of the site. An example is a site which I used recently to figure out what we were doing. It’s called timeanddate.com and its entire purpose is to tell you what the time in the date is in any place in the world. So I could put in the time that you wanted to schedule a meeting for in the UK and see what time in Boston that would be on a specific date. It’s very clever, it takes into account time changes because of daylight savings time, you can pick a date in the future and get the exact time and not have to worry “gee, does the time change happen then and there?”, stuff like that. So it’s actually a very useful site, and by itself it really doesn’t have a call to action. You go, you look up the time and you’re done. There’s no next step, no “call us if you want more time” type thing. On the other hand it has advertising on the page, so at some point these ads need to have a call to action in them if it’s going to make enough money to support its efforts. This is where it gets a little tricky, right, because the advertising call to action is actually not at all related to why I came to the site. The advertising people will say “well if it’s really targeted advertising it’ll be great.” but the problem is what the hell is the targeted advertising for something that tells you what the time is? “Hey, need time… later?” “Are you looking for more free time? Click here for more free time!” Um… I’d actually click there for that.

Paul: Yeah, I would as well!

Jared: So I think there are actually lots of sites out there that don’t have calls to actions. A blog would be another one that wouldn’t necessarily have an explicit call to action.

Paul: But don’t you think even with something like a blog, you know, the person writing the blog is wanting to draw people in? So a call to action might be to read a related article maybe?

Jared: Maybe, maybe. I think a lot of people write blogs because they want to write. Not because they want to be read.

Wordpress.com homepage

Paul: Yeah, that’s a fair comment.

Jared: I’m not 100% sure that there is a call to action, I’m not even sure that if I have, if I have this killer topic and my fingers just exude this brilliance and I get it into a blog post and I post it up there, and it’s the most brilliant thing I’ve ever written and everyone agrees it’s the most brilliant thing I’ve ever written, yet it’s unrelated to everything else I’ve ever done, it doesn’t need a callout to action. I think we lock ourselves into this idea that everything has to have a call to action, and then we start to scrounge around and dredge things up from the bottom of the barrel that maybe shouldn’t be dredged up. So in the early days of UI design, a guy named Harry Hersch did this brilliant study about icons. In the study he measured 2 things. He measured how long it took someone to recognise the actual function that the icon was trying to communicate, and he measured how long it took the team of designers to figure out what that icon should have on it. And he found out that there was a direct correlation between the 2 times. That the longer it took someone to figure out what that icon did, the longer it took the team to actually come to a conclusion as to what the icon should be. And I wonder if call to actions have the same correlation; that if it’s not obvious as to what the next call to action should be, then maybe it’s not a very good call to action for that particular moment.

A difference between calls to action and next steps

Paul: Yeah. I mean, there’s a degree that you don’t want to leave people at a “dead end” on a website, that it’s good to provide some kind of guidance as to where they should be going next or where they should be looking. I come across a lot of examples, especially on some of the large university websites I work on, where you go down some rabbit hole and find yourself on the vice-chancellor’s letter telling everybody how important the web is, and that’s a complete dead-end. There’s nowhere else to go and it’s like, well, your user might as well leave at that point. So maybe there’s a difference between calls to action and next step.

Jared: I think the distinction is, to me a call to action is on the provider’s side. It’s “this is what we want you to do next”. What happens on the dead ends in university websites is more on the receiver’s side. It’s “Jee, ok, I’ve figured out that this is exactly the right course that I want to take and this professor sounds amazing, now how do I sign up for it? That’s where you get yourself into trouble. There is no logical next step, which I wouldn’t consider to be a call to action, I would consider that to be “ok, what is the user supposed to do when they get here?”, which is, if they love what you’ve said, how do they continue down the process of their goal? They didn’t come to the site to say “I want to read the most incredible economics course description I can find, and then I will consider my day a success”. That’s an unlikely end goal. So the end goal is “I want to register for this university” or “I want to sign up to this class” or whatever it might be, and we need to take that full experience into account. But, I think it’s a bit disingenuous to refer to that as the call to action because to be the call to action is sort of this siren of “hey, don’t waste another minute, you need to sign up now.” It’s that sort of late night TV infomercial “supplies are limited, operators are standing by, call us right away”. Do they have those things in the UK?

Paul: We do, but they’re nowhere near as good, I mean, the ones in America just make me cry with laughter.

Jared: Well, most of them aren’t that good. A few get into the “it’s so bad it’s good” category, but for the most part…

Paul: Ok, I can see where you’re coming from with that because I guess there’s a need to differentiate in some ways between the user’s needs of what the user wants to achieve on the site, and what ultimately I guess what the website owner is wanting the user to do. They are two subtly different things. Ok, so bearing in mind that can be one common mistake, another is what you were saying a minute ago about putting a call to action where really one isn’t necessary, but I’m interested in your opinion on what other common mistakes people are making when it comes to calls to action, what are the big howlers?

Jared: I think one of them is not framing the call to action in terms of something that’s actually inciting and interesting.

Paul: Yeah. “Sign up for our newsletter”. What am I going to get from it?

