Why a user-friendly website still matters
It may sound strange to some people that we are still talking about this concept a whopping 30 years after the Internet gained global attention. But as it has evolved from static HTML pages (remember GIF images of a spinning envelope to write an e-mail to the site’s webmaster? I certainly do…) to rather diverse digital ecosystems to interact with, so have the expectations of website visitors. Not meeting these expectations – or even worse: not knowing what these actually are – is a threat to your customer relationships as well as your business success.
Jakob Nielsen summed it up perfectly:
“If a website is difficult to use, people leave.
If users get lost on a website, they leave.
If a website’s information is hard to read or doesn’t answer users’ key questions, they leave. Note a pattern here?”
So, let’s stop people from leaving and think about what makes them stay.
What is user-friendliness in 2023?
In a world where content management systems and other pre-made solutions promise user- friendliness right out of the box, it’s easy to dismiss this as something that’s been done “well enough” already. While all pre-made solutions will offer a certain degree of usability, true user-friendliness can only be achieved when these factors are in place:
Accessibility: focus on content too
Making your website accessible, its content consumable and its functionalities work on any kind of device is crucial. Being inclusive and not locking people out who may be visually impaired for example used to be the focus of this topic
But there’s much more to be done in terms of removing barriers – language barriers being one of the most expensive to get right: offering high quality translations for your whole website is a tedious task, but well worth the effort. Even if your website is tailored to one specific market, people living in that market might not all speak the same language after all.
Let’s say, English is the only language you’d like to offer. Have you thought about whether your content is actually understandable for your target groups? In practice we see lots of vendors over- or under- challenging their website users through a) content that requires the same level of knowledge as them – the vendors - or b) content that is oversimplified to a degree that it’s almost impossible to learn something from it. Finding the right balance is key here.
Usability: focus on information architecture
It may come as no surprise that we have to talk about usability, too. As a quick reminder: this is where a user, a goal and a context come together. Make sure that you gather together a deep understanding of your users and their goals first.
Then keep in mind that contexts are the key to success here as they influence the requirements to your website’s information architecture drastically. Buying a train ticket online can be part of a comprehensive plan you do at home (think: when going on vacation) or something that must be done on the move as easily as possible (think: when you’re at the platform and the train is already approaching). Finding the right balance between information depth and quick key interactions will result in an information architecture that will have you covered.
Value proposition: focus on people
This is where we focus on the bigger picture. Make sure that the interaction with your company is meaningful and offers value: we want to ensure that people who spend time with you realize that it’s time well spent.
When looking at your most common customer journeys, you can get an idea of the expectations people might have towards your website. These are shaped by what visitors have experienced at every touch point prior to the website, so make sure your website delivers on the promises your online ads have made for example.
The experience on your website then shapes the expectations of what’s coming next and voilà: you have just started to think about how to make your users happy throughout their whole customer lifecycle. This will take some effort, but it’s the first step to turning users into customers and customers into advocates for your brand.
In practice though we see that most companies sort of get it, but getting it right is a whole different kettle of fish. I’m sure you have encountered the odd really weird navigation on a website yourself or the anticipation while watching a load spinner animation after confirming an important purchase only to hope that your order really went through. Have you wondered why on earth situations like these weren’t ironed out years ago? So, let’s have a look at a few key reasons.
What are the main reasons for a lack of user friendliness?
As with most complex projects, it’s only natural that agreeing on a common outcome with many different stakeholders is hard. But claiming that “a design done by a committee is always a compromise” would miss the point entirely: you need to get everyone behind the idea that your website serves its users first and foremost. The concept that it serves your company, its revenue and its growth is also true of course, but these goals can only be met through tailoring it exactly to people’s needs and expectations.
In practice we often see that user-friendliness takes a back seat in favour of aesthetics, budget, or time constraints when it should be at the core of your website’s concept. This rings especially true in a crowded marketplace that makes it easy for people to look elsewhere when they don’t feel welcome on your website.
