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By Liz Warren-Pederson

Joe Valacich

Professor of MIS Joe Valacich applies behavioral theories to inform website design.

Much of the conversation about good web design is dominated by a mixture of the practical (navigability, how quickly a pages load) and the aesthetic. But for the past ten years, professor of MIS Joe Valacich has dug deeper. “The question is, is there more to it than that?” he said. “Is there a right way and a wrong way to design for the web?”

In a series of papers, Valacich has applied behavioral theories to inform design. “What we’ve been doing is leveraging theory to guide design, and testing the results,” he said.

One paper, for instance, addresses the application of the conditions known to influence impulse buying behavior in consumers to an e-commerce environment. Valacich and his coauthors designed a test in which they sent consumers to buy a particular cell phone accessory at one of two websites. The products were the exactly same, but the websites were dramatically different in design. “We found that as the site design improved, the buyers increased the magnitude of purchase,” he said; for instance, spontaneously adding a bag to the case that the testers were sent to purchase. “This is basically applying the same kind of experiments that have been run in the mall to the web.”

Another paper focuses on the testing of signaling theory — the idea that consumers assign attributes to an unknown product based on the things that surround it — in an e-commerce environment. “All organizational websites send signals to customers,” Valacich said. “These signals influence perception of an organization’s quality and credibility.”

These papers, he said, “are about rational theory versus aesthetic judgments alone. There’s more to design than just looking pretty.”

More recent projects have delved into design personalization, which has its roots in stage theory, which breaks down the relationship lifecycle into a series of steps, starting with initial attraction and running through to cessation. “At different stages, different things matter,” Valacich said. “Web interfaces have suffered from an inability to satisfy the multiplicity of users’ needs.”

Different users, he points out, come to the same website for different needs. Thus, companies including Amazon, eBay, and Google employ data mining technology to customize individual users’ content based on past behavior; for instance, recommending a book based on past purchases. But there’s more on the horizon.

A recent paper coauthored with doctoral student Ryan Wright of the University of San Francisco explores what the two call personalization 2.0. “The goal is real-time, dynamic tailoring of the web interface to meet the unique needs of each customer,” said Valacich. “Through real-time analytics, a site can determine why the user is there within three clicks, and combining that data with past behavior, can present a custom interface.”

Through this strain of research, Valacich has developed what he calls the online consumer’s hierarchy of needs. At its base are structural concerns of the website, such as security; the midsection is functional, including ease of navigation; and the top level is aesthetic, or representational delight. “Often these needs are in direct competition with each other,” Valacich said. “For example, more graphics on the design side will increase the load time.”

Understanding the different types of web interfaces — utilitarian/task-oriented, hedonic/experiential, or a hybrid of the two — can help managers allocate resources between those competing interests.

“There is more to design than making something look nice,” he said. “The process needs to consider why the user is there and how best to meet their needs.”