Design Your Website for the People Who Use It

(This article originally appeared in a slightly different form in Southwest Graphics, Fall 2007)

One of the most common requests we receive from our clients is to include an FAQ section on their website. Despite the frequent requests for FAQs, we rarely put one on the sites we build. Why not? Because your entire website should be an FAQ.

Not literally, of course. I’m not suggesting pages and pages of Q&A. What I am suggesting is that you craft the content, organization, and design of your website guided by the answers to these three questions:

  1. Who are the most important users of your website?
  2. What are their “frequently asked questions,” i.e., what do they want from you?
  3. How can every page of your website answer those “frequently asked questions”?

Focus on Your Site Users

This idea — and the entire philosophy built around it — is called user-centered design (UCD). UCD was formulated in the software industry of the 1990s, but it has far-reaching influence. Think about the intuitive controls of an iPod, the comfortable handles of OXO kitchen tools, and the squeezable ketchup bottle that rests “upside down” so the ketchup is always ready to pour. These are all examples of UCD in practice.

On a website, UCD means figuring out what the visitors to your site want and giving it to them quickly and easily. It seems obvious, but it’s not common. Every one of us has struggled through a website, trying to figure out what to click or where to look or how to buy something. And typically, when that happens, we just leave and never come back.

Although the D in UCD stands for design, providing a positive experience for your visitors actually requires a combination of design (the layout and style of the pages), information architecture (arranging and naming the sections and pages of the site), content, and functionality. Nevertheless, you can take the first steps yourself by putting your website through a simple review.

Do-It-Yourself UCD

Gather up a group of 6 to 8 smart people from your organization. Ask them to identify then rank the most important visitors to your website. You can define “most important” however you like. We typically ask “Who are the most frequent visitors?” “…the most desired?” “…the most loyal?”

For each of those groups, make a list of their needs and questions, such as “What does your product cost?”, “Where can I buy it?”, “Why should I buy from you?”, and “How do I get service?”.

Finally, with your list of FAQs in hand, take a stroll through your website. Try to think like someone who doesn’t already know all about your business and its products or services. If it isn’t obvious where the answers can be found, or it takes more than a couple clicks to find every one of them, then your website could use a user-centered design makeover.

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