How to move forward towards more user-friendliness
As a rule of thumb, the user-friendliness of your website is the result of a lot of effort that reaches far beyond the website itself. These four factors should help you have more happy website users and ultimately, more happy customers:
Get your business model ready
Start thinking about what your company can offer to meet your target groups’ demands. People expect immediate solutions, transparent processes and optimal support. Digitizing your supply chain to handle orders more quickly or offering new services, like subscription-based sales instead of individual orders, often unlocks new business potential. User-centred (service) design helps you tackle this challenge with user happiness at the core of your thoughts. While doing so, try to identify a USP of some sorts: what’s the one thing your competitors can’t offer? This is usually a great starting point.
Create a holistic view of your customer experience (CX)
A consistent customer experience throughout the whole touchpoint ecosystem should be one of the most important tasks for your brand. Aligning your marketing with your websites, your apps, your CRM and everything else goes far beyond using the same style guide. Instead create a set of guiding principles for what your brand should feel like. Have a look at Ikea for example: their brand always feels forthcoming, approachable and personal. This covers the tone of voice in their TV ads, the t-shirts employees wear or the fact that they give you paper rulers to keep you from buying something that doesn’t fit.
In practice, this concept needs someone to implement it. Think of this person as a watchdog for your CX who is always acting in your users’ best interests. This will help you improve individual project briefings as well as the overarching experience. Your CX watchdog will help you avoid creating informational silos and enable you to connect all departments of your company for the best possible outcome. To put it simply: go the extra mile and make sure your customer service feels as good as your marketing for example. Because you so want loyal customers, don’t you?
Optimize each touchpoint with the help of data
This is probably the easiest part for you as you have the most experience in this area. The principles of user-centred design (UCD) will help you to take the right perspective from the get-go and always put your users’ needs first.
Use data to gather a deep understanding of your users’ needs. This can immediately be converted into a list of tasks every individual touchpoint has to fulfil. Once you’ve come up with a comprehensive game plan, test things early and reiterate wherever necessary: functional and usability testing help you to create the best version of your website.
Adding elements that make the experience fun and playful might also help a great deal to add a bit of a human touch to an otherwise anonymous interaction with an interface.
All of this might raise initial project budgets, but it’s well worth it in the long run. By knowing which data to collect through your website, you will be able to act as soon as you notice a change in user behaviour and commerce-related KPIs. Is a long period of time users spend on your site a good or a bad thing? Does a high number of pages viewed point to a too complex architecture or that it’s just fun to spend time on your website? It all depends on your business model, your offerings and your users’ needs. Which brings us to the final factor – the one that’s overlooked the most.
Keep an eye on trends and when user needs change
Having a dedicated CX watchdog and maybe even a BI person to constantly find room for improvement for your website is great, but it is our experience that talking to external specialists from time to time will help you greatly in not missing out.
From mega trends (think: the growing interest in sustainable solutions in basically all areas of life) to specific industry shifts (think: how smartphones have disrupted the market for digital cameras), it’s either the “what” or the “how” in customer expectations that evolves with time.
This is why it’s important to learn what users like and dislike about your services and the ways they are represented throughout your website. A great way to do this is to offer meaningful incentives when asking for users’ opinions – after all they are giving you a portion of their valuable time.
We found that stand-alone presents tend to work better than raffles or discounts: you want the relationship with your users to be meaningful and honouring their efforts accordingly is not only a sign of appreciation, but also one of respect.
Another great way to improve the overarching CX is to think outside of the box: what are your equivalents of Ikea’s paper rulers that make the experience at the most critical points of a customer journey so much more enjoyable? These ideas can give you the edge over your competition and make it easier to be perceived as the brand of choice next time a solution from your area of expertise is needed.
The final takeaway
Making your website more user-friendly means nurturing a meaningful relationship with the human beings behind the term “user”. It starts with understanding what problems you can help them solve even before they do so and finding a relatable way to convince them that you have understood their needs. When it comes to your website, these needs greatly influence what it should look and feel like and the more you test, the better you know which KPIs matter the most.
Competence Lead UX