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The most important question you can ask yourself when designing or creating content for your website is, “What do my users need?”
Your ability to achieve the goals you have for your website rises and falls on your users’ experience. Can they find what they’re looking for? Do they complete their purchases? Are they choosing to share your posts with their friends? Those are the sorts of questions looming beneath the surface of the big one, “Is my website doing what I need it to do?”
In using the question “What do my users need?” as a filter for your decision making, every aspect of your website will be affected: its messaging, design and layout, and everything under the hood.
Start by asking the right question
Many organizational web services fail to do this because their web team is inundated by internal pressures. Instead of leading with “What do my users need?”, the governing question becomes something like, “What do the department heads want?”, or, “What do our existing systems require?” And the result is as bad as you might imagine: The website becomes a replication of the organization’s internal structures, burdened by needlessly complex navigation menus and redundant content.
Take Telus for example. For a long time, you would receive two separate bills each month — one for your landline, one for your mobile phone. And for a long time, customers complained about what felt like redundant bills. “Why are we getting two bills when both of these services come from one company?” Telus was slow to act at first because their internal systems ran separately, and it would mean a great deal of internal reconfiguration to make this change for their users. But eventually, Telus did it. In great leaps and bounds, they built a customer service layer in their user accounts that brings together these disparate bills into one.
Don't force your users to understand your internal workings
It comes down to this: your website’s processes and your organization’s structures aren’t your user’s problem. Think of a website like a mullet: “business up front, and a party in the back.”
Your most critical task is to present a clean and orderly environment entirely devoted to the tasks a user needs to perform. Let your organization’s complicated internal structure remain an uninteresting mystery. A website’s processing can take care of delivering the various puzzle pieces into the hands who need them. Give your users an intuitive, business-up-front experience, and let the party in the back happen as it needs to, invisibly.
Users shouldn't be burdened by your infrastructure
Recently, I was working through these kinds of issues with an organization made up of hundreds of members and a large public following. Online registration is the backbone of their interaction with their members, so it was paramount to make the process simple and straightforward. At one point in the process before final review and payment, the user’s entry is saved and an account is created where the user can retrieve and update the entry. As part of a fairly standard process, a verification email is sent to ensure that the user’s email address is valid.
However, this presents a usability problem. A web server can take 5-10 seconds to generate and send an email, since regular web servers weren’t designed for transactional, mid-process emailing. And worse, an additional email is sent to the organization’s admin office. Two emails at 5-10 seconds each. That is more than enough time for a user to think something has gone wrong.
To circumvent this problem, I created a mail queue system which saves the email’s contents and configuration to be sent out separately from the user’s registration. (The email is saved to a list, and the server checks the list every minute for any new emails, and sends out anything it finds.) This way, the registration completes very quickly, and the user receives any resulting mail a few seconds after the fact.
It's the thought that counts – and your users can feel the difference!
It’s not the user’s problem that web servers take time to send emails — it’s our problem as website owners and user experience developers.
By taking time to think through the question, “What do my users need?”, you’ll be better equipped to detect needless complexity or usability barriers, and you’ll impress your users with your empathetic ability to think through their experience of the tasks you ask them to perform.