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Paul Boag Posted by: Paul Boag On Thursday, 10th February, 2011

Becoming user focused

(S01:E03) Although business objectives should be your sites number one goal, ignoring users would be a mistake. Happy users are a prerequisite of a successful website.

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In the past I have been unfortunate enough to encounter website owners that are so obsessed with return on investment they put their business objectives above the needs of their users.
Although in the short term this can generate returns, it is a dangerous path to tread.

Shopify advertisement

The cost of ignoring users needs

It is very easy to become short sighted about business objectives and fail to see the bigger picture.

Take, for example, an ecommerce website that wishes to encourage more users to register when purchasing. A short term view of this objective might be to force users to register before they can place an order. However there is a serious danger you will alienate users.

When users come to an ecommerce site they don’t come to register, they come to buy a product. They therefore see registration as a hinderance that benefits the retailer more than themselves. This often leads to users abandoning shopping carts and buying elsewhere.

Of course leaving to buy elsewhere is not the worse that can happen. In a world of social media where every users has a voice, the consequences can be much greater.

My Dell hell

Users ability to damage your brand

Take for example the experience of computer manufacturer Dell. In an attempt to meet their business objective of keeping prices low, they cut costs across their organisation. Unfortunately, one of the victims was customer service. Eventually users became dissatisfied with their experience and this spilt over onto the web in a single post entitled “Dell lies. Dell sucks.”

This single post galvanised a community of disillusioned users and quickly got picked up by mainstream media. Before long Dell had a serious PR problem on their hands that haunts them to this day.
The lesson here is that you cannot afford to ignore users needs when deciding how to fulfil business objectives. If you do, ultimately it could cost you dearly.

Although disgruntled users can cause massive damage to your website business objectives, happy users can make them happen.

The power of happy users

If you can create a truly usable website that allows your visitors to really engage with you, the returns can be enormous.

An overexcited Apple fanboy

Among other things happy users will:

  • Drive more traffic to your site – If a user has had a positive experience they will tell friends, tweet about it and maybe even post to their blog. This kind of customer testimonial is invaluable.
  • Become site ambassadors – Happy users will not just promote your site, they will defend it from the criticism of others. Take for example Apple. Say something negative about Apple and you will attract angry fans faster than you can say mac.
  • Be more likely to help you – Happy users are more likely to be amenable towards requests. This is useful next time you have a user survey you wish completed.
  • Be more forgiving when things go wrong – If a user has previously had a positive experience of your site, they are more likely to be forgiving when something inevitably does go wrong.

So how do you ensure your users are happy? A part of the answer is to ensure your website is usable. To do this you need to run usability test sessions.

However, usability testing does not just contribute to happier users. It also brings its own returns.

The profit of user testing

Usability testing has traditionally been seen as an expensive luxury that reduces profitability and extends deadlines.

For years, usability testing took place in expensive usability labs with one way mirrors, computer suites, and video surveillance. Large numbers of test subjects were required to provide statistically relevant data. Each subject had to be hand picked to meet a certain demographic profile. Testing was expensive and time consuming.

usability test lab

This approach was effective but prevented most companies from running sessions. Although a usability consultant, testing in a lab, with demographically selected subjects is nice, it is beyond the budgets and time frames of most organisations.

However, user testing does not need to be that way. In fact, it can be lightweight and inexpensive. It is also something you can do yourself. It may not be as effective but it is certainly a lot better than no testing at all. It will still bring significant returns on your minimal investment.

The benefits provided by user testing cannot be understated. Even the most lightweight of approaches can have a profound effect on your web presence.

The benefits of user testing include:

  • Increased chance of return visits – If a website is easy to use visitors are more likely to return. These repeat users are the lifeblood of many websites. They are more likely to respond to calls to action and become advocates of your site.
  • Reduced development costs – If done early in the development of your site usability testing can identify problems that would cost a considerable amount of time and money to fix later.
  • Reduced running costs – If your website is intuitive and easy to use, this will significantly reduce calls to customer support and increase productivity among staff who use the site.

However, user testing merely focuses on removing the rough edges of the user experience. That is a fairly unambitious aim.

