Lincoln Anderson / Blog / February 16th, 2017

How to Design a Digital Experience Customers Will Hate

Designing a website your customer will hate is easy. Companies do it all the time by falling into a simple trap: assuming that what you want is also what your customer wants. Our own founder has fallen into this trap, and it’s likely your business has done the same.

At 352 Inc., each one of our Product Owners who is serious about building a successful product invests in User Experience (UX) research and testing. We all put our assumptions aside and talk to real customers to get the real story. It’s an exciting and enlightening process every time.

What is most interesting to me, is where our Product Owner’s assumptions and desires run head-on with what their customers actually want. This can happen on a broad spectrum, but I’m going to focus on four simple design assumptions. They are common assumptions, and they can rot your website from the inside.

From design to marketing, your assumptions and intuition may be killing your business.

Assumption 1: Our website needs to be different.

Web sites and applications need to be identifiable. It may benefit from a hook, say – a unique, compelling feature which no competitor offers, and no other competitor could offer. But, it does not need to be different in every single way. In fact, one of the leading design complaints from web users is that interfaces are not intuitive. Intuitive is a fancy word that means “familiar.” Familiar design elements mean users don’t need to expend any energy figuring things out or reading signs. They simply know their way around and can easily achieve their goals.

Consider if you visited a town you’d never been to, where all the stop signs were green triangles and every restaurant served only cotton candy. How long do you think it would take for these quirky features to become major annoyances? Governments and major consumer chains alike expend so much effort on standardization and consistency across locations for good reason; users need instantly recognizable cues to find success with your products.

Don’t overcomplicate things. Familiar is good. Uncover the one special thing is that makes your offering compelling, and focus on that.

Assumption 2: Our home page needs to be a one-stop shop.

A homepage needs to accommodate a variety of users. It should clearly direct each of them to the right path. But it does not need to fully address every single use case in detail. In fact, attempting to fill your homepage with information may run you afoul of one of the biggest user complaints: too many focal points. Users routinely express that they want fewer focal points. They say they want sleek designs with less to read and fewer decisions to make. When the signs are few and meaningful you can quickly get where you want to be.

Consider if you walked into a department store, looking to buy a new pair of shoes. You’d likely look for a clear, unobstructed sign reading “Shoes”. But what if the front door was plastered with colorful posters and neon signs? What if there were four salespeople at the door who chatted you up all at once or someone who offered you a job application and an investment prospectus? Would you battle your way through the noise and confusion, or move on to another store that has simple signage and wide aisles? Similarly, a home page with empty space does not make your business look empty. It makes it look organized and approachable.

A homepage or dashboard should not serve as all things to all visitors. It’s simply a launch point that drives visitors to mutually valuable interactions. Don’t turn your homepage into a junk drawer or flea market. Keep it short and sweet.

Assumption 3: Our logo needs to be big.

This one is a bit cheeky, but it’s perhaps the most difficult for business owners and brand owners to accept: customers don’t care about your brand. They care about the value you deliver to them, and how well you continue to do it. If you do it well, they’ll remember your name. Few brands have such cultural relevance that their brand marks carry some significance – a red bottle or golden arches. These companies employ psychologists to help embed their brand in the minds of consumers and to make them subconsciously beloved. But these are very rare. If you’re reading this, it’s a near certainty your customers are not waking up in the middle of the night salivating about your brand.

They simply don’t care. This is a hard pill to swallow because, for you, the brand is very important. It’s your name, your face and your identity. Here’s the truth: Your customers only care about what you can offer them.

Consider your local pest control company, your cell phone provider or the gas station near your house. You might be a loyal customer, but if they changed their name, or logo, would you care? Would you even notice? Maybe. What if their prices doubled, they sold your personal phone number to telemarketers, or if their service broke down. You’d surely remember that – you’d probably tell all your friends.

Customers want to know they can trust you with their personal information. They want to know your product is not going to break. They want to know you’re giving them a fair deal. Focus on these things, and people will remember you, no matter how big your logo is.

Assumption 4: Design happens in a bubble.

What is a design? It’s the thing you produce to support a strategic solution to a problem. A fancy visual mockup that does not serve the bigger picture is worthless. A gorgeous mockup that represents a unified, cohesive vision is invaluable.

Think about how a website fits into a user’s life. How did they find it? Why should they care about what you have to offer? What will they do after they are done using it for the day? What will bring them back? Answers to these questions will inform the content and functionality of the website, which in turn determines the shape of the design.

How do you know if you’re accidentally designing in a bubble? There are some warning signs.

  • Using “lorem ipsum” in your design is one red flag. As filler nonsense used in place of real content that hasn’t been produced, “Lorem Ipsum” shows a clear disconnect between design and marketing strategy. It means your design is built around nonsense. If you don’t know what you’re saying, how can you know how to present the message? Don’t put the cart before the horse. Make your content a top design priority. Figure out what you want to say, then give it visual impact.
  • Another red flag is the phrase “the design phase is done.” You may reach milestones in development – such as establishing a style guide – but in the real world, strategic design is ongoing. A digital product is a living thing that grows and morphs according to technical demands and user feedback. This is especially true of the long-tail of product growth and marketing, where communication and presentation are critical month-to-month.

If you’re new to digital product development, it’s natural to focus on “the build” because it’s consuming all your energy in the moment. But it’s only the tip of the iceberg, and your customers are going to experience the whole thing. A wise product owner knows design is a discipline to integrate all along the way.

There are many pitfalls in a web project, particularly in the early weeks of development. While it’s easy to fall prey to internal assumptions and stakeholder biases, our teams bring years of experience and deep user insights to challenge those assumptions. Building a website that delivers value to users and your business is an iterative process, but with the right approach you’ll build a product that people love.

  • Paul Traylor

    Timeless advice! Thoughtful, user-friendly, content-focused design never disappoints. And who among would say, “I really wish this experience made it a little more challenging to find the information I need”? Thanks for hitting it home!

    • http://352inc.com Lincoln Anderson

      Thanks Paul, I’m really glad you enjoyed the post. Anything else you would add to the list?

      • Paul Traylor

        I might add “Be authentic.”… I think we live in an age of obfuscation. People respond to honesty. For example, even if your company is a fledgling enterprise with 10 employees, celebrate your early accomplishments and your unique values that have lead to your company’s success thus far.

  • http://www.concave.me concave.me

    Thank you Lincoln for these thoughts i am studying a lot about UX these days and this piece was very informative.