Key is whether it’s giving visitors what they need
By Elizabeth Millard
Dolan Media Newswires
At this point, nearly every company law firm has a website, and for good reason.
Potential clients use sites to learn about your firm, but also to get a general feeling about areas of expertise and culture.
“Recently, I went to a restaurant’s website to look at the menu, and ended up not going because I didn’t like they way the restaurant presented itself,” said Mike Johnson, director of user experience at Bloomington, Minn.-based technology consultant firm The Nerdery. “A site says a great deal about how a company treats its customers, and that applies to any type of company.”
Johnson knows firsthand about creating sites that communicate a certain message to visitors. He and others who focus on user experience (known as UX in the techie world), believe that when it comes to adequate sites vs. great sites, the difference isn’t in design, it’s in usability.
Navigation, content and mission have to work together, or your site could just be another attractive face in the Internet crowd.
Here are some strategies to keep in mind when you’re tweaking (or overhauling) your website to be more user friendly:
1. Start with the mission
Although a fantastic-looking website can be powerful, design isn’t the first place to start when it comes to user experience, Johnson said.
“The biggest misconception about UX is that a redesign begins with making things pretty,” he said. “We consider design a part of the user experience, but UX is about how things work, it’s about a framework that allows you to measure the impact of the site.”
To build that framework, you need to start by going back to the company’s mission statement, said Heather Davis, digital experience manager at RBA, a Wayzata, Minn.-based technology consulting firm. “Business objectives help to define what you’re trying to accomplish as a company,” she said. “That should always come through in your website.”
One strong example of an objectives-based site: CaringBridge. In 1997, technology entrepreneur Sona Mehring created the site when one of her friends experienced a high-risk pregnancy. She believed developing a central point of information would keep friends and family informed, without the type of endless phone calls usually involved in a health crisis. Since then, Eagan, Minn.-based CaringBridge has stayed on track and all website development centers around that original mission.
“Since the site’s founding, social media has exploded, and so has mobile technology,” Mehring said. “We’re constantly evaluating how to grow and add more features to the site, but we always keep the user in mind. What do they need? What do they really want? These are the questions we ask first before making any changes or additions.”
2. Know your users
As CaringBridge has discovered, understanding the needs of a site’s users is crucial, but how do you gain that level of understanding? Davis said she often brings together a company’s departments for that insight.
Rather than pulling together only marketing and IT, she asks representatives from every department, from accounting to customer service, to discuss their views on customers.
“They don’t talk about a site’s features or functionality,” she said, “they’re there to think about the business in general, and what customers want in terms of interaction with the company.”
Davis notes that sites are sometimes set up in parallel with a company’s internal structure, but people don’t look for information in that way.
“They don’t care how your company is broken down in terms of departments,” she said. “They just want everything together in one place.”
Focusing on that type of online navigation can affect offline interactions, she added, such as call centers or sales.
“Basically, ask yourself: what does the customer want from you?” she said. “Then, go from there.”
3. See through a user’s eyes
There are several affordable ways to garner user experience information. Johnson said, “Someone can always ask their mom to go through a site,” and he’s only half-joking.
Many firms would benefit from choosing a user at random from their pool of acquaintances and then setting up a task to carry out on the site. For instance, the user may be asked to find the firm’s pro bono work, or to find a specific attorney, and to provide commentary as they’re surfing through the site. This is a common strategy in the UX world, and it works well for understanding how people navigate online.
Another tactic is to put an online survey on the site, through a free or low-cost survey creation tool such as SurveyMonkey.
“Definitely, UX can be done on a budget,” Davis said. “You just need to be strategic.”
At RBA, for example, they send strategists out to a coffee shop if that’s where they believe target market customers might be. Armed with a prototype of a site, they ask people for opinions and Davis said it’s amazing how many customers want to be part of the survey.
Spending time thinking about how users view your site can be beneficial for even minor tweaks or content changes.
“People are becoming more accustomed to good user experiences online, with company websites that deliver what they need,” Johnson said. “That creates even more of a contrast if you’re not delivering.”
Elizabeth Millard is a technology writer and former senior editor at ComputerUser.