It’s in the 16th century building…Posted October 1st, 2009 by David Hamill
“It’s in the 16th century building on The High Street” she said. This was my mum trying to explain where the local copy and print shop was.
I couldn’t tell a 16th century building from an 18th century one. The High Street in my home town is full of old buildings, so I couldn’t even guess.
After I’d recovered from laughing, she grudgingly explained that it was across the road from the Post Office. This was a little more helpful.
My mum often explains things in a way that only she sees them. She’s a historian, so this can include giving directions that you need an interest in period architecture to understand.
So what’s this got to do with websites?
Lots of organisations are like her. They are so engrossed in what they do, that they speak in a way that is confusing to others. Unfortunately this tends to include their customers.
Such organisations usually reflect this on their website. They tend to:
- use vocabulary that customers don’t understand
- organise information the way they see it and not how the customer does
- swamp their site with content that few people want or need
- fail to provide the content that people do need
These failings drastically affect how useful and easy-to-use the website will be.
An example – National Grid UK
Let’s use a scenario to explore this further.
Brendan is a local café owner who is losing business because of road works outside his premises being carried out by National Grid. This is a scenario a café owner told me about when I was buying lunch. I’ve changed the café owner’s name as well as the actual website involved.
Brendan wants to find out how long the works are going to take and whether he’s entitled to any compensation for loss of business. His options from the National Grid homepage are shown below.
The structure of this website is relatively organisation-centric rather than customer-centric. There isn’t a section for road works at the top level. Instead Brendan must first understand which department is carrying out the works. Brendan doesn’t care how the National Grid organises itself, he doesn’t care why they are digging up the road. He just wants to know when the work will be finished and whether he’ll be compensated for loss of business.
Road works for gas pipes are the same as road works for electricity as far as he is concerned. They both involve a big hole in the road and fewer people entering his café.
Let’s skip past a lot of Brendan’s pain and assume he eventually opts for the Gas section of the website. Here are his next options.
Again National Grid organises its content in an organisation-centric manner. This time the road works information is hidden under ‘Pipeline Projects’. National Grid sees its hole in the road as a pipeline project, the public (including Brendan) see it as road works.
This is like my mum saying “in the 16th century building” when I need her to say “across from the Post Office”. National Grid is talking from its own perspective rather than Brendan’s. As a result, Brendan can’t find what he’s looking for.
If Brendan eventually selects the links he needs, the next choice gets a little easier. Streetworks is a decent link title, but when he clicks it, he sees the page below.
This page is full of information that consumers don’t care about. National Grid care about how they scored in the recent Transport Research Laboratory report, but Brendan doesn’t. He just wants people to come and buy their lunch in his café. This page should be a pathway page to the useful content that exists deeper within the section.
Imagine you pulled up in your car to ask a man for directions. Instead of just telling you where you need to go, the man starts a lengthy explanation of the history and culture of the town you’re in. Do you care? No, you just want him to shut up and tell you where you need to go. The page shown above is that man.
The site doesn’t actually have any information about the timescales of its projects, so Brendan is out of luck. National Grid are too busy harping on about the stuff they’re proud of to give Brendan the information he needs.
Frequently Asked Questions
However, information about compensation does exist. It’s relegated to the bottom of the Frequently Asked Questions page. Here is the relevant question from the FAQ page.
Once again National Grid bores Brendan with all the background information before telling him what he needs to know. This is information that National Grid wants to say, but Brendan just wants to know if he’s eligible and how he claims compensation. Much of the rest of this text is wasteful and rather self-indulgent.
Empathy is the key to a better user experience
Unless you’re like my mum, when you’re giving someone directions you tend to stick to the information that person can deal with. You don’t introduce local nuances and you don’t try to show off about your knowledge of the local architecture. In other words you empathise with the person you’re trying to help.
Websites are the same. Your users will enjoy a better experience if your site empathises with their circumstances, knowledge and vocabulary.
What do you think?
Do you agree with me, or am I wrong? Whatever your opinion, post a comment and let’s discuss it.