Design Websites for the Users (Not the Stakeholders)

  • Mike Dolan
  • March 12, 2013

Think about websites that you visit regularly, or ones that you visited recently for the first time.  How much of the content on each page was relevant to you and your interests?  How hard was it to find the information that you were looking for?  How difficult was it to perform the task that you wanted to complete?

There are sites that we want to visit, and there are sites that we have to visit - to pay our bills, buy a product, or get informed.  Most of these websites cater to very broad audiences. We’ve all had experiences with sites that we find disorganized, loaded with irrelevant information, or just plain aggravating to use.

There’s one major reason why this happens: the site wasn’t designed for you (the user), it was designed for the masses – or worse – a company’s internal departments who had competing interests that were not aligned when the site was created.  Here are some of the telltale signs:

  • Only a fraction of the page contains content or links that you find relevant
  • The home page is littered with promotions that have nothing to do with why you came to the site
  • The navigation and section titles are named after company departments or jargon that you are not fluent in
  • It takes too many clicks to get to the content, or you need to click aimlessly to explore the site to find what interests you

If you’re involved in any way with the creation or management of your company’s website, it may not be as hopeless as you think - you just need a pragmatic way to eliminate opinions and keep things focused on the audience – not your internal departments. The easiest way to turn things around is to start by asking simple questions and let the answers determine the design and architectural decisions.  You’ll end up with a website that will give the users what they want, turning them into loyal fans who might even enjoy visiting your website.

What Does your Audience Actually Want from your Company Online? 

This is the all-important question, but don’t answer it just yet because your answer will likely be based on your personal opinion. Internal assumptions and a lack of focus on the users are what plague most websites. Stick to facts and data first and there will be room for opinions later. Here are some steps on how to keep it factual and relevant:

Review the analytics. 

Look at what’s really happening.  What are the users’ tendencies?  Break it down from different angles – for all the users who come to your site via search engines, how long do they stay on the site?  What’s the bounce rate?  How many clicks does it take before they find what they came for?   What’s the user journey for people coming from your top five referral sources? Is anyone even clicking on that giant carousel that takes up 65% of the page? After you dig through all the research, here are a few actions to take:

  • Remove or deprioritize all content that is not being accessed or searched for (de-clutter the pages)
  • Promote all of the high-demand content so it’s not buried behind too many clicks
  • Reorganize your content based on the most popular user journeys

Ask the users.

Ask your audience what it is they want from the site. Why do they even come to the site in the first place?  How do they normally get there?  What information are they most interested in seeing up front?  What tasks do they need to perform, and how frequently?  Do they understand your company’s vocabulary and how you’ve named your products and services?  Does the navigation make sense to them?  Here are some tips to address the results:

  • Use naming conventions and terminology that are universally understood by people outside your organization. Most users have no clue what your proprietary branding actually means in layman’s terms. It’s fine to incorporate branding, but you must make it sensible and intuitive for people who haven’t been introduced to it previously. Just call things what they are, and then layer in your corporate jargon later (and only if it’s critical to your brand).
  • Avoid grouping your content and navigation based on your internal departmental organization. Your website should be organized from the perspective of the end-user. Use data and input from actual users to end the internal battle for page real estate and give the users what they want, not what you want.
  • If it turns out there is a wide range of preferences across your user base, consider applying personalization techniques and/or letting users set their own preferences

Track & Monitor. 

After you employ the above techniques, make sure you revisit each consideration periodically. Yearly or quarterly evaluations will ensure that your site keeps up with evolving user preferences. Websites should not be viewed as one-time projects to invest in every 3-5 years. They’re a perpetual work-in-progress that require maintenance and attention.

  • Redesign once with a flexible framework and thoughtful foundation. Then maintain and enhance it incrementally.
  • Avoid waiting until things are dated or so unusable that you need to redesign the entire site. That’s more costly and the money would be better spent maintaining and updating a site that has already been organized thoughtfully.  The idea is to let it evolve naturally, instead of through disruptive wholesale changes.

Next time you’re on a website, ask yourself "is this annoying to use, or does it make sense?"  Your users will be asking themselves the same things. Building a brand and creating an experience involves more than a well-designed website, but it’s a great way to start pleasing your audience to keep them coming back for more.