It’s always like this: I meet someone new and when asked what I do, I say that I make better websites. And I hear the inevitable response: It’s great that you do that, because so many websites are terrible.
People hate websites. Interfaces are hard to use, information is hard to find, and they don’t feel cared for and respected. This narrative hasn’t really changed in the eighteen years I’ve been doing this.
Meanwhile, massive improvements have transformed our industry. Sophisticated content management systems have evolved. We’ve brought user experience design to the forefront. We’ve harnessed new technologies that make the web more ubiquitous and seamless than ever.
Yet people are still telling me how much they hate websites. So what’s going on? Why is the Internet still so devoid of delight? I can share a few reasons:
Evolving to Work Digitally
Cut-and-paste. Page. Folder. Library. Our computers and the web are full of metaphors that came from the age of paper.
As advertising, graphic design, information storage and more came to the digital age, they brought methodologies and processes established in the physical world.
Marketers brought the advertising practices perfected on Madison Avenue, honed for television, magazines and billboards. Designers brought techniques built for ink and paper and inches. And everyone thought of information in terms of pages, folders, and binders.
The corporeal tools of yesteryear imposed limitations that we can now move beyond. But we’ll have to continue to change the way we work and think, beyond the three-dimensional world and into one that is infinite. Every page is a homepage. There are hundreds of paths to every bit of information. Anything can connect to anything. Online users are doing many things at once and they are part of more than one audience. No journey across the web is ever repeated exactly.
The website visitor isn’t watching a TV ad or reading a brochure, nor following a prescribed path. Good websites respect and embrace that the user is in charge, and the user responds with loyalty and delight.
Who Is the Website Even For?
It’s tempting in marketing to slip into an adversarial approach to prospective customers, thinking of them as fish to catch or games to win. Online this can lead to practices that make users feel tricked or annoyed. Witness the click-bait headlines and animated ads that clutter today’s web. Such practices appear to drive engagement but the users only end up frustrated. When we think of prospects as new people to build relationships with, we can give them the authentically engaging experience we would give a good friend.
If a company isn’t being empathetic with its customers, the website becomes overly focused on the needs of the business, and the user’s needs are secondary. Some websites use all their homepage real estate to promote whatever campaign or special offer they are pushing at the moment until a new visitor can’t determine what the company primarily does. If prospective buyers come to the site and leave without ever having learned about offerings of value, they may never come back. A good website always delivers on the needs of both the user and the company.
Websites are a great tool to drive new business. But if we start to measure them only on that, we motivate ourselves away from continuing to provide outstanding support to our established customers. Here we see homepages screaming at new users to sign up or try now, while the return visitors get a tiny link to take them back into the site. For most businesses, retaining and nurturing existing customers is a far more cost-effective source of revenue than acquiring new ones. A strong business will focus on both, and a strong website should as well, delivering outstanding customer service and a welcoming approach to all.
You Can’t Always Get What You Want
People visit websites to get information, consume content, buy products and use tools. Companies build websites to market their offerings and to sell advertising, products, and services. These needs do not need to be at odds. When they are, frustration ensues. Information is organized based on how the company understands it, not how users will discover it. The sections of the website most popular with users are often not where a company invests. User research is spotty, and much of the findings are ignored, either deliberately because it wasn’t what the team wanted to hear, or accidentally lost in the shuffle of too much work.
We can do better. Great company website experiences are out there. Visitors move through them seamlessly, discovering offerings that delight them, and business and revenue flow in.
Let’s have more of them.