Satisficing: Quickly Meet Users’ Main Needs

by Kathryn Whitenton on March 30, 2014

Summary: Unless faced with life-changing information, most site visitors won't read all of the content provided but settle for a “good-enough” answer. Better sorting and clearer writing satisfy users without exhausting the limited time they’re willing to spend on a website.


The amount of time a person is willing to spend on a site varies widely depending on their circumstances, the type of problem that they’re trying to solve, and their individual characteristics. Some people are naturally inclined to pore over every last word, and even the least detail-oriented person tends to spend more time when she is especially passionate about something, or if it involves significant financial or personal consequences.

Those circumstances exist, but a far more frequent scenario is for a user to arrive at a painstakingly designed page—which a team of designers may have spent weeks fine-tuning to fit in valuable, meaningful content—and spare it only a cursory glance before clicking through to the next page. (The average page visit lasts less than a minute—but many are 10 seconds or less.)

Satisficing

When faced with a decision, we can either take the time to find the best answer, or we can decide to settle for a ‘good-enough’ answer, and get on with our lives. Psychologists call this latter strategy satisficing, a combination of the terms ‘satisfy’ and ‘suffice.’

Definition: Satisficing means settling for something we know may not be the best possible choice, but that at least meets our essential needs.

Because of the sheer volume of information and options available, it’s often literally impossible for people to evaluate and compare every possible choice—we could spend the rest of your life shopping for the perfect vacation rental, but then we would never actually get to go on our vacation. Certainly high-stakes situations can inspire people to investigate more thoroughly, but most of our actions on the web really aren’t life changing. In these everyday cases, time constraints and low risks mean that finding the perfect answer just isn’t important enough to justify spending a lot of research time. This is when satisficing usually kicks in: people take just enough time to identify at least one reasonable option, select it, and move on.

Unless your site is about life-and-death decisions, many—if not most—of your users are going to be satisficing, and understanding this mindset is critical to helping them be successful.

In fact, satisficing is so ubiquitous that it underlies many of the fundamental usability principles for writing on the web, and allowing users flexibility and control.

A Satisficing User Experience

If there were no cost to conducting infinite research, users would probably aim for perfection every time. But of course, every user interface imposes an interaction cost  on every step the user takes. Users subconsciously have to make the tradeoff between these costs and the added benefit of locating an even better answer by staying on the site longer. That’s why they satisfice.

If you do want users to engage more deeply with your site, there are two strategies:

  • Lower interaction cost: make each step easier, and users will walk further. Most traditional usability guidelines aim at this strategy.
  • Higher benefits: ensure that users can quickly get some pretty-good information. Recognize that users will be satisficing and boost their outcome.

Of course, you should pursue both strategies simultaneously. Since we’ve written so much about the first approach already, here are some ideas for the second one.

Writing for Satisficers

We know from eyetracking research that most people don’t take the time to read every word on a web page.  The strategies that people use to scan text and skim headings are really just examples of satisficing: trying to get ‘just enough’—an understanding of what the author is saying—while spending the minimum amount of time.

Classic principles of good writing, including descriptive titles and inverted-pyramid structures, all help satisficers extract the meaning from text as quickly as possible. It’s great to provide rich, detailed information, but succinct summaries are essential for attracting satisficers. If it requires a lot of effort (i.e. reading to the end of a full paragraph) to understand a site’s offerings, many of its visitors will never even realize what’s available.

Sorting Helps Satisficers Quickly Identify Good-Enough Stuff

Sorting takes a list of items and reorders it according to one or more criteria. Each criterion needs to be ordinal, meaning that its values can be ordered from smaller to larger (or vice versa). Giving users the option to sort their choices lets them control the content presentation and adjust it to best meets their needs.

Sorting is enormously helpful to satisficers because it means that whatever they are looking for — the most popular, the cheapest, the most highly rated, or the most recent — will be shown right on top. No scrolling or paging through dozens or hundreds of similar items, just immediate access to one that will be perfectly adequate to meet their user needs.

Of course content should be sorted by default into the order that the majority of users want, but quite often there are other sorting dimensions that are just as helpful to certain users. For example, the Getty Images website, where customers can purchase stock photos, by default presents images in order of relevance to the users’ search query. Relevance is one of the most common sorting criteria, and people are accustomed to relevance ranking due to their experience with web search engines like Google. But Getty Images also offers visitors the option to sort images by chronology and by popularity. Chronological sorting will benefit frequent visitors to the site, who may already be familiar with older images and may want to find out whether anything new has been added. Sorting by popularity appeals to customers who trust the wisdom of the crowd — the images that other users found most compelling.

The default relevance sorting probably helps the largest number of people, those who are just looking for a decent picture that matches their query. Offering multiple sorting options is a simple way to help even more people quickly find a good-enough option.

The Getty Images website uses relevance as its default sorting criteria, but also allows users to sort by date and popularity.

Conclusion

Every web page — and most especially critical pages where people must understand the scope of the site’s offerings — should be evaluated with satisficing in mind. Can someone who’s never seen the page before figure out what it’s about at a glance? Is the most essential information prioritized in an obvious location?

Once we’ve worked on a design and are familiar with it, it’s difficult to answer these questions objectively. Testing your site with representative users is the best way to make sure that they’ll get what they need.

(The full-day course on Web Page Design has more on how to prioritize information display, and the course on Writing for the Web goes into more detail on how to make the information easily graspable.) 


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