You’ve got a great new feature. How do you let your users know?

This post originally appeared as a guest blog on the excellent Nathalie Nahai’s website. Nathalie has since removed the blog section of her site however, and so I’m reposting it here.


Naturally, having spent months researching, designing, and developing a new Awesome Thing for your website, you’ll be wanting to shout about it. ‘What an achievement!’ you say high-fiving yourself, eager to inform the netizens of this fabulous new gift imminently to be bestowed upon them. But did you stop to ask yourself –

Wait! Hold on a second! Before we begin, you might appreciate this street photography of Tokyo. Oh, and you know what’s better than escalators? Slides! Also Nathalie would like to take a moment to tell you all about her super-informative podcast. Check it out! All of it!

Look, I’m sorry about that. You came here expecting a blog post about promoting website features, and I totally interrupted your experience to tell you about utterly brilliant but nonetheless unrequested things. Well, I think they’re brilliant. Perhaps you don’t.

And frequently that’s the problem with website messaging: we want to communicate, but we don’t want to interrupt, and we don’t know who’s interested. Yet oftentimes we’ll distract all our users with the same message, with little thought as to who among them needs to see it, or when.

Promoting a new feature

Let’s imagine you own a freakishly popular video sharing site whose content is predominately amateur video recordings of majestic animals in the wild. And you named it ZooTube.

As the owner of ZooTube, your stats tell you that most of your users come only to watch adorable animals going about their daily business. (Giraffes playing croquet, elephants hosting dinner parties, that sort of thing.) Very few users upload their own videos. If you then deployed powerful new video editing tools, should you promote them to all your users?

Probably not, unless your research suggests that the reason so few people upload videos is because the editing tools are insufficient. Otherwise, you’ll succeed only in interrupting the experiences of a majority of people for whom those tools couldn’t make the slightest bit of difference.

Now, not to sound too Six Million Dollar Man, but we have the technology! Those users who have uploaded videos are the ones more likely to be interested in your new editing tools. You could target those users’ accounts, making your promotion more overt for them, and more subtle for others.

blog-youtube

I honestly wrote all of this before I happened to login to YouTube (you may have heard of it), and was greeted with the message in the screenshot above. I have never uploaded a video. ‘Looking for your Video Manager?’ I had never even heard of the Video Manager!

At least the popup doesn’t appear in a lightbox, which would have prevented me from using the rest of the site. YouTube knows that this message isn’t that important.

Taking care of new users

Ah, now a new user lands on your website. You’ve got no idea what they’re interested in! Also, your site has lots of complex parts, so you think you’d better explain everything before the user gets all confusled. (That being a scenario in which a person is bamboozled by their own confusion.)

This user needs to get a sense of the service you’re offering, and a well-designed homepage will achieve just that. You could even produce a brief video introducing your service in broad terms, for those who’d rather sit back and watch than piece things together themselves.

But be careful of trying to communicate every single feature. Try instead to convey the essence of the product, sufficient to pique the user’s curiosity.

The reason for this caution is that our short-term memory is limited. The headline-grabber on this subject tends to be George Miller’s ‘magical number’ of seven plus or minus two; that being the number of unrelated items that can simultaneously exist in short-term memory (Miller, 1956).This number continues to propagate, though it was later demonstrated to be closer to four plus or minus one (Broadbent, 1975). However, to think in terms of numbers of items is to oversimplify the variously complex factors of perception and attention that ultimately affect short term memory.

The bottom line is that the capacity of short-term memory is both limited and volatile, and often remembers only those things relevant to the individual’s goals at the time. To illustrate this, earlier on you read two examples of animals doing unusual things. Can you remember what they were?

If you can’t, consider that so far there have been several things to remember; that your attention while reading this has been moved to other topics since the animals were mentioned; and that in the context of reading about promoting features on a website, you probably didn’t think that elephants playing croquet was an important point to remember. (Or were they giraffes?)

With these limits in mind, instead of throwing the kitchen sink of features at users the moment they arrive, wait a while, and then nudge them in the direction of those features you think they may not have noticed but might be important to them, based on their actions to date, and your research.

Conclusions

All together, aim for a more graduated, contextual, and discriminating approach to helping your users. Consider their individual experiences, needs, and goals, and tailor your messages to match.

Try as hard as you can to solve problems first through good, research-based design. Like a joke isn’t funny if you’ve got to explain it, if you’ve got to walk users through your user interface, it’s probably not a good one.

Don’t rely on users remembering numerous tips, because short-term memories are limited. If you’re nudging them in the direction of features, don’t reveal all those features in one go. If you’re walking them through a task, avoid giving them all the instructions at once; take them through it one step at a time.

And in general, try talking to users softly before wielding the megaphone.

Bibliography

Broadbent, D. E. (1975). The magical number seven after fifteen years. In A. Kennedy, & A. Wilkes, Studies in long-term memory (pp. 3-18). John Wiley & Sons Ltd.

Miller, G. A. (1956). he magical number seven, plus or minus two: Some limits on our capacity for processing information. Psychological Review , 63 (2), 81-97.