Since I’m a web developer at Orbit, our many wonderful clients might be surprised to learn that I don’t make websites for them. But clients don’t use their own sites—sure, they might be on their sites more than anyone else, but they’re not buying t-shirts from themselves, or checking their own service offerings, or looking up their own locations. And that’s the reason I don’t make websites for our clients. I make websites for our clients’ clients.
People visit websites for specific reasons, and while these reasons clearly vary from site to site, the fact that users want something specific doesn’t. So when I’m thinking about a new feature, I always start by trying to understand who the target audience is, why they would come to the page, and what they are trying to accomplish. Only after these questions are answered, and there may be more than one answer for each, can I move on to the details of how the intended audience will use the tool, and consequently, how I need to build it. Although our clients’ input is absolutely essential to this process—after all, I don’t know their business or their patrons—it’s not their needs that I focus on, it’s the needs of the end user.
Recently we built a product finder for a client to promote their featured merchandise. The finder would allow visitors to answer a few simple questions and then receive a list of products with instructions on how to use them together. When we started thinking from the visitor’s perspective, we realized that a long list of general, expensive products wouldn’t be helpful, even if they were the client’s newest and most marketable items, because it’s unlikely anyone would want to buy them all and it would be hard to sort through them.
Furthermore, we saw that visitors wouldn’t want to answer a lot of questions, but would need to easily change their answers and make their results accessible later. (One of the client’s competitors, a major international brand, had obviously not taken this approach: after a long and frustrating questionnaire, the competitor’s product finder always returned the same lengthy list of products they wanted to push, regardless of the answers. Disappointment guaranteed.) Working with the client, we focused on returning a short, targeted list of useful and varied products that could easily be emailed, printed, or changed with just a couple clicks. Designing this feature from the user’s perspective required more effort, but the result is a better tool that increases the client’s measurable return from their site.
In design, the term usability describes this process of understanding how a visitor will interact with a website, and usability is at the heart of all quality web design and development. Competitors are literally a click away, so if your site’s hard to use, there’s little reason for visitors to stick around. Of course, if you’re really good at what you do, or really cheap, your visitors may be willing to put up with a difficult site. But just in case, I’d recommend concentrating on usability.
Usability is a complex field that encompasses research, design, development, testing, and analysis, and what works for one site may not work for another. However, it’s based on a simple and constant principle: start with the user. This concept doesn’t guarantee that you’ll always get the results you want, but it does ensure that you’ll be on the right track. And that’s why I don’t build sites for our clients.