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Friday, Aug. 7, 2009

I’m not an idiot, but I play one online – and so should you!

By Jeff Sexton
August 7th, 2009
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Sorry about the headline – the 80s flashbacks are getting to me.  Still, I really do “play stupid” as a Website optimizer and online copywriter.  Or at least I play ignorant.

Why?  Because all those terms and concepts you think everyone understands about your business and what you’re selling – well, you’re wrong about them!  Wrong about both the terms themselves and your potential audience.  If you think I’m mistaken, go back and watch the video again.

Or keep reading to see some real website examples. Either way, let me reassure you that way more of your website visitors just fundamentally don’t “get it” than you’d ever suspect.  Either those visitors:

  1. have no idea what the industry standard terms you are using mean,
  2. don’t really understand the finer distinctions the terms are supposed to represent, or
  3. fail to draw the all-important conclusions and emotional implications that you may be basing your persuasive messaging upon.

Any one of those might be enough to kill your chances for a conversion.

And while there are some good reasons to only mention or allude to the “features” in order to hone in on the benefits, there’s also very few excuses* not to provide links, mouse-overs, and early stage content that can guide the perplexed to a better understanding of your industry and your messaging.

How an “idiot” could improve the Black Diamond Home Page

For those of you who haven’t heard of this company before, Black Diamond Equipment makes cutting edge climbing and skiing equipment.  And before we even look at one of their product pages, I suggest you just go to their website and get a feel for how user-friendly (or not) the overall design seems.  Seriously, go there right now.  I’ll wait.

Ok, now ask yourself this:

  • Doesn’t it feel as if the company ONLY produces carabiners?  If you didn’t know the company produced headlamps, skis, tents, etc, would you ever think to look for those?
  • Did it take you a while to figure out that the pictured carabiners could be clicked on and rotated towards you?  Or was that just intuitively obvious?  What do you think the designers felt about the “obviousness” of this design.
  • If you weren’t interested in carabiners and never clicked on the “see all carabiners” link, would you ever have gotten to the pages dealing with other equipment?
  • What do you think is keeping them from simply using a persistent top navigation scheme?
  • Do you think “playing an idiot” for a day would help these guys out?

Idiot-Proofing Product Pages 101

Now let’s compare a product page on the Black Diamond site with one for the same product taken from backcountry.com.  We’ll start with a product page for a LED headlamp taken from the Black Diamond site:

BD Headlamp

What the heck is a “TriplePower LED”?

  • Is it 3-times more powerful than a 5mm Nichia LED?
  • Is it a 3-watt LED?
  • Is it an LED with 3 power settings?

By using this terminology, Black Diamond has achieved the worst of both worlds, not only is the description not enough for a non-light geek to really understand, but neither is it technical enough for a light geek to feel confident in what he is buying.

How about underlining these terms and providing a mouse-over that would show comparisons of the LEDS, their real technical specs, and usage shots, so that an average user could get a sense of the light output and a techie could see the real specs?

And what about the “NRG Rechargable battery”?

  • Is it a Lithium-Ion battery?
  • Is it Metal Hydride?
  • How much does it cost?
  • Does it improve or hurt the battery life of the light?
  • Can I buy the light already bundled with the battery and it’s charger, etc?

Finally, there’s the “single position switch.”  I’m guessing it’s some sort of rubberized button-looking thing and that you just have to keep clicking it to rotate through all 7 of the modes until you get the one you want.  But wouldn’t it be nice to know for sure:

  • That a single position switch = clicky switch, like on a Mag-Light
  • What exactly those 7 lighting modes are, and why I’d need that many modes
  • Where the button is located?

From the pictures it looks like the “single position switch” might be on the bottom of the light, but assuming that’s the case, wouldn’t it be better to link the term “single position switch” to a mousover of that picture along with an explanation of how the switch functions and what the 7 modes are?

As for backcountry.com’s product page for this same headlamp, the page is too long for me to snap an encompasing screenshot and place it here, but I suggest you go to that page and take a look at all of the content rich resources that are provided, including:

  • customer photos of the product in-use,
  • user reviews, Q&A’s, and
  • some actual, non-bullet-pointed, real copy.

