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Section: 1 planning your site > getting to know your users

Chapter 4. getting to know your users

“Do we actually have to go to your parents’? Can’t we just visit their web site?”

don’t miss ...

  1. 5 things you should know about your users

  2. Estimating audience size

  3. Action section: Who are your users?

  4. Lesson from the trenches: You are not your user!

  5. Predicting what users will want

  6. 50 ways to lose your users

Of all the mistakes a site owner could make, the most common—and the most perilous—is to underestimate the power of the user.

Ask Mike Kuniavsky. A long-time web developer and author of Observing the User Experience, Kuniavsky has seen more than his share of wayward web sites. From 1999–2000, he consulted for more than a dozen companies—mostly start-ups—in San Francisco.

“Every company I worked with failed,” he said. “And they all failed for the same fundamental reason: They hadn’t thought about the value they were giving people—and whether people wanted that value.”

“So the main thing I’ve learned is that before you make a product, you need to know that it satisfies someone’s need and that someone will want to pay for it,” he said. “This is true for just about any business, but it’s especially true for web sites.”

Web sites have to pay special attention to their users, because the web demands so much of them. Customers must actively remember to visit your site, and they must actively navigate it once they arrive.

Other industries have it easy:

  • Stores get foot traffic from busy streets and shopping malls, and customers can just wander around and browse.

  • Magazines get noticed on the newsstand, and readers can just flip through the pages.

  • TV shows lure people who flip past with the remote control, and viewers can just sit back and watch.

Web sites, however, get few accidental visitors. There’s no natural way to browse the web (except perhaps through portals, and that’s very directed), so users only find your site when they seek it out. And once they arrive, their work’s only just begun. They have to figure out what your site does, how it works, and where to find what they need.

For there’s no passive option on the web. Although many users would prefer it, you can’t just watch a web site. You can’t even read a web site without making decisions about where to go and how to get there.

If users can’t find, understand or navigate your site, you’ve lost them. And you’ve lost.

So whether you like it or not—whether they like it or not—users are in control of their own web experience. If they can’t find, understand, or navigate your site, you’ve lost them. And you’ve lost.

Your web site, then, isn’t for you. It’s for your users. It should be organized the way they think and written in a language they understand.

The user’s opinion, you see, is the only one that matters. And this is hard for site owners to accept. They like to trust their own instincts, and this backfires on them. Because it’s the user’s opinion–not theirs—that matters.

This is a particularly thorny issue for web agencies, whose clients are used to rejecting ideas simply because they don’t like them. Lance McDaniel, VP of Creative at SBI and Company, says it comes up all the time: “Inevitably, a client will tell us he doesn’t like something about the interface—or his wife doesn’t like something about the interface. And I have to remind him, ’Look, you’re paying us millions of dollars to build a site your users will like. Not you. And not your wife.’”

The user-centered approach can be hard for clients to understand. But it’s in their best interest, McDaniel said. “If we just did things our clients liked, we’d be wasting their money.”

Indeed, most successful sites (if not most successful businesses) have learned to put their users first. “You have to be really truthful about who your customer is,” said Hilary Billings, chairman and chief marketing officer of RedEnvelope. “Know who your customer is, and what they need from you. And let that guide you. Don’t try to outsmart your customer. Build a business for them.”

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