I’m not a psychologist, but I play one whenever I’m with a client who predictably falls into the trap of making design decisions based upon what they want, not what’s best for their customers. My diagnosis? Project Narcissism. I see it all the time, and I usually point out that though it’s tempting to approach web design like interior decorating—”Can I live with this for the next few years?”—web design should be treated like designing a store, which is all about understanding the customer and removing barriers to sale.
The best way to do this is to develop user personas—representative profiles for the kinds of users you need your website to assist—and let them be the measuring stick for all your design decisions. A persona might represent the kind of user who is ready to buy now, or one who is researching a buying decision they expect to make someday. But a persona doesn’t always have to represent decision makers; they might also represent users who are vetting options to help someone else make a decision. Feel free to name your personas and give them back stories (e.g. “Brian is an analytical product manager”), as long as they generally represent realistic user scenarios without being overly specific.
So back to designing the store: Imagine what the Apple store would look like if it was designed for the shopkeeper, rather than the shopper? Aisles of tightly stocked shelves. Salespeople perched behind counters. Long lines to check out. The conventional store design wisdom is to maximize efficiency by keeping the number of staff members needed to manage inventory and assist customers to a minimum. That’s good for business, obviously, especially if the store sells essentials, like food or household goods. You’d be hard-pressed to find many supermarket or IKEA customers complaining about how the stores are designed.
Had Apple’s customer personas looked at all like Safeway’s or IKEA’s, they definitely wouldn’t have made the incremental design changes to their store that we’ve come to celebrate: The bright, open showroom full of working products you can try out. The many friendly and approachable salespeople who roam the floor, available to answer your questions and retrieve the things you want to buy. The portable, handheld machines that they use to quickly process your payment right there where you stand, no need to get in a line.
For some stores, that would be chaos. But Apple understood that an emphasis on personal interactions—between customers and products as well as between customers and salespeople—was needed to design the most effective store. Unlike the shoppers in supermarkets, Apple customers are buying non-essentials—productivity and entertainment devices that are on the high end of what the market can bear. The customer making an infrequent, special purchase is going to be far more concerned with quality, experience and service than price. Apple knows this. I imagine that the Apple customer personas include ones along the lines of “College-bound Jessica,” who needs help picking out a new laptop today, as well as one like “soon-to-retire Jake” who needs to try out a few computers and think it over before he buys something in the next few months. The store’s design reflects that.
So who is the audience for your website? What do they need in order to make an informed decision? Does your design consider these things, or does it reflect your personal preferences instead?
If you’re interested in developing user personas, start with Steve Muldur’s book, The User Is Always Right: A Practical Guide to Creating and Using Personas for the Web. He provides a simple process you can follow quickly, or a much more in-depth one if you have the time. Either way, your design will be far more effective having truly considered your users.