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An Event Apart

“An Event Apart” is an ongoing series of conferences spanning three days of design, code and content. There are several of these conferences every year, bouncing between cities. The final conference for 2015 was held in San Francisco a couple of weeks back.

One of the standout presentations this year was “Designing for Crisis,” by Eric Meyer. Meyer's professional experience with the web goes back to late 1993. He has authored numerous books and is an internationally recognized expert on the subjects of HTML, CSS, and web standards. Meyer drew from his personal and professional experience to explore examples of crisis-mitigating design successes and failures.

Meyer relayed a personal experience when his child became suddenly and critically ill and had to be medevaced by helicopter to a hospital nearly a hundred miles away in the middle of the night. There was a chance that they would never see her again. He and his wife were panicking and were driven to the hospital that night by a total stranger. But they had no history with this hospital; they had never met with any physicians there and since the helicopter would arrive long before they would, how would they locate their daughter upon their arrival? How would they know her condition? Who do they talk to? If something happened, who would contact them? During the drive they were on their smartphones, desperately trying to find contact and basic information about where to go and what to expect when they arrived. Instead, they were met with a website full of everything except what they needed to know. When they arrived at the hospital in the middle of the night, they had nowhere to go, no one to talk to, no one to call.

The hospital had made the same failing that so many other sites make – they had prioritized what was important to them (in this case, marketing messages and convenience for the hospital’s internal staff) rather than prioritize content that would truly assist their patients and their families. So while the site worked perfectly fine for an idealized user - someone who is smart, calm, and informed - it failed to aid a more realistic user - someone who is still smart, but is also uncertain and in a panic. While Meyer's example is dramatic, it serves as a good case study as to why ignoring the needs of your users in the design process is a bad idea.

One of the most important steps in User-Centered design process is research. One has to identify and immerse themselves in the users’ worlds to understand what they do and why they do it. One way of accomplishing this is through the use of personae. Usability.gov does a great job of defining personae:

The purpose of personas is to create reliable and realistic representations of your key audience segments for reference. These representations should be based on qualitative and some quantitative user research and web analytics. Remember, your personas are only as good as the research behind them. Effective personas:

  • Represent a major user group for your website
  • Express and focus on the major needs and expectations of the most important user groups
  • Give a clear picture of the user's expectations and how they're likely to use the site
  • Aid in uncovering universal features and functionality
  • Describe real people with backgrounds, goals, and values

Benefits of Personas

Personas help to focus decisions surrounding site components by adding a layer of real-world consideration to the conversation. They also offer a quick and inexpensive way to test and prioritize those features throughout the development process. In addition they can help:

  • Stakeholders and leaders evaluate new site feature ideas
  • Information architects develop informed wireframes, interface behaviors, and labeling
  • Designers create the overall look and feel of the website
  • System engineers/developers decide which approaches to take based on user behaviors
  • Copywriters ensure site content is written to the appropriate audiences

These lessons apply to all websites, regardless of scope. Yes, even the “brochure sites.” Brochure sites is an older term used to describe sites that are small in size, probably lacking any e-commerce functionality. They’re built to provide the business with a presence on the web. They contain basic information about location, hours, services and contact information. But most of that can be found now on Facebook, so what does your site do, what does your site offer, that Facebook can’t?

And therein lies your opportunity.

Whenever a new site project is undertaken, historically the conversation has been driven by topics such as “I want a new look. What needs to be updated? Who’s writing the content?” While these are very important topics, they’re only part of the task at hand. What’s often overlooked is “What is trying to be achieved? How is that success measured? What factors - both external and internal - can endanger those chances for success? How is this relevant to the user?”

A couple of examples:

  • The focus of an airport’s website should should be on parking, rental car, flight, and terminal information; not the airport’s board of directors.
  • A restaurant chain’s menu should be easily viewable on mobile devices and the site should be aware of the user’s geographic location to provide him or her with relevant information for the closest restaurant to her without having to dig through the site.

By focusing on the user’s experience on your site, you’re building a relationship with them before they even pick up the phone or set foot through your door. That’s the difference between telling and selling.