But since we’re focusing on the copy, I’ve cut and pasted it below.  Read it and see how many questions this copy answers that Black Diamond’s bullet points leave unclear:

“The Black Diamond Icon Headlamp uses two different types of LED bulbs to give you ultra-bright lighting when you need it and to save battery power when you don’t. The 3-watt center bulb has three settings for light up to 80 meters. Switch to the four SuperBright LED bulbs to get a 200-hour burn time when a lot of light isn’t necessary. This combination of long-distance lighting and long burn time makes the Black Diamond Icon Headlamp a stand-out choice for everything from backpacking to climbing to night skiing. In fact, it impressed Rock and Ice so much that they gave it their Best In Gear Award.

Bottom Line: The Black Diamond Icon Headlamp provides both bright lighting and long-lasting battery life for days on the trail, the rock, and the snow.”

Even if it’s not perfect, that copy is still much clearer, isn’t it?  And understand this: the majority of what isn’t covered in this copy is covered in the user reviews, Q&A’s, etc.  In fact, I’m convinced that the persuasive power of user reviews has as much to do with previous buyers unintentionally answering other customers’ questions within the reviews as it has to do with the increased credibility of user reviews.

Also, understand that this unexplained-term phenomenon isn’t exclusive to technical products, either; it happens in product descriptions for almost everything.  I could have just as easily used tents and asked what the hell a double-wall tent is and why it should matter to me, and so on.

Reverse “The Curse” with Idiot Exercises

While “The Curse of Knowledge” can be hard to overcome, here are a few** sure-fire techniques to get you started on your journey to idiot-optimized copy:

  • Do usability testing.  Get someone outside your industry (go ahead and specify minimum industry knowledge in your user request) and watch them move through your site while recording their questions, thoughts, etc.
  • Highlight every industry term, phrase, or concept on your site, write them down on a piece of paper, and start interviewing random people on the street about them, just like the guy did in the video.
  • Willfully play the part of a 5 year old and ask repeated why questions regarding your industry terms and concepts.  It’s best to team up with a partner/colleague on this one.  Force each other to come up with answers a 10-year old would understand.

After having done any one, or all, of the 3 strategies, go back and re-evaluate your copy.

P.S.  Hat tip to Seth Godin for finding the video and creating a great blog post around it

* Actually, there’s only one excuse: you’re purposely excluding a general audience in order to tightly focus on a hard-core group.  In that case, go ahead amd talk the lingo without apologies, letting anyone and everyone else catch up if they can.  Just realize that you WILL be alienating visitors and potential customers in order to appeal to that smaller, hard-core group.

** Of course, the best sure-fire method of escaping the curse of knowledge is simply to hire an outside copywriter/consultant/optimization specialist ;)

[Editor’s note: the author of this blog is now blogging at jeffsextonwrites.com

Add Your Comments

Comments (101)

  1. [...] I’m not an idiot, but I play one on online – and so should you! Click here to view the embedded video. [...]

  2. We as professionals get so used to hearing terms related to our industries that we don’t even bat an eye when they are used. These are great ideas as to identifying which terms need to be defined.
    Using more common language to define the terms not only allows your readers/customers to know what you’re trying to say, but it also makes you appear more casual and friendly. Using jargon that people don’t understand tends to push them away from you.

  3. Jeff, thanks for this excellent post. It’s very easy to forget that our customers don’t know what “we are usability evangelists” or “our product is better because of our superior optimized search algorithms” (or whatever).

    I think your suggestions for how to force ourselves to think like our customers, who don’t, after all, live in our technology-centric worlds, are excellent, and easy to follow. Nice job, I hope everyone heeds your advice.

    Lisa

  4. W.R.T to Black Diamond,sometimes it may happen that you have(manufacture) many products but there are some product which you feel and believe are better that the other of your products.That may be the case with Black Diamond.May be they think that their carabiners is really good and will be more useful then the other ones.Or may be they think that their Carabiners has much more potential to sell in the market ,that’s why they put more emphasis on Carabiners.

