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Putting Preferences to the Test: Consumers in the Lab

We recently conducted a usability study to gain an understanding of consumers’ knowledge of preference centers and to examine how they interact with websites when setting up their preference choices. Participants representing a wide demographic sample were given a series of questions and tasks to complete related to preference centers. Most participants consider themselves more computer savvy than their peers, though some of the tasks we tested still caused confusion and frustration.

Our tests included general questions, such as what devices respondents relied on for communicating with companies. Most use multiple devices – computers, tablets, smart phones – interchanging between devices largely on the basis of convenience or proximity. We also tested specific tools related to preference centers, from general ways to navigate a website to specific check boxes and/or links that companies utilize on their sites.

The basics:
In general, our respondents are familiar with preference management, even if they don’t call it that. All of the respondents are aware of the Do Not Call Registry and know how to unsubscribe from unwanted emails. The primary reason given for unsubscribing was simply too much email volume. However, some of the subjects have unsubscribed from email messages because they were not relevant. Most report that they sign up for communication because they have interest in a merchant or subject matter; it’s only when that communication is abused that users want to end communication privileges.  

Age matters:
It’s not surprising that younger respondents are more comfortable, in general, navigating the computer-based tasks. Users under the age of 30 do not rely on a discrete term for the “preferences” area of a website. Terms such as “settings,” “profile,” “account” or “my preferences” are all perceived to be interchangeable. For example, users associate the word “Account” with commerce, but they would not be confused to find other profile or preference information on an “Account” page.

Respondents 50+ can be slower to navigate webpages and also more likely to have difficulty with the terms used related to preferences. Although most could complete tasks in a reasonable amount of time without assistance, there is a notable difference in familiarity. These respondents tend to be more methodical and careful before clicking anywhere on a page.

Manage expectations:
Respondents expect any buttons related to profiles/settings/preferences to be at the top right of a page and also possibly at the bottom of a page. They also prefer a numbered process when setting up a profile, particularly a visual clue of how many steps it takes to complete the process. Users like the ability to jump or skip steps in a process if possible. They do not see the need for a ‘return to the previous question’ option.

Perceived mistrust:
As prevalent as social media use has become, users are unlikely to use the “Sign in with Facebook” or Twitter option to access a third-party site. Although these buttons are widely promoted on the Internet, most respondents have no desire to login with this method. Research suggests that the functionality and ramifications to the user of this login method is not understood. Additionally, privacy and trust issues abound over these kinds of buttons. Users express discomfort in thinking that a third-party website might use their Facebook data inappropriately, even though they are willing to share such information on Facebook itself.

Lessons learned:
Our testing found that respondents are savvy about setting preferences and changing those as their interests change. Respondents appreciate the ability to opt down instead of a total opt out of communications. Overall, they want clear communication and a process that is easy to navigate, regardless of their skill and comfort level using a computer or other device.

What this tells marketers is that your customers want to engage with you, but with limits. They are willing to set up a profile, but don’t want that process to involve a lengthy questionnaire or data form that is challenging to navigate. They are open to hearing from you, but not too often. Most respondents expect customizable communication, but anything that simplifies the process or makes communication more relevant (without communicating an invasion of privacy) would strengthen the relationship between users and organizations. Increasing relevance and supporting user communication preferences will likely increase brand affinity and increase user satisfaction.




About the Author: 
John Davidson is a researcher at PossibleNOW.

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