As anyone who works on the web will tell you, there are two kinds of business website:
- Websites built for their owners
- Websites built for their customers
The first kind of website – the kind that goes on and on about how wonderful the business is, how revolutionary its products are, how many combined years of experience its partners have, how its showroom is the biggest in the Southern hemisphere, and how if that’s not impressive enough they also have this expensive piece of Flash animation to look at – is what Gerry McGovern calls “organisation-centric”. Absolutely everybody in the web industry thinks organisation-centric websites are bad. (Mysteriously, that hasn’t stopped them being built.)
We all agree, then, that the second kind of website – what McGovern calls “customer-centric” – is the good kind. Of course, it’s no surprise that usability experts like McGovern want websites to be customer-centric. But so, nowadays, do web marketers, designers, developers and copywriters.
So that’s that, then. We can get on with our jobs, confident that we all think our websites should be built to please customers, not owners. Who’s for a quick chorus of “Kumbayah”?
If only it were that simple.
There’s customer-centric and there’s customer-centric…
The thing is, saying a website should be “built for customers” can itself mean two different things:
- The site should persuade customers to do what we want them to do.
- The site should help customers to do what they came to do.
The first position is commonly held by sales and marketing professionals, the second by usability experts. Now, I don’t believe that either position is inherently right or wrong: the point is, they’re different.
Of course, “different” doesn’t always mean “incompatible”. In some cases, a sales or marketing objective can dovetail perfectly with a usability objective. Example: you visit Amazon to buy a book. The shopping cart makes it easy to do what you came to do. But at the same time, you’re fulfilling Amazon’s sales objective by handing over your credit card details. Bring out the guitars, it’s “Kumbayah” time!
But it’s not always that easy: sometimes, sales or marketing objectives and usability objectives interfere with each other.
When marketing and usability collide
Here’s an example: a bank wants to make it easy for customers to use its website for internet banking. But it also wants to “cross-sell” other products to those customers. It’s very, very hard to do the cross-selling without interfering with the usability of the internet banking. In the long term, the bank’s best bet – even from a marketing point of view – is to avoid annoying its customers at all costs. But because marketing tends to be driven by short-term objectives and measurable conversions, all too often the loyal customer will end up getting bombarded by pop-up ads.
Another example: as a professional gardener, you have some really valuable expert knowledge to offer website visitors. From a usability perspective, the best thing to do would be to just give all that knowledge away, no sign-ups, no hoops to jump through. But from a marketing perspective, you’re not a charity: at some point you want to make people subscribe to your newsletter before you give them any more goodies. This is a situation where it’s probably right to compromise usability for marketing reasons. (Naturally, you should still make the newsletter signup process as usable as possible.)
Find a balance
Every good website has a different balance between marketing and usability. The key point: don’t assume that just because your website is “customer-centric”, you’ll never have to choose between conflicting priorities. Finding the right balance only becomes easy when you’ve worked out what “customer-centric” means for you.