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Browsing Experiments: Mission Statement

Experiments created solely by Seth Maislin

Choose one of the two links below. (They open a new window.)

Restaurant experiment
Inline skating experiment

Mission Statement (with spoilers)
I heard a story the other day about discrepancy between the world and our instincts. Many of the instincts humans have developed across the millennia are no longer applicable; in fact, many of our reflexes and "gut feelings" can get us into trouble. The Web is one such world. I wanted to prove it.

When I explained to colleagues and friends what I was building, they often laughed. When I sent these URLs to friends before the projects themselves were finalized, they complained and were full of advice on "how to make the experience better" or "more sensible." Yet the statistics surprised me: on average, these people still looked at over 70 pages from each experiment before giving up, and some continued to the end. This isn't about sitting and watching television mindlessly. On the contrary, navigating through the virtual experiences requires the user to click on something, to interact, to invite the next picture.

So as unpleasant or even hateful as some people found them (particularly the skating experience), why did they wait for some many images to download? Why did they keep going? My favorite comment about the skating site came from my friend Lou Ann: "This is the virtual equivalent to watching a car accident."

I don't know why people are driven to continue through the site. Certainly they have better things to do. I've invented and heard many possibilities, yet to be fair I don't know the correct answer or answers. All I know is that people not only get a little frustrated, but they also send the URL to friends. The word-of-mouth traffic these experiments surprises me. Then again, that's why it's an experiment.

I am hoping to collect enough feedback from viewers to determine what makes the site work, what inspires users to keep clicking. My ultimately goal is to develop an online experience that is as along as possible and encourages as many clicks as possible. If people are stopping after 70 clicks, what do I need to do to to increase that number to 100? In fact, is it even possible to do so, or is the 70-click limit equivalent to the average computer user's attention span?

Some ideas on why people keep clicking are listed below. Not all of these are original; some come from viewers. (If you have additional ideas, please write me.)

  • Users instinctively believe something is going to happen next, and they want to see what that "something" is. The more they click, the more time they've invested, and the more desperate they become to find reassurance. Eventually they reach some threshold, the feeling of inadequacy catches up, and they stop.

  • Some people click several times because somebody told them to visit the site. Their trust in the person who sent them the URL encourages them to keep going, to "get to the end" or to understand the rationale behind the site. Thus they click longer than they might if they stumbled across the site themselves.

  • The Web experience is a browsing experience, but very few websites provide that kind of spontaneity any more. Information architect and usability experts have done an excellent job of presenting all the important options up front and neatly, making each site a collection of how-to possibilities. But browsing is the excitement of discovery. Discovering a website is only the first step, but after that the discovery is usually mapped out for you. These sites are different. There's no sense of why the sites exist, no clues regarding content or source, no sense of scope, and only a hint of activity. At first every click brings them to a new place, and they start to grasp the larger context. Once the pages become routine, there is nothing more to learn, and the excitement of browsing is depleted.

  • There is a voyeuristic quality to watching someone eat or skate through their eyes. It gives people an opportunity to study something we see every day and don't notice.

  • Most websites make it clear what comes next, and these don't. The curiosity drives traffic. In fact, many people told me they kept clicking in the skating adventure because they were waiting for me to fall down or have a conversation with someone. In fact, they encouraged me to put those events into the session to make it more interesting. I think putting in a reward system tends to make people ignore the process itself and focus on the reward they know is coming, sort of like people tuning out their environment when they drive on highways between cities.

  • Contact Seth at seth@maislin.com

    Copyright 2000 Seth A. Maislin

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