Skype homepage

Jared: Exactly, or “Enter your email here”. Yeah, so I think that’s a big one. Another one is making it sound appealing, but making the process of obtaining whatever that thing is an obstacle. So, for instance, asking for things that obviously seem unrelated, like if I’m signing up for an email newsletter why do you need my phone number? Why do you need my date of birth? It’s interesting because I know in the United States and I think it’s true in in parts of the EU and other places, you need to establish that someone is of age in order to collect information. So one way they do that is to ask people to enter, you know, it’s ironic that you’re supposed to enter a date of birth, and if you’re underage, you’re not supposed to have entered that. The problem is that consumers are actually unaware of the law. So people are like “you just asked me to sign up for this special offer, but now you’re asking me for my date of birth? Are you going to look up my credit records? What are you doing with that information?” and it makes them very weary. So trying to keep that information as minimal as possible is absolute key and in some cases you might not want to ask for any information even though the marketing people are going to say “no no no, we need the region”. If for instance you’re going to give people a free PDF to help them solve all their world’s troubles, maybe you shouldn’t ask for any information until they’ve read the PDF and then say “hey, there’s more stuff like this, i can send it to you if you give me some more information.

Staged calls to action

Paul: Yeah, so it’s taking people through a series of small steps so they become more and more committed to the idea.

Jared: Right, Seth Godin tells this story about if online marketers were to try and find a bride, they would walk into a bar and they’d walk up to people and say “will you marry me?”, “will you marry me?”, “will you marry me”, and eventually someone will say yes and that’s the theory, they’ll just keep on asking people until they say yes and that’s sort of the approach that a lot of online marketing takes, is “hi, my name is Seth, will you marry me?” or “hi, my name is Seth, I’m awesome, will you marry me?”, right? That’s not a way to get a long term relationship that really is productive. There is a key element to this, you want to break it down into as small pieces as possible and really make it feel to the person like they’re not putting anything at risk to continue talking to you.

Paul: That fear is kindof a fear of what you’re going to lose by doing this call to action whether it be your privacy or whatever else.

Exactly. It’s your privacy, signing up to a lot of spam, is my email address going to be sold to people, there’s all sorts of things that happen in there.

Paul: Yeah, I remember one of the ecommerce sites we work on is a website that sells frozen ready-meals to old people, and one of the big things you have to overcome with that is “who’s this person that’s going to be turning up at my door? Is it someone I can trust? I don’t like opening the door to strangers.” You’ve got a vulnerable audience, you need to do objection handling I guess.

Jared: Yeah, even little things like when Amazon introduced the one-click capability. They found they got a lot more people to click on the button if they put a little bit of text underneath it that says “You can cancel your order any time in the next 90 minutes”. All of a sudden that button felt safer. These were people that were ready to buy but were afraid that they weren’t 100% ready, so this 90 minute window was really really important.

Improving your calls to action

Paul: So this brings us onto how we can improve calls to action. Are there certain things that you think are good practice. You mentioned there an example of essentially reassuring the user. What about things like wording of calls to action, or what happens after you click on one? What are the areas people need to focus on?

Jared: I think there are a couple of things. One is that you have to be clear on what clicking that link is going to deliver. You have to mitigate any risk, so you have to have message that says “look, we’re not signing you up to be trapped into something. This is safe.” And then when you get to the next page, it can’t have any surprises on it. It can’t suddenly be asking for things that are unrelated, it can’t appear to have 6 more steps to get the thing done. If you said “oh, it’s as simple as clicking here” and then the next thing you know it’s a 20 minute process, you’re going to see high abandonment, and it’s not going to help your brand experience. Whatever it is, you need to under-promise and over-deliver. One of my favourite things about Zappos is that they have set up their distribution centre within a stonesthrow of the UPS facility in the United States in Kentucky, and you will be able to get discounted shipping or in some cases free shipping for 2-day delivery. In 80% of the cases, whatever that product is it will show up in a single day even though you would have paid more money to get it in that single day. You can order something at 10o’clock on a Sunday night and it will show up on Monday. This is in a world where if a consumer tried to ship something on a Sunday in the United States, they wouldn’t be able to because all the shippers are closed, but for businesses they’re not. They pull that off and that sort of thing cements relationships.

Zappos homepage

Paul: Absolutely. Zappos do so much right in that regards. Going back to the whole fear thing and that there’s a 365 day return policy and they pay the delivery going back as well as being shipped out, and things like that make such a big difference.

Jared: They do because they’re all about reducing the objections to actually buying something. People for instance who are buying shoes are anxious about the fact that what if the shoes don’t fit because if you’re in the store you might try on 10 pairs of shoes before you finally find ones that work. So if I buy these shoes and I have to ship them back, I have the hassle of shipping them back, I have to pay to have them shipped back, I’ve paid for things I’m not going to have any value from, whereas Zappos turns around and says “not a problem”.

Paul: More and more I’m beginning to realise with this kind of thing that the consequences of all this go way beyond the website. The website, when it comes to calls to action and fulfilment of those calls to action, it’s something that ripples through the whole business. The reason that Zappos is so successful is not because they’ve got a great website so much as they’ve got all the great stuff behind it backing it up, and I think that’s a key component in all this.

Jared: It absolutely is, it is truly about the entire experience. People don’t segment out the website use from other interactions. It’s only the folks on the production side that segment it out because, “well, I have control over the website but I don’t have control over shipping, so I’m not going to worry about that”. But when somebody sits down and says “no, we’re going to look at the whole experience”, that’s when you see great improvements. We keep referring to ourselves as “ user experience” and “experience design”, but we keep segmenting things out so we’re not talking about the experience, we’re talking about activity design. That’s not helping anyone because we’re saying one thing and doing something else.

Paul: Absolutely. That’s great Jared, thanks so much for taking the time to do this. I wish we could talk longer but I’ve got way more than I’ll be able to fit into the show, but hopefully we’ll release this interview separately as well, so, much appreciated, thank you very much.