Posts from Monday, September 26th, 2005

Milk vs. Wood Screws

Published 13 years, 4 weeks ago

Over at UIE‘s Brain Sparks, the brilliant and lovely Christine Perfetti talked recently about the 7-11 Milk test, and how web sites fail this test 70% of the time.

I’m glad to see that they intend to do more research on the topic, because I think there’s a lot more to the story than just buying milk, and I hope that’s factored into the future research.  Buying on web sites, to me, is not really a 7-11 milk purchase.  It’s more like trying to buy a wood screw for a specific purpose at Home Depot when I’m used to buying them at a corner market.

See, 7-11’s are all pretty much the same.  If you’ve been in one, you know where to find the milk.  Even if the one you’re in is laid out differently than you expect, the conventions are all pretty much the same.  Even if you’ve never been in one before, it won’t take long to get the lay of the land and find the milk.

But walk into a Home Depot and you’re immediately overwhelmed.  I want to find this one thing that’s so tiny compared to what’s in front of me!  There’s an immediate low-level feeling of futility.  Furthermore, any expectations I might have from my local market experience are useless, or even counterproductive.  And even better is when I ask for help and get sent to the wrong place, as has happened to me many a time in Home Depot.

Once I do find the wood screws, then I’m presented with a wide range of choices, and I have to determine which one is best.  Odds are that there won’t be anyone there able to help me make a decision, either; I’m on my own to try to figure out which is the best wood screw for my needs.  The feeling of futility returns.  If I’m not particularly invested in buying this wood screw, I might just give up at this point: faced with too many choices, most of which are going to be wrong, I might decide to make no choice at all.

Furthermore, it’s much easier to bail out of the buying process on a web site.  If I’ve gone to the time and effort of finding and visiting a Home Depot, I’ve invested something in achieving an outcome.  With a web site, I can just come back later.

You can probably draw analogies between the experience I just described and shopping on a web site: the overwhelming home page, the search to find something resembling I want, the misleading cues, the array of choices once I get there.  If web sites were as consistent as 7-11 stores, and online purchases were as simple as “I need milk”, then yes, a 70% failure rate would be abominable—almost unimaginable.  Neither is the case, though.

Mind you, this is not to suggest we should shrug our shoulders and accept this state of affairs.  I think that UIE has an opportunity here to identify the chokepoints (and I use that word on purpose) in the shopping process.  Done correctly, what they find could be applicable in physical space as well as on web sites.

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