Persuasion, epistemology, gnosis

'… there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don't know we don't know…'
Donald Rumsfeld, former U.S. Secretary of Defense
Ok, so it's fair to say that comparisons between understanding your website's performance and international intelligence gathering might be a little over the top. It's also fair to say that Donald Rumsfeld might not have quite the same cachet as Lord Kelvin* or Lord Leverhulme** when it comes to marketing wisdom quotability.
However, Rumsfeld does, in his own roundabout way, get to the heart of a problem.
Websites are complex systems, and while you are in on part of the action – setting up marketing campaigns, performing usability tests, designing user experiences you think people will like – there's a large component of the alchemical process by which leaden visitors are transformed into golden customers that is hidden from us unless we open our minds and squeegee our third eye (as the late Bill Hicks would hate me for saying).
Visitors are difficult, Yeats
So, this isn't a secret, but it is a difficult truth to accept: Your website offends the sensibilities of a million different users in a million different ways. Here are a few to mull over:
It took longer to load that they were expecting. You use too many exclamations when promoting your latest offers. You don't use enough exclamations when promoting your latest offers. Your stuff is expensive. Before they browsed your site they were looking at Facebook, and that site is so much nicer to look at than yours. You have a big Twitter badge and they think Twitter is a fad. You don't have a Twitter badge so they think you're behind the times. Your blog posts are facetious and wordy. Your product photographs are too big. Your product photographs are too small. Your editorial chattiness conflicts with your secure shopping credentials so they wonder if you're really cowboys who'll ride off into the sunset with their credit card details. You aren't You are Your Adwords ads are poorly written. Your Adwords ads dump them on the homepage when they really want to be on the page for Tefal chafing dishes. They don't like your colour scheme. You just don't feel right.
And on, and on, and on…
Try not to despair, yet
So, the first thing that will probably strike you if you consider all of those reasons is despair. The second thing will be that they occupy such a range of prejudices that you can't hope to figure them all out with one method – you need the spies on the ground and the Predator drones in the air, as it were. And that, I'm pleased to say, is the purpose of, and of this blog.
The known knowns and the known unknowns
After four years as Google UK's lead web analytics consultant, two things stood out to me; firstly, that my prose style and Google's corporate blogging guidelines were wholly incompatible, and secondly, that having a product-focused approach to improving sites leads to tricked-out source code on pages people still hate. If you allow your thinking to be limited by the tools you have implemented, all you'll ever know are the things you know you know (and maybe if you're good, the things you know you don't know).
The unknown unknowns
So how do you go about uncovering something as insubstantial as an unknown unknown? Unfortunately, the answer is you have to change the way you think, which is a lot more difficult than installing new software or paying a license fee.
Because the main thing that you don't know that you don't know is what your customers actually think. Their minds are an undiscovered country, and it's only by journeying into that unexplored terrain that you will go beyond minor improvements in fortunes and petty prettification.
So, do whatever you have to to take yourself out of your own mind and into that of your visitor: brew the yage, throw open the doors of perception, maybe do a spot of surveying. It may even be necessary to seek the advice of a (hopefully) wise and nigh-shamanic third party, who doesn't feel burdened by the same baggage of knowns that you're required to carry around with you.
Effective persuasion isn't just about figuring out where you're broken and despised, it's about trying to figure out how to make people love you, which is seldom easily accomplished. Cliché pedalling writers are fond of quoting Lao-Tzu's saying that 'a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step'. What they often forget to mention is that sometimes before you can take that step, there's a gate you have to open first.
* William Thomson, Scottish physicist "If you cannot measure it, you cannot improve it"
** William Hesketh Lever, Industrialist "I know that half my advertising budget is wasted, but I'm not sure which half."
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  1. Richard
    Posted April 20, 2010 at 8:56 am | Permalink

    The other point that Rumsfeld missed is the 'unknown knowns' – the things that you do know but don't realise you know, for example because you don't join up the data to see it, or even know that you have the data. 

  2. philip
    Posted April 20, 2010 at 9:53 am | Permalink

    Richard, you’re absolutely right here – a critical aspect of the approach is obviously humility towards the data you have – being prepared to listen to whatever it is telling you even if those truths are uncomfortable.

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