The majority of organizations rely on the web as their primary communications channel. We take this for granted, but it's how many potential clients begin a relationship with your organization. Audiences come to your organization’s website of their own free will and have a self-guided experience. Many companies, however, haven’t realized that for potential clients, their first experience isn’t a careful person-to-person sales process, it’s connecting through digital marketing channels like your website.

Why Do People Visit Websites?

People visit websites for one of two reasons: either because they want to or because they have to. Their attitude when they use a website is massively influenced by whether they’re doing something they want to do or doing something they feel they have to do.

People who want to visit a website are usually interested in having fun or learning. They’re making an active and voluntary choice to spend time on that website. Sites like YouTube, Facebook, or Netflix - these websites are about enjoying an experience.

On the other hand, people who have to use a website are usually interested in completing a task as quickly and easily as possible. They need something specific to answer a question or resolve an issue, and then get on with their lives. Reviewing insurance information, paying a parking ticket, renewing a professional certificationthese things aren’t the most exciting, but they’re necessary. And in recent years, the web has become a great way to get these things done.

A lot of current marketing thinking focuses on how to effectively reach out to people on “want”-style websites. Most product design or cool new apps target this kind of audience. But what about “have to” websites? It’s easy to take these sites for granted and utilize the same approach as with the “want to” websites.

"Arguably the most important thing that an organization needs to understand about its website is the mindset of the people who are expected to be using it."

So, do people visit your website because they want to or because they have to? If users are visiting your website because they have to, then this blog post is for you.

People Use the Internet for Critical Day-to-Day Tasks

In its early days, the Internet was a tool for government employees and researchers. Conceivably, professional nerds. It stayed that way for a while, then passed into usage by plain-old amateur nerds (non-nerd people thought you were a weirdo if you used it; ref: 1996 film classic “The Net” starring Sandra Bullock). But that changed too. Now, the vast majority of people, nerdy or not, use the internet, especially the younger ones.

The fact that the Web has gone from being a weirdo curiosity to a crucial communication tool isn’t revelatory. But it does have important implications: it means that people expect that they can do things online that they used to have to do in person. And this means that there is an increasing burden on organizations to provide user experiences that meet today's expectations.

Ten years ago, nobody really expected to be able to pay a parking ticket online. Now, many people are disappointed if their city doesn’t offer that service. But it’s not enough to just offer the service; the service must be good.

Before the Internet, you used to get medical advice from your family or your doctor. You used to pay parking tickets in person with a check. You used to be in the office with a mortgage broker when you signed your mortgage paperwork. In all those situations, there was another person there to help you find the information you needed, to explain the parts you didn’t understand, and to make you feel supported. With the wide-spread adoption of the Internet for day-to-day tasks, all of this has changed.

Emotions Are Part of the Equation

A critical thing a website must do is respond to its audiences' needs. Depending on the situation, you might be the only organization that provides what they need, and they have no choice but to come to you. We don’t just mean informational or business needs here; we also mean emotional needs. And people who are doing things out of necessity and not out of choice often feel some level of distress or anxiety. 

You might not think your organization is in the business of providing emotional support to your audiences, but they’re guaranteed to be in some kind of emotional state when they interact with your brand and your website. For example, this UX study on healthcare portals identified that participants found choosing a healthcare plan overwhelmingrequiring multiple steps, consultation with family members, double-checking, and cross-referencing.

There’s a good chance that you’d prefer that your audiences don't feel overwhelmed, frustrated, confused, impatient, or doubtful after interacting with you. Creating an experience that doesn’t cause negative emotions is a fundamental goal of all user experience design. Today, though, we’d like to talk about a particular kind of website visitor who is uniquely vulnerable to negative emotional experiences: the user who’s already in a sensitive emotional state before they even come to your website.

The Typical Audience Is Anxious

In many industries (healthcare, government, finance, etc.), audiences feel a decidedly above-average amount of anxiety and stress. Think about the following situations:

  • A person with chronic illness looking for a new physician
  • Low-income parents registering for a food assistance program on a state website
  • First-time homebuyers reviewing details of their mortgage paperwork
  • A person trying to file their income taxes
  • A graduate student submitting a paper to an online course management system

The above audiences, and millions of people like them, need the internet to learn or do things that are critical for their lives. They’re finding themselves in situations that are complicated, confusing, or time-sensitiveand where the costs of making a mistake are high. All of these people are likely to be feeling some amount of pressure and tension. They’re probably not in the most relaxed or happy state of mind.

