The cornerstone of good and successful web sites is laid during the first weeks of a project – long before the first layouts or coding occur. Shortfalls during this phase often lead to higher costs which can be avoided with a good concept.
A couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity of giving a workshop about successful web site concepts at the University of Trier. This first part of my series about web site concepts covers the basics of defining a clear goal for a web project.
An extensive review of the status quo is the basis of a good web site concept. This includes research regarding the principal and the industry. How does the competition presents itself, and which parts of this make sense? It is also worth investigating the premises of the new web site: Which persons are in charge? Who will take care of it? Who will be responsible for support, and how fast will questions be answered? Aspects like these are crucial for deciding which actions are appropriate. For example, an orphaned news section does not make a good impression, but writing news on a regular basis is not simple. This means you should think about who is responsible for tasks like these. That also means devoting enough time or even creating a digital department to foster the online presence.
Obviously, the briefing is also part of the project's foundation. You should take the time for extensive inquiry of the project's conditions. It is important to note that the principal's goals do not necessarily correspond to the goals of users. You should collect this information, but keep in mind to scrutinise it during the contextual inquiry.
Everyone wants to shop securely, but what does that mean?
A simple example: Most e-commerce projects stress the importance of "shopping securely". However, this is not a clear requirement. You can understand security technically, focussing on encryption, but this is of little value if the customers do not understand what that means. You can also use seals of quality to promote feelings of security. In this case, you should ask yourself if these seals are known to the customer, making them suitable as a means to build trust. You should also not forget that security regarding the payment of orders means two different things for the shop and its customers: the former likes to have the money as fast as possible, probably before shipping the order. For the latter, it is the exact opposite. No wonder that services like Paypal were able to establish themselves: They fill the gap between shops and customers by serving as a payment method and offering protection of buyers at the same time.
Define audience and use scenarios
One of my favorite quotes regarding the notion of "target audience" is by Mario Pricken. In his Book on creativity, "Kribbeln im Kopf", he writes:
Everybody is the biggest Nobody.
Mario Pricken, "Kribbeln im Kopf"
At first sight, this sounds obvious. But very often, it is not easy resisting the urge to state something like "we want to reach everybody who is interested in our services". The rationale often is: Why shouldn't we maximize our chances of success by not excluding anybody? The problem is that this does not work, because we would be so vague and general that nobody would really like our service. It is therefore of vital importance defining who and how our users are, including all relevant characteristics.
Understanding audiences with personas
Personas are a useful tool for this: fictional, archetypical profiles of users, containing descriptive details of their life and character. Personas are invented, but nonetheless well-grounded, building on results of user and market research as well as personal observations and interviews. The aim is to make the abstract notion of "target audience" more tangible. In case you are unsure about any decision, you should ask: "What would my persona think?" With a bit of empathy, the decision should thus become a lot easier.
Tip: Create about three to four personas per target audience. If you find out that some aspects are missing, you can always add or revise personas, as long as their number stays feasible.
Define typical use cases with usage scenarios
Closely related to the target audiences is the question of scenarios: What are the needs driving a user to a web site, and how does she get here? The basic question most often is "What can I do here?". This gets more concrete when you put yourself in the user and try to clearly define her needs. Questions could be:
- Can I buy here what I am looking for?
- Where can I log in?
- Is there a job suitable for me?
- What is the telephone number of Miss Miller from the accountants' department?
- Is there an agency nearby?
- Is this shop secure?
Usage scenarios differ from project to project: Online shops are used differently than news sites. In conjunction with personas, scenarios are a valuable tool to put yourself into the users and evaluate the web site's usability.
A good example of well-defined scenarios of use and personas is the landing page of the German dating portal Parship. Targeting adult women and men looking for a relationship, the web site focusses on creating a respectable impression, using several seals, statistics and test results in order to build trust. The registration form is simple and clear ("sign in free of charge"). The randomly changing images of persons look directly at the user and thus create an emotional connection, in conjunction with a seemingly personal statement.
Collect content and material
The quality of content plays a vital role for web sites, so all content should be collected. During a redesign project, this phase can take a lot of time. Lists, diagrams and tables with several hundreds of contents are not unheard of. These methods can also be used to brainstorm contents of new web sites. Also consider which material and media will be used, e.g. images, audio and video files or presentation. If there are none, would it be worthwhile creating some? Let your experience and the results of your research guide you to decide which means are appropriate for a subject. Further advice includes:
- plan for variety, as this keeps the content interesting.
- consider scenarios of use like the question whether someone wants to watch videos while on the train
- take accessibility and preferences into account because all contents should be available for any user, even if that means they can only access the written content (e.g. by using alternative texts for images or transcripts of videos)
Which content does the target audience need in addition? Tools like the Google Keyword Planner or Answer the Public can help defining frequently used keywords and topics.
Define the goals of the web site
Finally, it is possible to define the goal of the web site. Ideally, it should be possible to test goals, in order to be able to iterate and constantly improve. A useful framework is SMART, where each letter stands for another aspect of goals:
- S = specific: The goal should be clear and exact, leaving no room for misinterpretation.
- M = measurable: It should be possible to measure a goal. This means thinking about how to evaluate it.
- A = achievable or agreed: It should be possible to reach a goal, and everybody should agree on its importance.
- R = relevant or realistic: Beware of unrealistic goals ("We want to achieve a huge number of sales without investing in sufficient marketing"). You should also constantly ask whether the goals are relevant. It is easy to confound the goal with the means. For example, the goal is selling more smartphones, not being number 1 for the keyword "smartphone" in the Google search. Obviously, this might be a way to achieve the goal – but there might be other solutions as well.
- T = time-bound: Finally, you should agree on a timeline and evaluate whether you missed it or not. Without a deadline, goals are of little value, because you never get to the point of pausing, evaluating and adapting – one never knows if we reach out goals next month, or next year, or…
The second part of the series covers information design, navigation, interaction design and wireframes as tools for web site concepts.