  5. SEO Tips,

    While I certainly understand showcasing your best selling items on the home page, that’s not the same thing as removing all navigation to other items from your home page is it? It would be an incredibly easy fix for them to simply add a top navigation bar to the current home page design. Maybe not ideal, but hundreds of times better than the current set-up.

    - Jeff

  6. Jeff – Great reminder to read/view our marketing materials through a naive reader/viewer’s eyes. Thanks for the insightful comparison.

  7. [...] Or keep reading to see some real website examples. Either way, let me reassure you that way more of your website visitors just fundamentally don’t “get it” than you’d ever suspect. Either those visitors: – Click here for the rest of the story. [...]

  8. Fantastic post… something we are all guilty of for sure. I have caught myself making this mistake in coaching as well as copy writing. Back to basics with a call out for the uber geeks or your field.

  9. Excellent post, Jeff. I couldn’t agree with you more that those of us who work on the site or in the company can struggle mighty hard to see things from the customer perspective (and, by the way, thanks for the link to my post). I think we also easily get caught up in what I call the Tree Stump Theory, something I happen to have posted on today. http://bit.ly/41EiZb Basically, we’re so close to what we work on and our terminology that we no longer question things that are completely unintuitive to anyone who encounters our sites, products, etc. for the first time. One we get deeply ingrained, we forgot what it’s like to encounter something with significantly less knowledge, and that can lead to a lot of problems. Thanks for helping to remind us all of the downside of losing that perspective.

  10. This is one of the best posts I’ve seen. It really highlights the problems we may not even think about. Thanks, ps loved the video.

  11. Thanks Jeff – this is very good food for thought. We all strive to be customer driven in our design and copy writing, but it is sometimes easy to lose sight of the customer perspective when we speak about something that we work very closely with.

  12. Brilliant post. We get this all the time, when designing websites for our clients……..But our clients will often use the line “but my customer understands this terminology, these acronyms, my customer is from a particular niche and they all use this terminology”…….It can be hard to argue this point, the client knows their customer better than us…… Yes usability tests would be a good way to prove to a client this problem, however it can be very difficult to find users who fits the persona.

  13. [...] an issue/question that arrived in a comment to my post on Playing an Idiot Online [emphasis mine]: “Brilliant post. We get this all the time, when designing websites for our [...]

  14. [...] an issue/question that arrived in a comment to my post on Playing an Idiot Online [emphasis mine]: “Brilliant post. We get this all the time, when designing websites for our [...]

  15. Excellent post. I cant see things from the customer perspective and that`s why I show my sites to my offline friends before starting promotion

  16. I am not a native English speaker, so I use my hubbie as a proof reader AND I ask him at the same time if he understands what my blog post is all about. If he does, everybody will ;-) And no, he is not stupid, but it is simply not his field of expertise I am writing about. So, use your family to “idiot proof read” your blog posts, just stay away from seven year old geeks and nerds, they are normally more clever than you ;-) SY

  17. The key is how best to communicate to your target audience. Feedback from a range of potential customers can help a great deal. I’m amazed how different people will interpret and respond to the same web page.

  18. once again, the writer in this site is so powerfull for choosing GREAT title. Nice work!

  19. still you post a great articles, yeps.. it is how we communicate with customers and get the feedback from ‘em :)

  20. So many problems with product descriptions these days. Thanks for highlighting the main problems. If only the companies would take the advice.

  21. Some marketers describe the products in such a way to sell them.

  22. Great Info! Thanks for the post!

  23. It’s a really Great information! Thanks a lot.

  24. i like the post
    well done.
    i think a good communication and feedback play an impertant role.

  25. This is an important concept to grasp for most businesses. This is something I have always believed in and in fact I came across this idea when reading about Steve Jobs. He has mentioned several times that the power in Apple’s success comes from the ease of use of their products. He believes that most companies give the average consumer too much credit and that making the product easy to understand is the key in success. Just look at the design of the ipod, one could pick it up and be an expert in 5 mins – which is not to say that it is not a powerful product.

  26. I couldn’t agree with you more that those of us who work on the site or in the company can struggle mighty hard to see things from the customer perspective (and, by the way, thanks for the link to my post)

  27. i always try to be as basic as possible at the start but also add a table with all techie info
    works for me

  28. thanks
    Jeff – Great reminder to read/view our marketing materials through a naive reader/viewer’s eyes. Thanks for the insightful comparison.

