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What Baboons Taught Me About Web Design

When designing a website or talking about our services, I learnt something from the way that animals clearly communicate in life and death situations.

For my PhD research, I followed baboons through the jungles of eastern Nigeria for a year. It sounds idyllic — living in a tropical forest watching monkeys all day.

The reality was very different.

Baboons move a lot. The forest is tangled. And the baboons rarely take our trodden paths. Very often there are swarms of insects in my eyes, ears and nose. There’s oppressive humidity in the rainy season — even at 7 am. There was often scorpions in my bed. And snakes in my boots. Every day for a year.

Collecting behavioural data with my research assistant

But I had a mission. Follow one baboon at a time and record the way they interact with other baboons. Their vocalisations. Their facial expressions. Their body movements.

Grunts are the most numerous of vocalisations. But they are often difficult to hear over the noisy jungle. And I rarely knew what triggered grunting behaviour. I struggled to understand what message the baboons were sending when they grunted.

But baboons don’t just grunt. They also bark.

One early morning our troop of baboons were above me feasting on some newly blossomed flowers.

Baboons are messy eaters. No matter what they eat, they waste much more. As the baboons moved their way through the canopy, grazing on the flowers, many more showered down around me. The ground around me was an exquisite carpet of white and pale pink rosettes. For a moment it was magical…

Suddenly several baboons barked. I then heard a swoosh and saw a massive silhouette above the baboons. A split second later baboons were crashing down from the treetops, bouncing from branch to branch. The delicate shower of flowers became a deluge of branches and leaves.

An African crowned eagle had just swooped down to grab an infant baboon from the top of the trees.

An infant olive baboon

Crowned eagles are impressive predators with a wingspan close to two metres. They are experts at snatching animals from the treetops and monkeys make up a large portion of their diet. And baboons always bark when they see crowned eagles.

A baboon’s bark is unmistakable. Harsh and loud. Unlike the ambiguous, quiet grunts exchanged in social contexts, the bark gets immediate attention, and its message is clear — DANGER!

On hearing the bark of their group mates, the baboons exposed in the tree canopy descended immediately. The infant was lucky this time. The clear message of the barking saved its life.

Unfortunately, the message many businesses communicate with their website is unclear. These websites welcome visitors and then list the services they offer or present a hundred features of their product. Nothing grabs the visitor’s attention. They are confused and leave the site. That’s another potential client lost.

I urge you to review every page of your website and determine if there is one explicit action you’d like a visitor to do. The action could be to move to another page on the site; to contact you; book an event; buy a product or subscribe to a mailing list.

If each page on your website has a clear goal, then you’ll provide a good user experience. And as you identify the aim of each page, your overall business goals will also become more evident.

So, is your website grunting when it should be barking?

By David P. MacGregor

Living and working the good life in France with my wife and dog.