OK Cupid and Human Experimentation

We had to fill out long forms when we used human subjects in our experiments back in grad school. Among other things we had to list ways in which our subjects might be physically harmed or psychologically humiliated. I was in Linguistics, and there’s scarcely any radiation or microbes involved in language experiments, so we had to think seriously whether it would humiliate a person to be asked lots and lots of questions about the precise meanings of multiple sentences discussing rabbits or perhaps presented with lists of words and then quizzed on them later.

This was before the internet. Now we run experiments on people all the time with our websites. Since these experiments are completely anonymous, we don’t have to fill out any forms.

OK Cupid, a dating site, got into trouble for this. They had tested removing visitors’ photos, and had learned that people who used their dating site were easily influenced by looks (I know — we’re all amazed).

They were doing a little usability testing, and it seems quite reasonable and ordinary to me, but apparently lots of people felt that OK Cupid was toying with their emotions.

Here are some common experiments websites run:

  • Do people click more when an element is at the top of the page or the bottom?
  • Does the color of the button make a difference?
  • Do people have trouble reading text with low contrast?
  • Is this photo more likely to be clicked than that one?
  • Does this sidebar increase sales compared with that one?

I could go on and on. We do this all the time. Feeling toyed with?

OK Cupid’s co-founder, Christian Rudder, pointed out the ubiquitousness of the practice to the outraged news media, and they promptly got outraged about all that A/B testing.

Why do website owners and managers do A/B testing? It’s because we want to bend people to our will. And because we want them to enjoy it.

We want to give visitors a great experience, of course. We want them to be able to find their way through the website easily. We want to minimize friction and make it easy and enjoyable to shop or explore. We want them to buy things, donate to our causes, vote for our candidates, or hire us.

Web visitors want that, too. Your customers and clients want the smoothest possible experience at your website. They want it to be so easy to find what they need that they feel no friction from the website. You can provide this to them only if you develop hypotheses about their wants and needs and then test those hypotheses.

Apparently, if they notice that you’re doing this, they will feel manipulated. They’re focusing on the bending to our will part, not on the excellent customer experience part, and they feel violated.

Instead, they should feel cherished. We care enough about our visitors to go to all kinds of trouble to give them what they want and enjoy. A/B testing allows us to find this out without inconveniencing them.

Embrace A/B testing on your website and the websites you visit. It’s not evil.






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