Connecting with users

Usability is like cooking edible food. It’s a minimum requirement rather than the aim. Nobody goes to a restaurant because they serve edible food. They go because the food is delightful, the ambience is perfect and the staff are welcoming.

Disgusting looking food

If you want to create happy users (with all the benefits that provides) you need to both engage and delight them. This begins with establishing the right relationship.

The right relationship

The web is an impersonal place. It lacks many of the facets that makes human communication so rich. There is often no body language, tone of voice or facial expressions.
Although video and audio content is becoming more prevalent, the majority of website owners communicate with their users primarily through text.

This can make websites feel cold and dispassionate. Website owners appear not to care about their users.The problem is further amplified with corporate speak and marketing BS.

Innocent Smoothies website

With such a backdrop it is hard to turn visitors to your site into passionate, happy and engaged users. As a result few website owners really derive the full benefits of having committed users.

What many are missing is that people like to engage with other people. We don’t build relationships with websites or corporations. Neither do we derive happiness from them.

Its easy to become frustrated with a website or company. It’s much harder to become passionate about them.

If we are passionate about connecting with our users in order to truly excite them about our products and services we need to engage them as one human to another and not as a faceless corporation or website.

This is achieved in a number of ways.

  • With a personal and appropriate tone of voice
  • By being human and real
  • Through dialogue rather than monologue
  • By building community

Building community, engaging users and establishing the right relationship will have a profound impact on the happiness and enthusiasm of your users. However, there is one last detail that will complete the picture – delightful design.

Delightful design

In the early days of the web people used to ‘surf’ for ‘fun’. This rarely happens anymore. With the exception of Youtube and a few others, most websites exist to serve up information to users or allow them to complete tasks. The web has become a utility and not a pleasure.

This provides a unique opportunity to stand out from the crowd. If you are looking for a way to make your site more memorable and encourage users back then make your users smile and try to delight them.

Its possible to add some fun to any website no matter how dull and uninspiring the subject matter. Take for example the HTML email delivery service Mailchimp.

Sending out bulk email newsletters is not the most exciting of activities. They are boring to create and involve the user completing a number of relatively complex steps.

Mailchimp have set themselves apart from the competition by adding humour to the interface including funny one liners delivered by the ‘chimp’ and small design details many might not even notice.

Examples from the Mailchimp website

You may wonder what the point is if hardly anybody notices. Where is the return on investment in this? The return is two fold. First, that moment of delight for those who do notice sets you immediately apart from the competition by humanising your site and ensuring it is memorable. Second, they tell their friends about this hidden easter egg who in turn tell their friends. I have heard Mailchimp mentioned time and time again because of these added delights, just as I am now mentioning them to you. When next you need to send out an email newsletter, who are you going to think of?

Of course, adding humour like this is not appropriate to every site. However it is always possible to add something. Some hidden gem that makes somebody smile or have a ‘wow’ moment. These are the details that set aside the truly great sites.

Best of all these kinds of details do not require huge amounts of work. Many are a matter of minutes to implement. The trick is not implementing them, but realising their importance in the first place.

Editors Note: This article is covered in considerably more depth in Paul’s latest book ‘Building websites for return on investment‘. Buy two copies today… actually make it three ;)

What next?

Putting users first offers the greatest return for your business over the long term but doing so consistently can be challenging. I recommend you begin this journey by taking the following steps:

Action 1: Arrange monthly user testing

Following Steve Krug’s advice about running monthly user testing means that users are constantly at the heart of your thinking. By testing with real users every month and looking for ways to improve your experience you can never forget to put them first.

Action 2: Start truly engaging your users

Now is the time to break away from talking at your users so that you can begin engaging with them. Put opportunities in place where users can feedback to you whether through comments, twitter or facebook. The more you listen to users the more engaged they will be.

Action 3: Look for ways to delight

Finally seek out opportunities to differentiate yourself from the competition and encourage users to mention you to friends. Every website can have ‘delighters’ that grab users attention and just make them smile.

The positive results of delighting your users cannot be overstated. However, it is important to remember that it is not the end goal. We do so to encourage more users to complete your calls to action, so increasing your ROI.

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