A site’s purpose can be split into satisfying the needs of two very different groups: stakeholders and users. The stakeholders are the people who are commissioning the creation of the site — the individual(s) paying your bills (or salary). The users are the people who will actually visit the website and interact with it once created. You can be sure that these two groups will almost always have different, often conflicting, goals.
Successful sites find away to align the goals of users and stakeholders. Stakeholder goals can often be boiled down to making or saving money. Even branding websites, which are intended to build awareness, have the high level goal of selling more product. User goals are centered around accomplishing specific tasks in return for the time and effort they spend on the web.
To put this in context, on an e-commerce website the stakeholders want to sell the products they have online. The user tasks are a bit more involved and likely include:
- Browsing products to find ones that interest them
- Learning enough about the products to make a decision
- Researching the company to ensure they are trustworthy
- Purchase products or services
Stakeholders might decide their goal of selling product is more important than the user’s experience and try to to “up-sell” them throughout the checkout process. This could potentially be damaging to the user experience if users are in a rush and want as little distraction as possible. Up-selling might be so distracting it prevents some users from purchasing at all. Instead stakeholders could align their goals with the user by providing relevant but unobtrusive related products at the product pages.
Not all sites are focused on sales. In the media industry, many news websites are advertising supported. The stakeholders hope to maximize their revenues by selling the greatest volume of advertising. Users who visit the site are looking to consume information, which the advertising disrupts. In this case it seems that the two sides are at odds. The stakeholders want to show the users as much advertising as possible and the users don’t want to see any advertising. Aligning the two goals can appease both sides. By providing relevant and interesting advertising to the users you can actually enhance the experience. Most users don’t mind advertising if it is relevant to their personal interests. The problem is that most advertising is focused on volume, not relevance.
Typically, stakeholder goals are only achieved when users can accomplish whatever it is brought them to the site in the first place. For example:
- When a user finds the product they want and buys it, sales increase and the stakeholders profit
- When a user finds the information they’re seeking and initiate a request for more information on a product or service, the stakeholders get a lead
- When a user is interested enough in an advertisement to click it, the stakeholders can justify the cost of advertising on the site.
Note that in every statement above, user interaction or response in turn generated something of value to the stakeholder. Because stakeholder success is heavily based on actions performed by the user, these considerations must come first when designing. It can be easy to focus on the stakeholder as they are the one paying for your expertise, but their best interests are served by focusing on the user.
Remember that when designing you should be focusing on two groups of people, the ones who are commissioning the site to be built (the stakeholders) and the people who will be using the site (the users). Your job is to create something that delights them both.
Learning to Love the User
Great designers love their users. In fact many websites fail because they are focused on what the stakeholders need and everyone completely misses the fact the site is useless to most people. The goal of any design project, regardless of medium, is to create something actually used by your intended audience.
Loving the user means understanding what they want out their visit. Specifically, what are their goals and needs? People visit a website because they expect to get something in exchange for the effort put forth. The technical term for this is the “cost / benefit” principle, discussed in detail later in the book.
To understand the user you must start by identifying their goals — in other words, the end result they expect in exchange for their efforts. Common examples include:
- Finding information
- Booking a vacation
- Finding movie times
- Deciding what movie to see
- Purchasing a product
- Contacting a potential service provider
Rarely are users able to accomplish their goals immediately. Instead most goals are made up of smaller steps, which in turn combine to from a “final solution”. These smaller steps are often termed “user tasks”. So a user looking to buy a product online might do so by completing the following sub-tasks:
- Research brands and options
- Decide on which product to purchase
- Find the best price or most trustworthy retailer
- Navigate to the chosen retailer site and find the desired product
- Complete a checkout process
Knowing what the users goals are and what tasks will contribute to those goals allow you to easily address the usability and proficiency needs covered later in this book. Before making the goals and tasks easy you should make sure they are even possible. An e-commerce site could leave out all the relevant information about a product leaving a user without enough information to make an informed decision.
If you haven’t run into a situation where the client wants to put their needs before the users I envy you. Often times this sticking point is reduced to “I sign your checks, do what I say” ultimatums. Next time this comes up, remind your client that the user signs the clients checks; it’s in their best interests to pay attention to user needs.
Of course the goals of the stakeholders are still important (almost equally so), but there must be a balance. It is true that if the site doesn’t appease the users they won’t come and use it, but if the site doesn’t appease the owners they won’t invest the time to create it or keep it operational. It would be nice if all sites were created for the sole purpose of making users happy but that simply doesn’t alight with reality. You must design so your clients receive a return on their investment.
Make Money or Save Money
We live in a capitalist society so it’s reasonable to say that most websites wouldn’t exist at all if those that paid for them didn’t expect anything in return. As mentioned earlier that return usually falls into one of two buckets: making money or saving money. There are exceptions of course, such as changing public opinion, encouraging involvement, or other philanthropic reasons, but such cases are not the norm.
It doesn’t always have to be a direct relationship to making or saving money. A website with the goal of improving customer support might seem unrelated to financial gains. However digging deeper into what motivates improvement in customer support reveals the end goal is to increase sales (make money) or reduce labor requirements (save money).
When addressing stakeholder needs it’s important to find a balance between investment and users. I advocate favoring the users needs where possible. Some of the most innovative design solutions are created at this point in the process.
For example, you’ve been tasked with designing a site. The primary agreed-upon purpose is to generate sales leads. One approach would be to require the user to submit their contact information at some key point in the navigation process. This wouldn’t be very effective, as those who did take the time to fill out the registration form wouldn’t necessarily provide accurate (or even real) contact information. As an alternative, you could offer something of value in exchange for their contact details. Users in turn feel compelled to repay you by supplying accurate information (based on the reciprocity principle). This is a common way to increase leads a company gets in a way users can accomplish their goals as well. Specific examples of what could be offered in exchange include:
- A downloadable whitepaper
- Access to a premium tool
- A free trial of the software / service
- Free consultation / analysis / report
If you had designed the site without considering the goal of lead generation, the end result might be a site that gives away these incentives openly. While this is great for the user, it may also result in an end-product that doesn’t generate many leads. Designing with the end-product in mind — from the early stages of conception — solutions that benefit all parties involved tend to drive the resultant solutions.
Keeping Things in Perspective
Successful design requires an intimate understanding of the two key groups you’re designing for — stakeholders and users. The better you understand these two groups the more informed your design decisions will be. Knowing what stakeholders hope to accomplish allows you to better prioritize, organize and shape a website to maximize their return on investment. Likewise, understanding the goals, activities and tasks of target users with will shape design decisions, influencing user behavior and increasing conversions.
Designing without consideration for these two key groups isn’t really designing at all… it’s guessing.