I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that most websites are built for the people running the business rather than the customers the business wants to attract. This is nothing short of a tragedy on the scale of Star Wars: Episode I. Heck, I’ll go out on a limb and suggest it’s far, far worse than that; and on the pop-culture tragedy scale, Episode 1 was pretty darn tragic.
But what makes failing to build a website for your audience more tragic than Episode 1 is that George Lucas was already a millionaire. He could afford to make a multimillion-dollar mistake, and still laugh all the way to the bank on the merchandising rights. Last time I checked, most online businesses don’t make that kind of money. A mistake of such gargantuan proportions would be the equivalent of the Death Star zeroing in on your home planet just to make a point.
Okay, enough of the Star Wars references. This post is more of a survival guide of the zombie kind than of science fiction (though technically zombies are sci-fi, but we’ll let that one pass for now before I digress into a whole monologue about how free will makes time travel scientifically impossible).
Anyhow, too many websites are built for entirely the wrong reasons. The boss wants one thing, the web designers want it to look this way, the developers thinks it needs that cool function and the SEO says it needs more keywords. All of that is hogwash. What matters–and this is the only thing that matters–is what the visitor wants and/or what gives the visitor a great on-site experience.
Sometimes those are the same thing. Sometimes they are not. Why? Because the visitor doesn’t always know what they want, but they will know it when they see it. And how do you know they know? Because they complete the goals they set out for.
While there are hundreds of UX (user experience) issues that we could focus on, I want to bring it down to the three most important ones to ensure your website works well; not for you, but for the visitors you want to get money from.
Clean, Clear Navigation Options
In many cases, the biggest usability failure of a website is the site navigation. Think of your navigation as your GPS. Has your GPS ever taken you on a bad route, forced you to do unnecessary u-turns, or sent you through an uncharted wormhole? I’ve had each of those happen to me at least once. Wound up in the Gamma Quadrant and had to part with the last of my gold-pressed Latinum to secure a decent map home.
You don’t want that to happen to your site visitors, so you’ll want to make sure your navigation does the job it’s intended for: helping visitors find the information they want. Typically, there are three major navigational flaws that I come across the most:
1. Too Many Navigation Options
Over the past couple of years the trend has been to use your main navigation to present as many links as humanly possible. Heck, I’ve seen drop-down, slide-out, and super-massive-mega-menus that contained more links than pages on the site! The theory behind this is to allow the visitor to find anything they might possibly want within just one click of the home page. I mean, how can you go wrong with that?
For starters, presenting too many options creates the deer-in-the-headlights effect. Visitors simply don’t know how to digest that much information and become paralyzed. Instead of clicking on the best option they usually click on the most obvious option. And if they don’t find what they are looking for? Say goodbye. They are quick to leave in search of another site that does a better job of guiding them to what they want.
2. Hidden Services or Products
On the other side of that is the navigation that gives the visitor all kinds of options other than what they mostly came for. Think about it. What is it your visitors want? Do they want to know how to contact you? Maybe. Do they want to read your About Us page? Perhaps. Do they want to see what it is you offer? BINGO!
Navigation links about your company, mission, beliefs, and all that are great, but what is more great is presenting the products or services your visitors came to buy front and center. Don’t hide those under other options; these should be your main options.
Don’t think of your navigation as a way to help your visitors navigate your site but rather as a way to help them find what they seek
3. Unclear Options
Finally, make sure your navigational options are clear. Each link or navigational category should be clearly labeled so the visitor knows exactly what to expect when they click or hover over the option. Don’t use cute company terminology that only those already familiar with your company understand. User terminology that has meaning to your visitors. This is where keyword research comes into play. Research how people search and what things they are looking for and make sure this is the terminology you use in your navigation.
Focus on the Conversion Process
A conversion is really nothing more than an action you want your visitors to take or a goal you want them to achieve. For some sites, that goal would be having the visitor making an actual purchase of a product or service. For others, it might be submitting a contact form or downloading a document. For you, a conversion might be when the visitor picks up the phone to call. Whatever you call a conversion on your site, you know that you want to get as many of these as possible.
Start with implementing a set of best practices. Over the years, the web has evolved, and there are some basic things that web users come to expect. Great websites are not those that do something radically different. They are the ones that do what the visitor expects n terms of how to navigate, find, search and reach their goals. Different can be good, but not when it confuses visitors and keeps them from achieving their goals.
Aside from general best practices, your industry might have specific requirements that are not applicable on other sites. In these cases, industry best practices trump general practices. But deviate from the “norm” only when you are absolutely positive you are providing a better experience for your visitors. Being cool might win awards, but it rarely generates sales.
Best practices are only a baseline for good useability. They are the starting point. From there, it’s a matter of testing. Multivariate and A/B testing tools allow you to present different versions of your pages to different groups of visitors. As the tests run, you get stats on which version had the biggest positive (or negative) impact. With that information you can make the “winning” changes to your site which will help you continue to grow your business without having to seek out more traffic.
Don’t be so married to anything on your site that you are unwilling to test it out. When we make recommendations to clients that they don’t want to implement, we often tell them to prove us wrong by testing it. That’s truly the only way to know if any change is a good change. If you’re confident that you’re doing the right thing, test it against other options to prove to yourself that you are. If you’re wrong, you still win because you now found a better way.
Find Your Voice
Where uniqueness can work against you in your site’s conversion process, it can definitely work in your favor when it comes to your site’s content. More than anything, your site should stand out by the content you produce. Whether it be your product or service descriptions, blog posts, about us page or mission statement; stand out from the crowd by writing in a style that fits you and your audience.
The image above shows eight different voices that can be used to set yourself apart in your industry. Depending on who your target audience is, not all of these will be appreciated, but almost any industry can pick one or more of these and use it as a distinctive voice. Of course, these are not the only voices you can choose from. The goal isn’t to pick a voice but to use your own voice. Write in a style that fits you and your visitors without being boring, common, or (gasp!) corporate-y.
Use your voice to be real with your visitors. Speak to them in a way that gives them confidence in your company while getting a good feel for what it will be like working with you. Make sure you present yourself as an authority.
Whatever voice you choose–whatever voice is you–be consistent throughout your site. Use the same voice from page to page and blog post to blog post. When you use different voices throughout your site, it can create a jarring disconnect with your visitors. In fact, you might come a cross a bit schizophrenic, which is almost universally a bad thing.
Overall, your goal is to create a seamless user experience on the site. It’s not about you. It’s about them, what they came for, and what they want. Your job is simply to make it easier to give each visitor what they want. If you were to ask each visitor what they need, you’re likely not going to get a good answer. For the most part they don’t know. But nothing tells the truth like data.
Use your analytics and conversion data to guide your user experience changes and decisions. Each and every change you make on your site should bring more and more visitors to that conversion point. It’s all about making them happy. You don’t need to be noticed for being cutting edge and cool, you just want visitors to get what they want. The more visitors you delight with good usability, the more your visitors will delight you with sales.
Author’s note: This post is part of a larger slide presentation. View entire presentation here: A Survival Guide for the Overwhelmed Online Marketer from Stoney deGeyter.