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Finding The Sweet Spot

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In: Articles

By D. Keith Robinson

Published on December 1, 2004

The Web is slowly but surely growing up. For Web professionals it’s becoming more and more important to understand not only how various disciplines interact with and affect each other, but also the impact of business objectives on Web projects. Our clients and stakeholders are, thankfully, getting a better handle on what we can do for them and how they can use those things to meet their goals.

The days of a Web site as an afterthought are coming to a close. The Web is (or should be) central to most companies’ marketing, communication and branding goals. If it’s not, it soon will be. Budgets are loosening up a bit, our clients are better educated and we’ll soon have a real opportunity to do some special work.

Word-of-mouth and easy, direct access to companies mean that a good user experience is becoming more and more necessary. It’s just so darn easy for a person to find things on the Web. Because of this, user goals will naturally become business goals as the Web moves forward and decision makers have a better understanding of what their Web sites can do for them (or to them).

Mark Hurst said in a great article recently:

“Customer experience is the defining success factor in business for the next twenty years. Learning from customers, creating the experience they want, measuring the success of what you do, continually fine-tuning the service and returning to customers to learn more--this now must be the primary mission of any business that has customers. If you create a great customer experience, you’ll almost certainly win.”

Your Web site and how good you are at meeting a customer’s needs are central to that success.

But we’re not quite there yet.

Goals are still a balancing act

For awhile now I’ve addressed projects in terms of goals. I use what I call the “Golden Triangle” (as opposed to some boring old Venn diagram) to express how different goals are related to a Web project.

There are organizational goals, and things like ease of maintenance, ego and designer vanity. Don’t laugh--these things can have a huge effect on a project, as you’ll see. (They’re really more like requirements than goals, but I don’t want to wreck my triangle metaphor just yet. I hope that’s cool with y’all.)

And then we’ve got business goals and user goals.

When you’ve addressed and balanced all three of these sets of goals, you’ve created the Golden Triangle. It can be a challenge, but when a project is clicking on all sides it’s a great thing.

Balancing these goals is challenging. There are many times when the goals of the business seem to be in direct conflict with user goals. Often, this conflict (or gap) is caused by organizational goals or constraints like budget. We almost as often create this conflict ourselves.

In theory, business and user goals should be aligned and support each other. However, business goals usually end up oppressing user goals. This is often the case when it comes to branding. Because decision makers don’t fully understand how people interact and use the Web, they make design decisions that support branding and hurt user experience.

When it comes to branding on the Web, the user’s goals must be met in order to assure success. There is no other option. To do any less would be detrimental to the brand as a whole.

These kinds of uninformed decisions hurt both user and business goals. It’s important that Web professionals educate decision makers about how addressing user goals usually supports business goals. It’s going to have to be our responsibility to take a step forward and try to make decisions that support as many goals as possible.

Sounds daunting, but there’s good news! Business goals and user-centered Web design have much more in common than you might think. Let’s take a closer look at branding, one of the more important business goals—and one that seems all too often to conflict with user needs.

Why branding is important

Branding is often central to business strategy. Even when it’s not central, you can bet everyone involved agrees that the goal of a Web project is not to hurt the brand. This is exactly what would happen if the needs of the user weren’t met or were somehow sacrificed for some perceived brand benefit.

When I think of branding I don’t think of a logo, color scheme or typeface. I think of the overall impression a person has of a company, product or service. It’s that feeling, or identification in the mind, that a person gets when they come into contact with something that represents that company, product or service.

This can be anything from a whole range of touch points. It could be the product or service itself. It could be an ad on TV, a print ad or (you guessed it) a Web site. All of these things have a responsibility to the brand to put their best foot forward at all times. Unfortunately, when it comes to the Web, that touch point doesn’t put its best foot forward. In fact, it takes a few steps back.

Why? Because the average Web site is unusable. Letting perceived business goals get in the way of user’s goals can do much more to hurt brand perception than most decision makers realize. They may be thinking they’re doing the right thing, but the reality is a poor user experience can destroy a good brand perception in an instant.

On the Web, meeting user goals should be central to any brand strategy. It’s as simple, and as complicated, as that.

Why the conflict?

For some reason there is a disconnect between usability and branding and other business goals. In my mind these things not only don’t oppose each other, they’re on the same team. As the Jedi says, “There is no conflict here.”

