Learning to love your users: Successful websites focus on great experiences

Considering the web is legally old enough to buy alcohol, we still make a lot of mistakes when using it. These mistakes were forgivable 10 years ago, when the medium was young and we had to figure things out as we went. These days — given the importance of the web — we need to shape up our act. Ignorance is no longer a valid excuse.

The gravest of sins is the way we treat our users. We aren’t just rude to them– we outright disrespect them. Is it so forgettable that users dictate how successful our websites are? Want someone to fill out a lead form? Purchase a product? Call you to start a project? Guess what: those are all actions a user decides to take. You can bet they won’t cooperate if you’re mean to them.

Websites should be built with a focus on users – specifically with what they want to accomplish. Yet so many sites are self-serving: a hodgepodge of press releases, pointless bios, career listings and self-promotion – all things most users ignore or outright despise.

Great experiences lead to successful websites. Great experiences are cultivated through love for your users. Sadly, to most people, “user love” is a foreign subject. Thus the question becomes this: how do you love your users? Well, it’s not unlike dating; it starts by actually getting to people. But even before that, you must understand who your users aren’t.

Everything You Know About Your Users is Wrong

First thing’s first: you are not the user. In fact, your users are nothing like you. They don’t think like you, they don’t act like you and they don’t know what you know. Your mere involvement with the website means you know hundreds of times more about your products and services than your users. Your mom may have taught you to “put yourself in others shoes,” but what works for being a nice person doesn’t translate to the web.

In my career I have sat through my share of usability tests and they’re always a humbling experience. Months of planning, attention to detail and prioritization of usability is invalidated as your test subjects behave completely different from you expected. All of your assumptions made while planning the website turned out to be just that, assumptions.

These studies are invaluable because even those who have made a career out of usability are unsure how users will behave with a given design. If Information Architects — professionals who have masters degrees in library science and human computer interaction — can’t accurately guess the most usable way to put things together, what hope do the rest of us have?

In all fairness, making a site usable is harder than it sounds. Everyone who comes to your site thinks differently and has different knowledge and motivations. Ten users are likely to interpret the same website in ten different ways. The English language doesn’t make it easier on us either. Even the words used to label your navigational elements can be interpreted in different ways, sometimes dozens of them. To borrow an example from the classic “Information Architecture for the World Wide Web,” (Peter Morville and Louis Rosenfeld, O’Reilly, 2006) the word pitch has more than 15 definitions. Do you mean to throw? or the black waterproofing substance? Maybe you are talking about pitch related to sound?

In short, if you are planning your website based on assumptions or speculation… I’m sorry to say your site will have usability issues. Loving the user means actually talking to them.

Getting to know the users

If you haven’t figured it out by now, I am suggesting you actually have a real conversation with real people. Sound like a lot of work? It’s a breeze compared to the alternative– doing a complete redesign because people would rather listen to New Kids on the Block on repeat, indefinitely — than use your site.

The only way to be sure you’re creating an enjoyable user experience is actually meeting your users. It doesn’t *have* to be anything formal. You don’t even have to talk to that many people. Even five to ten people can be enough. You will be amazed at what you find with an hour of inquiry.

If you’re like many of the people I work with, you are currently wondering ,”Where do I get these people to talk to?” Well lucky for you, it’s actually one of the easier parts of the process.

Recruiting users

If you have been in business for any time at all I would hope that you can find at least two loyal customers who want to participate. This is a good start, but a good sampling of all types of customers means finding participants who aren’t brand advocates. That means you need to hunt down a few more on your own.

Most recruitment methods are simple. Consider the following:

  • Asking for volunteers on your website
  • Asking through your e-mail newsletter
  • Ask through social media
  • Post an ad on Craigslist

It’s not a bad idea to offer an incentive; people respond to incentives. But make sure you only select people who truly fit your target demographic. Oh, and don’t even think about recruiting family members, employees or friends.

Once you have your users ready for interview you can start to think about what to talk to them about.

Chatting with your users

I feel obligated to start this section by noting user interviews are best left to professionals. Like focus groups, surveys and other forms of market research, user interviews have the potential to provide inaccurate or misleading information if performed improperly. Leading or irrelevant questions, apparent biases and performance anxiety can all sway the answers users give you. That said, I accept that hiring a consultant is not always an option.

It’s important to ensure the interviewee knows they are not being tested, there are no right or wrong answers and you only want their honest opinion. They should feel comfortable and have no reason to try to please you.

Your goal is not to validate or invalidate existing assumptions. Don’t enter the conversation with an agenda. Instead, get to know the person you have just met. Find out what their typical day is like. What about their job (or life) is easy? What challenges do they have? How do they think and describe your product or service?

Only after you know the interviewee can you ask more specific questions about the website. By this point you should have a good report, both parties should feel comfortable and answers should be long and detailed. Now you can ask what features would be helpful, what information they need and what contexts they access the website.

While there aren’t universal questions I can give you a universal rule: Keep questions open-ended. A single question should spawn several minutes of response. Valuable information will rarely be the direct answer to your question so keep the interviewee talking. Finally, just like you were in court, don’t lead the interviewee.

Your job isn’t finished when the interviews are over. You still need to analyze what you found.

Translating what you found

At this point you should be swimming in information. You will have conflicting feedback, irrelevant suggestions and “pie in the sky” ideas. Don’t worry, you’re not going to act on all of it. Your goal is to look for patterns. What subjects frequently mentioned? What questions garnered the most interest? What terminology did your interviewees use?

Patterns are where the gold lies. That isn’t to say a suggestion by one person isn’t valid or useful, rather examine the issues shared by many before trying to solve the problem of a single user.

Evolve the patterns into a list of pain points, which you will prioritize. Prioritization is key, as you might not be able to address all issues at one time. Some issues may even conflict with others. Further, prioritization is a push-pull process. Prioritizing one element homepage removes priority from everything else. This practice will help you decide what’s most important, what to work on first and what wins when two objectives conflict.

With this process completed you will have an accurate understanding of what your users want and how to modify your website to accommodate them. Before you request (or make) any changes, it’s good to known some best practices.

Don’t forget about best practices

I hope I have made it clear that there is no one-approach-fits-all situation. That said, there are general approaches that work a majority of the time. If nothing else they will get you off to a good start.

The most important of which (in my opinion) is sticking to conventions. If there is something most websites do, you should do it too. And yes, if my friends jumped off a cliff, so would I. For example, generally accepted naming conventions are a must. It’s painful to stifle your creativity, but calling the “Contact” page “Say Hello!” will confuse users, not impress them. Stick to what works, there are better places to be creative, like that stuff that people visit the website for in the first place, what’s it called? Oh yeah, content.

A few other quickies- people expect the search box to be in the upper right hand portion of the screen and the logo to link back to the homepage. Text that is underlined is clickable and websites scroll up and down, not left and right.

Finally a great rule of thumb is to keep things as simple as possible. Question EVERYTHING that appears on the website, ask yourself if the user is looking for it, is interested in it, or if it absolutely needs to be there. Anything that isn’t a signal for what the user wants to achieve or find is a distraction and degrades their experience. Be ruthless.

It’s easy to get into the “what do I want?” trap when planning a website. I have been designing sites for over fifteen years, most often for clients and people nothing like me and I still catch myself thinking those dreaded words. When this happens, take a step back and think about the user again. Do what ever it takes to keep them at the forefront of your website planning. Come up with a fictional representation of them, draw a picture of them, give them a name, do anything to make them feel real. A happy user is much more likely to become your customer or client than a frustrated one. I guarantee the results will justify the effort.

This is a repost of an article written for Craine’s Detroit Business.