Your Website Is a Support System

So now that you are aware of the mindset of your site's audiences, and of the gap between current digital solutions and old-school in-person transactions, how can you close that gap? What can you do to provide that sometimes intangible but critical emotional support?

This is where the value of great user experience and design come into play. We’ll be diving into more detail on these topics in future posts, but let’s take a brief look at what they are all about.

First, many transactional sites out there today are still not being designed with audiences in mind. This shows in a number of ways. When you see a website filled with jargon, a list of departments that most likely means nothing to an outsider, and dated run-of-the-mill stock photography, it can feel almost as bad as a dilapidated, dysfunctional RMVyou dread the experience before you even get there.

On the other hand, imagine a clean site with bright relevant photos of the actual people who are serving you, a limited set of extremely pertinent options listing exactly what you are looking to get done, and easy to fill out forms with answers to all of your questions. Doesn’t that feel more like a modern, light, clean space with welcoming staff, and a comfortable waiting area? Sound too good to be true? It doesn’t have to be.

When you focus on being audience-centric, you shift away from approaches that are about your internal team to those that serve your audiences. There are a handful of pieces that go into designing a site in this manner. Let’s take a high-level look at the key components.

Clarity and Findability

  • No one likes a cluttered, hard-to-navigate site. Keep things simple. Only show what the user initially needs on the homepage and direct them to the appropriate pages for more detailed information.
  • Remember to keep audience needs at the forefront. As an expert in your particular area, you want to share everything you think audiences need to know but it will only overwhelm. Remember that they don’t need your level of expertisethat’s why they are coming to your site and ultimately, to you. Your job is to use your expertise to make their experience simpler.

Tone and Voice

  • It’s important to write with empathy when writing for an audience who is in a state of stress. An empathetic tone and voice can go a long way in helping your readers feel validated and understood. 
  • Use natural language. It’s easy to fall into the trap of using jargon, clichés, and industry-specific acronyms. Resist the urge! Remember to talk to your audiences like real people.
  • One of our former team members at Velir said it best when he told people to, “Lead with a hug.™”

Legitimacy and Credibility

  • Even though you don’t want to overwhelm your audience with jargon, it’s still important to share your expertise and establish trust. Use simple, clear language. If you have to use industry terminology, provide explanations whenever possible. And don’t forget to expand on those acronyms!
  • Increasingly, people want to be shown data, as it lends credibility and authority. Find ways to share data in a way that is easily digestible and relevant.
  • Real content, drawn from your organization.
    • Quotes: Adding quotes from real people humanizes your site. It also provides multiple viewpoints and voices, helping round out an otherwise one-dimensional online experience.
    • Photos that are not obviously stock photos: If you’re trying to create authentic experiences, invest the time to get photos of real people from your organization (don’t forget to get signed releases though). Allow people to see the faces behind the organization. Video content is another way you can establish even more of a personal rapport with your audiences. Even though this requires more effort, it goes a long way towards building trust.

Don’t Forget the Person on the Other Side of the Screen

It’s not always easy to remember your audiences when you don’t see them. Often, common courtesies are lost online, not because people don’t care, but because people don’t remember or aren’t programmed to do so. This is likely because the web seems like an entirely different way of interacting with one another. So when you write, it’s easy to ignore that there may be a distraught or distressed person on the other side just trying to get information or help. If you saw such a person on the street, you’d likely stop and offer to help them.

Even in non-critical situations, such as when a tourist is looking for their destination, most people are willing to stop and point them in the right direction. But when we create a website with subpar navigation, we’re essentially forgetting what it feels like to be lost. So, next time you sit down to design or write for your site, remember the individual you are trying to help. Know that the extra effort you exert to ensure that they can more easily and efficiently do what they need to get done has a significant impact on their day, and possibly even their lives.

Read more of our thoughts on user experience and content strategy. If you have an idea you'd like to explore or complex digital problem you need to solve, reach out to learn more about how we can help.