If you’re making a choice between user and business goals, you’re making the wrong choice. Period.

When these goals are placed at odds, it’s due to a lack of understanding. These are complicated topics that require years to master and specialists to implement. The thing is, when it comes to a Web presence, user and business goals need to be in harmony.

User goals need to be met to help meet business goals. There, was that so hard? On the surface, once it’s laid out like that, it seems pretty simple. However, organizational goals, job responsibilities and budgets conspire to make it much more complicated.

That’s why we need to find some places where branding and usability overlap and actually support each other in a real-world way. The idea is to not only make the best design decisions possible to support your goals (both user and business) but to have those goals overlap or be as close to each other as possible.

Killing two birds with one stone

Often, overlooked user goals can be supported by business goals. In fact, they do so naturally. Most businesses have customers, right? Even functions of branding can overlap user goals--wanting to belong, attractiveness, likeability and more can support both user and business goals at the same time.

Here are four practical ways you can help align your business and user goals:

1. User research

Both usability and marketing efforts rely heavily on research. User research can uncover much about business needs on the Web. Combine these research efforts and talk them over with a mixed group of stakeholders. Bring the Web team and marcom group together and go over results from a focus group, for example.

At Phinney/Bischoff, we do a bit of this in our Brand Builder process and I hope to do more. The Web is so central to branding, it’s natural to pull some information about a client’s users (or potential users) along with all the brand perception stuff we gather.

2. Personas

I can’t think of a more natural way to marry business goals with user needs than in the persona process. If you use personas as part of you information architecture or user research process, try getting together with marketing to flesh them out a bit with their information. Another idea would be to actually talk about how their behaviors and attitudes affect the needs of the business.

Personas can be a great way to help clients visualize a user and a conversation starter with stakeholders.

3. User testing

There are a variety of ways people test their sites with users. I’ve run many user testing sessions in different ways, with different goals, and have seen a variety of outcomes. User testing doesn’t have to be an absolute science. You can tweak it to fit your needs and test to see if the business goals are met as well as a user’s personal goals.

4. Coding with Web standards and Web best practices

There is no decision here—just do it. Web standards coding practices help support business and user goals in many ways. Use of CSS for presentation as a best practice, for example, can reduce page weight (which in turn saves bandwidth and reduces load time). Semantic and well-structured markup can make a page easier to use as well as set the table for search-engine indexing. (I could go on.)

There are many other ways you can help align business and user goals. Get creative, innovate and share you’re ideas with others who are in the same boat. If you find something that works, talk about it. Help people understand the value of user-centered design when it comes to business goals. Better yet—prove it!

Showing value

Once you’ve altered your process to help align business and user goals, look for ways to show the value of your efforts in business terms. You can start slowly by holding a postmortem with your client and/or stakeholders to discuss how the project went. Gather success stories that show how user-centered design actually helps meet business goals and go out there and evangelize those to the people who count.

As you begin to get better at this, come up with proof in numbers. Understand the business needs very well before the project begins (a good idea anyway) and identify some baseline measurables you can work with down the road.

It can be easy to forget these things along the way, so add this into your process. Create a milestone relating to proving the value of your efforts. Chances are, you’ll be able to go back later and sell the value of usability in terms your clients or stakeholders will understand.

Finding the sweet spot

As the Web matures and we get better at architecting, designing and building it, our clients and stakeholders will begin to have a better understanding of what goes into a successful Web project. We’re already seeing this, and if we can do our best to educate and take that step forward to bridge the gap between user and business goals, we’ll all be in a better place—what I’ve been calling the “sweet spot.”

The sweet spot is designing in a space and having a process in place that supports as many goals as possible. It’s bridging that (mostly artificial) gap between user and business goals. Finding the sweet spot can be a challenge, but if you’re like me, and you’ve got a passion for your work, you’ll do whatever it takes to find it.

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Related Topics: Business, User-Centered Design (UCD), Web Design, Interaction Design, User Experience

 

D. Keith Robinson is the creative director for Seattle experience design firm Blue Flavor and writes about Web design and more at his blog Asterisk. His expertise comes from 10 years of professional Web development and design for companies like Boeing, Microsoft, and Sony.

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