Where is the customer?

by Susannah Ross
(Cortexte – www.cortexte.com – 2nd May 2005)

For a website to work, the customer or user must be part of the process from the start. When planning a website, organise the information you have from the point of view of the user. Rather than putting yourselves online – “this is our managing director, here’s our mission statement and these are our departments” – ask yourself what you have that would be useful to somebody. Decide who it would be useful to and organise the site accordingly.

Think what questions your user would ask. For example, the question I suspect many people want to know from their local council is when their rubbish is going to be collected. Does the local council site answer that question? Eventually it may, but on many sites it certainly isn’t obvious. Local councils have often been far more concerned to tell you about their urban regeneration projects, their policy on gender equality and what Councillor X promised in his election manifesto.

Once you have decided what questions the user will probably ask, decide what information would answer those questions and organise it according to the users’ priorities, not yours. The information most users want to know from any commercial site is what something costs. Answering that question quickly is not just a matter of consideration for the customer, it’s good psychology.

Users of a website need to feel confident that they know where they are. Just as in a shop, customers feel more confident if they can see a price tag, regardless of whether they can afford the item or not. The more confident a user is that he/she understands your website and is control of the process of using it, the more likely they are to stay. Yet some sites go to extraordinary lengths to bury the answer to this question.

Consideration for the customer should also guide the way you present the information on your site. The customer should get as much or as little as he or she wants. So you need to give them a whiff, a taste and a bite before offering the whole meal. The whiff is the section heading or top-level link, the taste is the headline, the bite is the summary and the meal is the whole article or whatever. No customer will thank you for wasting his or her time with uninformative section headings, misleading headlines or incomplete summaries.

Finally, putting the user at the centre of the process means using the user’s language. The user must understand the terms used for the section headings/main navigation and must recognise the terms used in the text of the site. Again it is in our interest that they should. It is no good advertising “low fares” if most users search for “cheap flights” or listing all the advantages of your “notebooks” if most customers look for “laptops” or having a section called “connectivity” when people like me look for “email”. If you want users to find your website in a search engine, you must anticipate the terms they will use when they search and make sure you use them in your site.
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