The social capabilities and dynamics of web 2.0 have created a shift to self-serve, with users expecting to find content easily and complete tasks on their own. Whatever a site's conversion goal, it's now about people rather than products or services, argues Mona Patel, executive director of Human Factors International.

The essence of 2.0 is the web's transformation from a company-centric, information channel to an interactive, online community. Information and tasks that were previously limited to select groups are accessible to everyone. For example, you can book your own travel with tools comparable to those used by professional travel agents or analyse financial markets via systems that were previously only available to traders.

The conundrum facing companies is that they have traditionally controlled the way their products, services and brands were portrayed online through the design and content of their websites. With greater user engagement, today's inward- and public-facing websites require us to revisit established best practices and look at the implications of designing and evaluating social-based, collaborative interfaces.

The impact of the new interactive capabilities on website design

A site's success has depended, in the main, on how relevant, useful and up to date its content is. Indeed, creating and updating content has always been one of the most time-consuming aspects of maintaining a website.

With users now contributing content, reacting to others and creating their own experiences, the balance of power has moved to the user. Instead of 'content to people', it is about 'people to people'. Although managing content is still relevant, the new challenge for website owners will be whether to moderate user-generated content. If so, how much content should be moderated and who should be responsible for the process?

Although sites will have web pages for the foreseeable future, the emphasis will be on content design. Users are already familiar with subscribing to content via RSS (really simple syndication) feeds and even embedding pieces of content directly into other web pages.

YouTube, for example, with its video embedding capabilities enables users to share their videos with like-minded people worldwide. Moreover, as it is becoming less certain that users will even visit your site, content will need to stand on its own and in different contexts such as BlackBerrys and other mobile devices.

While user-generated content will become more important, it is unlikely that this will be the case with user-generated design. Although people can set up their own personal pages on Facebook, they are limited as to how much they can change their pages' overall design. Conversely, on MySpace, people have a great deal of control over their page layout and design, with the result that each MySpace page can look very different.

Navigation will continue to be one of the most important aspects of web design, using information architecture to organise and label information so that it is easy to find. Users, though, are increasingly relying on more socially-derived cues such as recommendations.

Collaborative capabilities are also influencing search, which has historically relied on complex algorithms based on raw data to optimise content for search engines. Now users are tagging (that is, assigning key words or category labels to) content and telling others what content is popular, related or important.

Persuasion, emotion and trust

Usability is about meeting the expectations of a target audience by designing for human limitations of cognition and perception. Traditional usability testing deals almost exclusively with the 'can do' aspect of design, for example, whether people can learn to navigate a site, access information easily or buy a product online. Just because they can do something, however, does not necessarily mean that they will.

The web is now far more than just a set of technologies and websites. It is a social medium where people expect and demand positive, emotional, online experiences that meet their needs and expectations. This requires a new take on usability to understand the psychology behind decision making and gauge users' emotional responses to a site.

An e-commerce site, for example, has to convince customers to buy from it, rather than from someone else's site, so we have to look at what motivates customers. How does the site's design elicit emotion and instil trust so that the whole experience is one that the customer wants?

While the 'can do' aspects of design are still relevant, usability must now address the much broader concept of user experience, one that encompasses people making decisions and taking actions on variables they are not consciously aware of. User experience includes how people are feeling; how they are reacting emotionally; how we grab their attention; and how a site engenders persuasion, emotion and trust.

Emotion is critical to decision making and often the driving factor starting the process. Every decision made has both an emotional and a rational component. As conversion is based on decision making, the design has to trigger emotion and justify that decision rationally.

By understanding what motivates users to keep clicking through a transaction and which graphics, buttons, colours and text resonate with them, we can improve their online experience and measure the value delivered to them.

Testing and evaluating the social user experience

Evaluating how well a site matches users' underlying needs may be a new prospect but the usability tools for this analysis are familiar. It is just the perspective of their application that is novel.

Personas have been used by designers and usability professionals for decades as concrete characterisations based on analysis of user, task, environment profiling and demographics. To gain greater insight, we have to build on these traditional personas by focusing on motivations and mindsets, rather than simple demographics. After all, you can only design for your users if you know what makes them click.

We are familiar with the basic usability test where a single user carries out tasks for a moderator over the course of an hour or so. Laboratory testing in this way, though, does not accurately reflect people’s social environments. With the new models of interaction, we also need to consider multiple tasks performed by interrelated groups of personae and how they affect each other.

Rather than concentrating on task flow improvements to performance, creating and validating persuasive design focuses on improvements to enhance motivation triggers for each type of personas. It is not about analysing emotions per se, but seeing how emotions impact decision making.

Instead of the traditional interview method where users are asked to 'think aloud' about their set tasks, data is gathered using storytelling techniques to encourage discussion amongst users.

In conjunction with eye tracking technology and heat mapping to measure where people’s attention is drawn on the screen, body language, facial expressions and other subtle emotional responses are monitored to assess the triggers and blocks to conversion.

Whether a site is informational or transactional, usability is not a matter of performance or persuasion. It is both. Persuasive design must not only be usable but also motivate and influence user behaviour through emotion and trust.

Usability testing, moreover, should be part of an ongoing programme to measure, improve and refine user experiences and increase online conversion, uptake and usage.