Memo from Redfin Usability Studies: Software Works, Ads Don't

In a darkened, rank room the size of a windowless van, ten Redfin folks spent most of this week peering through one-way glass at people trying to search Redfin’s site.

We expected to be embarrassed. And sure enough, I was often flushed at all the ways we could have made our software simpler. But what we really learned was that people were remarkably good at listening to our software, just not our marketing.

Every time we tried to give the usability subjects an ad on our own site about how great we are, they didn’t merely dismiss it or bypass it. They didn’t even ignore it. They never even saw it.

It was eerie, like an Oliver Sacks experiment. We put up ads about Redfin’s home tours, and then after asking these very clever, web-savvy people if they saw anything about tours, watched as their cursor orbited the ad in a long, fruitless search.

Engaged in an arms race where ads now run in once-thoughtful places like elevators and in bathrooms, people would probably grow another organ to block ads, perhaps a new elaborate eyelid, if the mind hadn’t already blinded us. The region of the brain that formerly handled music or speech is probably doing ad-blocking full-time.

(I spend a lot of time trying to imagine what the medieval mind was like, uncluttered by ads.)

But even today people can still see just fine. When we exposed a button for scheduling a home tour, the usability subjects went right for it, because it was part of the software.

Folks previously engrossed in our search site were suddenly making quantum leaps of deduction about our business model: “you have a tours button, so you must have agents in addition to a website, so you must make money as a brokerage, probably splitting the commission since it’s partially on the web.”

An ad couldn’t have said it better. Our jaws were on the ground.

What that means for us is that we have to build better software, not better ads: a home-buying application that guides people all the way through escrow, rather than a search site that reels customers in so it can show them an an ad for our brokerage business.

But as we emerged into the sweet thickness of a Seattle summer night, I couldn’t help but wonder about what we saw and what it means for the whole Web, half of which is built on the idea that people will come to your website for one thing, and then leave intent on doing something else.

This isn’t to say that ads don’t work. Google ads are spot-on: they show you what you’re looking for, when you’re looking for it. And glossy ads or video ads pack an emotional punch that can create tearful, fierce brand loyalties. It’s just banner ads that don’t work, at least not very well, because — branding value aside — they actually want you to do something now, when you came to the website to do something else.

I know that some websites can pull it off, diverting users very efficiently toward their sponsors. But we’ve never figured it out. Watching people in the usability studies, I wondered how anyone does.