  29. question to the video at the top: where is the relation to the article and what is ‘Chrome’ from Google *lol* ?

  30. Excellent post, point well made.

    This also relates to the challenge for engaging with clients, specifically new ones whose tech-savvy level you are unfamiliar with. In those cases, I’m constantly reminding myself to use laymen terms but at the same time not talk down to the client (who could potentially be more tech savvy then I’m aware).

    What’s the worst is people who think they are 10 times more savvy than they actually are, spewing jargon and expounding comments that make no actuall sense. How do I even respond to that!?

  31. I am so surprised to see the people who don’t know the difference between browser and search engine. Of course it is a surprising info for me
    Jeff.. Thanks for the excellent info.

  32. Will you give me the permission to post this video on my blog?

    Thanks

  33. Great article! Marketing material should really be kept as simple as possible.

  34. Marketing is the toughest part of the whole equation

  35. Great post.

    Thank so much.

  36. I always hate marketing it is such a time consuming and expensive part of business (although very important!) Any thing to make it easier is nice.

  37. Agree marketing is rough. I love the article please keep em coming especially on marketing.

    Much appreciated.

  38. We have a huge problem with this in the real estate industry, it’s funny how we forget the way we talk can confuse people. :)

  39. Playing the idiot is definitely a great way to dumb test a site. This is why you always let outsiders versus your own designers who are used to the interface to test it.

  40. Wow. You’re right. That website is awful. Not only from a conversion standpoint, but from SEO and design standpoints as well. Obviously these guys haven’t read your post yet.

  41. First of all, amazing article. I hope those website owners come here and learn something.

    Oh and I wouldn’t call you someone who plans an idiot online, rather smart!

  42. Wow, very smart for an idiot ..just kidding :p

    Playing an idiot online is one of the smartest things you can do, I remember getting many affiliate leads by asking dumb questions. Very nice article *subscribed :D

  43. I guess I’ll give this tactic a go, wish me luck!

  44. I like the idea of having Q&A section. I found this useful especially with websites that have products that user’s may not be familiars with. Some kind of pros and cons. A quick flash animation will increase the visual communication between users and the web site.

  45. Great post. I think it is all too easy when working in a specific industry to become de-sensitized to industry jargon. A lot more web designers and developers need to think like an “idiot”

  46. I got a good advice from you. thank you for writing

  47. Should you make your site idiot proof to use? (i.e making everything as simple as possible)

    This idiot tactic works really well on forums.You could ask people to check out your squeeze page for suggestions to improve it, and get sign ups at the same time :)

  48. Hey, I’ve learn on reading this article. It’s such a nice tips! Keep it up!

  49. It’s a good idea inside your article…great!

    forex neutrino review

  50. Most Peoples don’t know what is the diffrence between search Engine VS Browsers . Nice Video.

    David

  51. Jeff – Nice reminder to read & view our marketing materials through a naive reader/viewer’s eyes. Thanks for the insightful comparison.I got a good advice from you. thank you

  52. haha :) i like your article jeff =)
    thanks for the good read. i will stop by again!
    cheers

  53. A very interesting contribution should haalt marketing really slim.

  54. very interesting ..
    This discussion makes people think more ….
    good article, cool,
    I hope all can benefit …

  55. I think using a title about idiots is effective – you got me to read it and I play one online too!

  56. You have a point. I’d rather be the smartest idiot than the dumbest genius. Just saying.

  57. very good contribution, thank you.

  58. Great post, Thank so much.

  59. This shurely is idiot-proof – as far as I can tell as an Alleinunterhalter.

  60. Great post, Thank so much.

  61. yes a very good contribution, big thx.

    Membre

  62. very good post ! thank you

  63. This is a very good post and great tips too. The title of the post is so good to generate interest

    Regards
    Prashant

  64. Very well written article, in the first you think there are no problems ..but then

  65. It’s a super idea inside your article…

  66. Judging by your thoughtful post, I can confidently say that you are anything BUT an idiot.

  67. its a good and funny

  68. It’s a super idea thank you

  69. cool video!!

