It’s easy to forget that it’s only been within the last ten years that the majority of businesses and organizations have truly started depending on the web as their primary communications tool. We take this for granted today, but it represents a powerful cultural shift in the way that potential clients or customers (let’s call them PCCs) begin a relationship with your organization: for example, people come to your organization’s website of their own volition and have a self-guided experience. Many companies, however, haven’t yet caught up with the fact that for these PCCs, their first experience with the company isn’t through a careful person-to-person sales process, it’s through your various digital marketing channels, often your website.

Why do people visit websites?

Seems like a dumb question, maybe, but bear with us! 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 in order 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 certification - these 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 good majority of the current thinking out there relates to 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 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 you work for an organization whose users are visiting your website because they have to, then this blog post is for you.

At this point, you might be wondering how this difference came about in the first place.

It is because the internet is increasingly being used 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 probably isn’t particularly revelatory. But it does have interesting implications: it means that people are starting to expect that they can do things online that they used to have to do in person. And what this means is that there is an increasing burden on organizations to provide user experiences that meet the expectations of their PCCs.

"By 2017, 89% of marketers expect customer experience to be their primary differentiator."


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.

Adding emotions to the equation

Given these new expectations, a critical (but often forgotten in the face of internal priorities) thing a website has to do is respond to these needs of its audiences. 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. It’s key to point out that 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 of your company or organization as being in the business of providing emotional support to your PCCs, but they’re guaranteed to be in some kind of emotional state when they interact with you, your brand, and your website. For example, this UX study on healthcare portals identified that participants found choosing a healthcare plan overwhelming -- requiring multiple steps, consultation with family members, double-checking, and cross-referencing.

Now there’s a good chance that you’d likely prefer that your users’ emotional experience with you not be a negative one that leaves them overwhelmed, frustrated, confused, impatient, or doubtful. 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 one 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.

In some cases, the typical user is an anxious user

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

  • A person with a 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 users, and millions of people like them, are using 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-sensitive - and 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. They’re not watching videos on YouTube or catching up on Facebook (although this can create its own stresses, but that’s a conversation for another time).

Your website can be your clients’ support system

So now that you are aware of this subtle distinction in the mindset of users that come to your site, 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 piece?

This is where the value of great user experience and design in enabling you to provide this support comes 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 off, many transactional sites that are out there today are still not being designed with the user 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 the user as an outsider, and dated, run-of-the-mill stock photography, it can feel almost as bad as a dilapidated, dysfunctional RMV – you 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, a comfortable waiting area, and all of your questions handled quickly and efficiently? Sound too good to be true? It doesn’t have to be.

As a designer of great user experience, when you focus on being user-centric, you start shifting 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 & 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 user needs at the forefront. As an expert in your particular area, it’s easy to want to share everything you think the user needs to know but it will only lead to overwhelm. Remember that they don’t need your level of expertise – that’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 & 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 when writing content. It’s easy to fall into the trap of using jargon, clichés, and industry-specific acronyms. Resist the urge! Remember to talk to your users like real people.
  • One of our former team members at Velir said it best when he told people to, “Lead with a hug.™”

Legitimacy & Credibility

  • Even though you don’t want to overwhelm your audience with jargon, it’s still important to share your expertise so that you can 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, it could be worth investing 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 to do this that establishes even more of a personal rapport with your audiences. Even though this requires more effort, it goes a long way towards building trust.

At the end of the day, don’t forget the person on the other side of the screen

It’s not always easy to remember to cater to your users 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 were to see 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 sub-par 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 make 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. And oftentimes, this is the reminder we need to go the extra mile to make a difference.

How do you relate to website users who may be arriving to your site already in distress? Do you have tips to share? Join the discussion below via the comments.