Substance

At the most basic level, people who use an information environment must feel safe there. Beyond that, they should feel that they’re in the right place and that the stuff they find there will be useful to them.

These objectives complement each other. Let’s say your environment sells sprockets online. A visitor looking for sprockets will feel she is in the right place if she sees useful information about sprockets, sees them categorized in ways that make sense to her, reads details that help her decide between various types, and so on. These interactions reinforce her sense of trust in the environment as she learns at her own pace about sprockets — especially if they’re thoughtfully laid out with her needs and expectations in mind. You could call this an environment structured towards elucidation: it provides substantial information organized in ways that allow visitors to educate themselves so they can make better decisions.

At the other end of this spectrum are environments structured towards persuasion. These places use various means to attempt to convince the visitor to take some action. (Usually buying something.) The environment may have the information the visitor is looking for, but it’s often nestled among marketing slogans, stock photos, “brand” materials, etc. When this approach is taken too far — with overly blunt calls-to-action, artificial pressure points, etc. — the visitor’s sense of trust in the environment (and ultimately, the brand) will erode.

Of course, these are extreme positions. Many successful environments mix elucidation and persuasion; some parts of the place may call for a higher dose of persuasion than others. The purpose of the environment also makes a big difference: a store selling sprockets will call for a different mix than a website that advertises a new movie. Visitors bring very different expectations (and tolerance) of the level of persuasion the environment will exert on them.

How do you know if your environment has the right mix? It’s easy: ask the people who use it. Can they find the stuff they’re looking for? Once they find it, does it provide the right level of information? Does the environment give them the information they need to make decisions? Can they act on those decisions? How do they feel when they’re in the environment? Do they feel like they’re being “sold,” or are they able to go about at their own pace? Etc.

Establishing the right balance between elucidation and persuasion can make a big difference in the effectiveness of an information environment. You don’t get to decide what the right balance is; your users do. Creating conditions for these people to feel respected and supported is more persuasive than any marketing slogan.