Why does one Web-site design — certain colors, particular icons — attract lots of eyeballs, while a site with a different design sends its visitors scrambling for the "Back" button? Web designer Steve Burnett has no idea — which may be why his designs work so well. "The great thing about the Net," he says, "is that we don't have to rely on the opinions of designers. We can measure the behavior of users. They will show us what works."
Heresy? Honesty? Maybe both. Burnett, 48, along with behavioral psychologist Mike Grisham, 53, has built a thriving firm by challenging the "rules" of multimedia design. The Burnett Group, a 25-person outfit based in New York City's Silicon Alley, works with some big-name financial clients: It helped Credit Suisse Asset Management to forge closer ties between planners and their clients, for example, and it developed a digital tool to help advisers at Goldman Sachs to assist clients with their retirement investments.
Most recently, the firm devised a new process for creating Web pages: It creates multiple test versions of a site and then places enough banner ads on search engines to draw significant traffic. Each user who clicks on an ad is linked to one version or another. Next, designers analyze the site logs: Which version holds people's attention the longest? Which one entices people to buy? Users define what good design means by voting with their clicks — and with their credit cards.
What have Burnett and Grisham learned from this approach to design? That it is very hard to come up with design rules that apply to all sites. "Most design work is centered on aesthetics," Burnett says. "We don't have much evidence that 'pretty' makes people buy things. It comes down to preferences that can't be explained." But the difference between effective design and poor design can be significant indeed. In one case, the most effective Web-site design for a medical-information firm generated three times as many purchases as the next-best version.
The firm's behavioral bent is driven by Grisham, who spent 13 years at Bell Labs, working on systems engineering and design, before joining the Burnett Group. As for Burnett, he remains an ardent defender of the designer's expertise, despite the firm's data-driven approach. "The designer still decides what's worthy of evaluation," he says. Drawing on their experimentation with both art and science, Burnett and Grisham have arrived at a set of principles for Web design.
First, be honest about what you know — and about what you don't know. Actions can be measured objectively; the reasons behind an action can't. Grisham says that during the Burnett Group's experiments, the firm's designers place bets on which version will win. "All of them have perfectly legitimate explanations for why one site is better than another," Grisham says. "But we still don't know why a specific design works best."
Second, just because everyone is doing it doesn't mean that it's right. "There is just so little innovation going on in Web design," Grisham says. "There's the newsletter look, and there's the search-engine look. Look at newspapers: They look the same because publishers don't want to scare anyone off."
Finally, think like a scientist — not like an artist. Says Grisham: "When faced with the question of which design is better, a designer says, 'I know the answer.' A scientist says, 'I don't know the answer, but I know how to find it.' All of our products have built-in data collectors that measure how much time is spent in each area and where users exit. We're looking to get answers from our users."
The Burnett Group's methodology is so logical that some clients find it too logical. The medical-information company chose not to go with the design that generated the most revenue. Grisham grins as he explains: "They liked the look of the other one better."
Learn more about the Burnett Group on the Web (www.burnettgroup.com).
Sidebar: Climb Every Web Site
The Burnett Group gives credit for its approach to multimedia design to a staff that Steve Burnett calls "an intellectual fruit salad." It includes two composers, an urban archaeologist — and a mountain climber. Robert M. Anderson, 41, has scaled six of the world's seven highest peaks. He's also inspired the firm's most high-profile pro bono project to date: a Web site that will track a group of climbers as they attempt to scale Mount Everest, with the goal of reaching the peak on January 1, 2000.
The site, called eVici ("e" stands for "everything," and "Vici" is Latin for "to conquer"), will feature live updates and photos beamed via satellite, plus journal entries from the climbers. Anderson will lead the climbing team.
Along with site sponsors Smith-Kline Beecham and Raytheon, the firm hopes to secure an educational sponsor that will help turn the site into a multimedia learning tool for kids. "Can you imagine teaching kids about mountains by letting them experience a climb interactively?" Burnett asks.
One of the site's most engaging features is an option that lets users create a digital Tibetan prayer flag. These traditional flags are painted with symbols that represent specific wishes. They are then hung outdoors, and it is said that as the paint fades, the prayers will ascend into heaven. Many climbers take prayer flags to the top of Everest.
Anderson will take the digital flags with him on his laptop and "release" them at midnight. "It's a way for us to bring along the hopes and dreams that thousands of people have for the new millennium," he says.
You can visit the climbing team on the Web (www.evici.com).
A version of this article appeared in the November 1999 issue of Fast Company magazine.