It shouldn’t surprise us that marketing has a lot to do with the brain. In some cases, marketing efforts are carefully crafted to appeal to visitors in the most logical way. In others, marketing is attempting to bypass the rational parts of the brain and appeal directly to the hippocampus.
But there’s also a simple truth about the brain that should influence many of the decisions you make about your website:
People can only think about five to nine items at one time.
That is the number of pieces of information your short-term memory can hold at one time, the number of things you can actively think about simultaneously. Your brain doesn’t really care how big the pieces of information are. You can think about five to nine digits (a phone number) or five to nine words (a sentence, or a clause of a complex sentence), five to nine people (your family or immediate circle of close friends), five to nine ideas (the tenets of your faith or the goals of your company).
But that five to nine range is important. It’s hard-wired for humans. If we need to keep our attention on more different things than that, we have to group them into five to nine categories. If the information in question isn’t that important to us, we won’t make that effort.
The navigation of your website
This is a key example. If you give people too many choices in the navigation, they can’t make a decision. You need seven choices at most. People will settle in and look at lots of pages if you’re offering them valuable or entertaining content.
But not if you ask their brains to do things that are hard work.
They are surfing the net, drinking coffee, checking out your website — and if you’ve set up your navigation correctly, they may push those buttons and look at your other pages. If not, they’ll just click on to something else.
So when you plan your website’s navigation, you don’t want ten buttons. You don’t even want nine, since that is pushing the range. Seven is the magic number which is really comfortable for the brain. Five is the number that begins to feel like a bunch of choices. You want five to seven. Then your visitors will be likely to push those buttons and move on to another page, on which you can have five to seven more buttons.
If it is hard for you divide your offerings into five or six or seven categories, then it is time to be very grateful that you have a human brain. Human brains are very good at sorting. Write down all the buttons you currently have or are planning to have onto index cards, one word on each card. Then put them in piles. Keep trying until you have them in no more than seven piles. Determine what the items in each pile have in common. Those are the labels for your buttons.
Your brain has now allowed you to pamper the brains of your visitors by furnishing them with the number of choices they can actually think about at one time. Your website will thank you. Or it would, if it had a brain.