Coloring inside the lines

People who want to do a good job are more likely to follow instructions that they know they can successfully accomplish, while they’ll often ignore the ‘softer’ tasks if they can.

If you’re marketing a product or an idea to a group of people and you juxtapose two ideas–one obvious and simple while the other is challenging and subtle, you can bet the mass of people will grab the first one (if they don’t ignore you altogether).

Example: it’s easy to get people to wake up early on the day after Thanksgiving if you offer them a TV at a discount, the way Wal-Mart does every year. It’s a lot trickier to challenge consumers to figure out which one of the eighteen refrigerators you offer is likely to offer the best price/performance ratio.

The first task requires nothing much but effort and that effort is likely to be rewarded. The second task takes judgment, and the opportunity for failure is much higher.

If you’re a teacher and you give your third graders instructions for an essay, the motivated ones will listen. If you ask them for vivid, creative writing, and also let them know it must be five sentences long, in blue ink and with not one word outside that little red line that marks the margin, guess what sort of work you’ll get back? Writing in your format is easy. Being vivid is hard. It’s easy to focus on the achievable, the measurable and the simple.

I thought of this as I braved the insanity of JFK for a quick JetBlue flight. The instructions to the TSA folks probably fill several looseleaf notebooks, but I imagine that they can be summarized as follows:
Volume 1: Identify suspicious people and be on the lookout for bad people and new and unimagined threats.
Volume 2: Stop anyone with liquid in their bag.

Guess which volume got read?

The guy in front of me got busted (aggressively) for having a 4 ounce can of shaving cream. Isn’t it OBVIOUS that the limit is 3 ounces? I could hear the TSA thinking, What’s going on here!! At the same time that scores of expensive, trained teams of inspectors were focusing on interdicting the forbidden liquids, no one cared very much about ID or travel history or what that item on the x-ray actually was.

The same thing happens on your website every day. Sure, if I work my way through the sitemap and pay attention to your carefully crafted copy, I’ll probably find exactly what I need. But it’s way more likely I’ll just click on that cute picture or leave the site altogether.

People want to feel successful, but they’re often unwilling to invest the time in doing something that might not pay off.  It’s not fair, but that’s the way it works.