  70. Some times I tried to buy some product on internet, Ireally cant’t undestand nothing I read on some products!I need t konw f It’s works? not the watts,lumens or anithing lije this rubbish that I couln’t undestand.
    Keep the pmessage simple,it’s so simple!

  71. It’s a super idea thank you

  72. thank you for the great post!! rapidshare

  73. Great article.. actually it is very long.. but good information :)

  74. Wonderful article. thanks.

  75. Apart from the Information and step by step analysis of the own Website and Company-Profile, I really love the way you write in straight words. I find this problem so often on Company Pages and more and more people should get use of this techniques. For our pages, we actually let a stranger take a look on our profiles or webpages.

  76. Excellent article, Jeff. The video was a little painful to watch. I do admit, sometimes, we at Business Equipment Lease forget to idiot-proof some of our contents. This article is a good reminder! I do wonder if we need to think about use cases a little more, however. For example, who actually goes to the home page of the website just to -check it out-? People get their via a host of channels, and maybe it’s more important to look at internal landing pages that get more traffic. I don’t disagree that the home page is an important corporate presence, but when we’re looking at buyer behavior, allocation of resources to high-traffic pages is more important, I think.

  77. Wow ;)

  78. Kewlest ;)

  79. Playing the idiot is definitely a great way to dumb test a site. This is why you always let outsiders versus your own designers who are used to the interface to test it.

  80. You have a great points, especially about description, it is must be easy understood by everybody.

  81. Nice reminder to read & view our marketing materials through a naive reader/viewer’s eyes. Thanks for the insightful comparison.I got a good advice from you. thank you

  82. You have a point. I’d rather be the smartest idiot than the dumbest genius. Just saying.

  83. Cool reminder with a point in mind. Excellent article, good job.

  84. excellent article and nicely analysed.informative post n an interesting read

  85. Great post, I learned a lot

  86. It´s very funny, great video!

    Thanks a lot

  87. I must say, it’s really sad when you have to explain EVERYTHING to someone. At the same time, you shouldn’t expect the idiots to have to do a Google search in order to find out what you’re talking about when you’re trying to sell a headlight either. It’s a dilemma, yes.

  88. really Any One can think i am not idiot???? anyways your blog is nice and really work good.

  89. My firs tought was “an other idiot” but wehn I was reading the article i recognised you are an analytical mind. And I fully agree to you. Thanks for sharing.

  90. It really helps to sometimes construct our product descriptions into layman’s terms. And yes, it pays to play an “idiot” online.

  91. Google search what you’re trying to say, the terms not only allows your readers/customers to have to do a but it also makes you appear more to know you shouldn’t expect the idiots

  92. I guess I’ll give this tactic a go

  93. Nice post, I love play online too

  94. hhahahah…sound good but amazing article too….i must appreciate the author……

  95. I agree with what Elizabeth said at the beginning of the comment selection. I had never even considered this before. I think that we, as business marketers, tend to assume too much (or sometimes too little) of those that we’re trying to target. Thanks for this informative post!

  96. The article is very good and smart. It’s often hard to put yourself in the reader’s shoes. I believe too the best way is to have a more friendly and casual writing style.

  97. Great post. I think it is all too easy when working in a specific industry to become de-sensitized to industry jargon. A lot more web designers and developers need to think like an “idiot”
    .

  98. I agree with the writer.What he is pointing out here is definitely correct.But also I would like to ask you can you suggest some solutions on these problems.I knew these concepts asked in video very well.I have experienced work in SEO

  99. Agree with all points; you definitely want to make your “lingo” as user-friendly as possible and describe your services in a way that the majority of your potential customers will understand; otherwise they will think you are just talking gibberish. You will get a lot more customers that way.

  100. The Black Diamond example drove home your points. It is an intuitive thing for many marketers to “dumb things down” to appeal to the lowest common denominator. Its always a smart strategy. Leave the clever stuff for academics, marketers motivate people to spend money.

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Jeff is a Persuasion Architect, Web copywriter, blogger, and instructor of FutureNow's Persuasive Online Copywriting workshop. Follow Jeff Sexton on twitter

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