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User knows best

What’s the secret of online success? Sexy bells and whistles or simple clear solutions to customer needs? I think you know the answer. And the best way to get there is to put the customer at the centre of your planning and design processes. If you can do that, says Paul Hood, then you are well placed for long term growth.

By Paul Hood

The battle for consumer attention online is upon us, it’s here to stay and undoubtedly it will become increasingly fierce as we go forward. It’s not easy to keep up with the various latest web-build technologies; indeed barely a week goes by without news of interesting new online propositions. In this article, I hope to show that the raw ingredients needed for developing a successful internet proposition are easily accessible. By adopting a thoughtful and customer-focused approach, it is relatively straightforward to build a very effective and durable online proposition.

Sites come, sites go

We only have to look back two or three years to see that the way we use the internet medium has evolved at a phenomenal rate. So fast has been this evolution that many of the business models developed to monetise web properties have proven outdated and unworkable just a few months after conception. As a result, internet nirvana from a commercial perspective has proven elusive for many. For those who seem to be on the right track, success has often been short-lived. Social networking online is a good example of a category that has evolved so rapidly that it is still unclear exactly what the eventual commercial model will look like. Yet even in this strong-growth category, there have been some high-profile flops. When ITV acquired Friends Reunited, it was easy to see the appeal; here was a site that allowed users to get back in touch with old school friends far more conveniently and quickly than had previously been possible. We joined Friends Reunited in our thousands and happily parted with the £5 subscription fee. However, it wasn’t long before MySpace became the site of choice in the social networking category. Then came Bebo, and most recently Facebook. By August 2007, Facebook already had over 6.5m regular users in the UK; more than triple Friends Reunited’s audience of 2.1m, according to Nielsen/NetRatings. The five-year plan that ITV had for Friends Reunited must be in tatters – perhaps they should put up a page on ‘Where Are You Now’?

The long stayers

And yet, despite the apparent lack of loyalty within product categories online, there are a good many websites that go from strength to strength, seemingly unaffected by the hugely competitive nature of the medium. For example, both and have been with us since the early days of the web, and ten years on both are in a rude state of health.

When we look at the approach taken by online category leaders such as Amazon and eBay, there is a business principle that both apply with strict discipline. In doing so, they give themselves a powerful protection from competitors and ensure stellar performance year after year.

Keep it simple

Here’s one of the key business principles that eBay and Amazon have in common: they strive unswervingly to meet the needs of their customers in as straightforward a way as possible. They know what their customers want and they deliver their product or service in a straightforward, uncomplicated way.

This approach to exploiting the online medium as a powerful marketing tool may seem simplistic and obvious. Yet scores of businesses fail to get this step right before moving on to the more exciting business of applying design touches and snazzy new functionality. The internet medium is not a cure-all for the challenges of business growth. Those businesses that exploit the medium best, take the time to understand what their customers want from their brand online. They invest the necessary time and effort into making sure that the needs and goals of their customers are genuinely unearthed and understood. The trick here is to avoid the temptation to try to think one step ahead. Unnecessary complexity turns customers off very quickly. Outside-the-box strategy is terrific, when it works. But if a website performs its core function badly, its users are unlikely to be interested in the peripheral functions.

Admittedly, simplicity of delivery can seem unimaginative. But whether on or offline, there is an undeniable truth that the vast majority of customers aren’t necessarily looking to buy a product or service because it offers something unique. Most customers will buy from the place which meets their basic needs from the product category a bit better or more conveniently than the competition.

Fit for purpose

A good starting point in the mission to make any website better and easier to use is to find out how ‘fit for purpose’ your website is. If the basic ‘raison d’etre’ is not clear or the customer goals are not well supported, then these two aspects should be addressed as a priority. Bells and whistles should not be on the shopping list at this stage. Getting the basics securely in place should be the primary concern.

Once the customer insight work has been done, and the objectives of the site are clear, the next step is to structure the site so that it is easy for users to find their way around and feel comfortable and in control of the experience. Placing user-experience at the centre of web strategy may necessitate a radical overhaul of the information architecture. It might also be costly and will certainly cause short-term inconvenience. But if you’re serious about supporting the basic needs and expectations of your customers, then a user-centred design approach is key. This is often the most difficult step to take – building (or re-building) a website with user-experience playing a key role at every stage of the design process is time-consuming. It means involving users throughout the entire process, from identifying the user-needs and site objectives right through to the final visual design layer. This approach to developing or improving a web proposition is unknown territory for many. It involves a deep understanding of the complex art of Human-Computer Interaction as well as constant user testing throughout. These are highly specialist skills, so there’s a good chance that you will need to bring in external expertise to help with the process. The good news is that there are a growing number of specialist businesses that can offer valuable guidance in this area. As long as you choose with care; getting help from a business with a proven track record in the area of user-centred design is a wise investment.

Changes at

In the case of, the results of user-testing the existing site structure combined with a top-level usability review provided fantastic insight into the way in which people used the site. Some of this insight was unsurprising and could have been deduced using the data from our web analytics software. However, the vast majority of the most valuable user-feedback was information that could not have been deduced from the usage data alone, and it was this insight which enabled us to confidently introduce a number of ‘quick-win’ changes to immediately improve the user-experience for a vast segment of our userbase.

And whilst the development of continues to be very much work-in-progress, we’ve witnessed some tremendously positive results from this initial review. In the three months following the implementation of the changes recommended by the usability / accessibility review, we’ve seen visitor frequency increase by over 165%, average dwell times are up by 38% and the percentage of users coming to the site from bookmarks is up by 67%. According to Nielsen/NetRatings, the Daily Mirror website was the third fastest growing newspaper website in the period Jan–Aug 07. All of this growth was organic and largely attributable to the implementation of relatively straightforward changes made as a direct result of making minor changes to the information architecture of the site based on feedback from high-quality user testing.

The dramatic increase in usage and engagement with that we have seen so far are all clear indicators of a significant improvement in user satisfaction. And if more users are actively choosing the Mirror website as one of their ‘favourites’, then we have been successful in improving users’ experience of the Mirror brand. Positive customer experience leads to greater advocacy; this in turn can translate quickly to a large, loyal audience.

Once you have this, there is a much greater opportunity to harness and exploit the power of the web. For, the next steps will involve communitisation and personalisation to further augment the user experience. One of the joys of taking a user-centred design approach to web development is that it dramatically reduces the likelihood of making spectacular and costly errors of judgement. Although it can be humbling to find out that some of the ‘great’ ideas that may have been dreamt up for improving the website turn out to receive a frosty reception with users; far better to find this out at the prototype rather than the final design stage.

Over to you

If this article has inspired you to investigate user-centred design further, I would encourage you to act decisively rather than just stick a tentative toe in the water. Get your website thoroughly test-driven by users (and prospective users) and do it frequently. By doing so, you will ensure that outcomes of changes you might make to your site are accurately interpreted. Completing the feedback loop is a vital part of user-testing. For example, what does it mean if the number of page impressions jumps by 50% after a simple site change. Does it mean that your users are happily discovering more of your content and so are having a better experience? Or does it mean that they are confused by the unfamiliarity of an unexpected change to the site navigation and are getting lost and confused trying to find what they were looking for? Understanding the outcome of site changes is of critical importance.

Adopting a user-centred approach to the development of your web proposition(s) will ensure that the foundation blocks of your website are in good shape. Once these basics are securely in place, you will have an excellent platform upon which great emotional branding and more radical innovation can be built.