As part of my work helping companies better connect with people online, I create Web sites and microsites for clients. One place there’s always a lot of back and forth on is around labels and structure. What should we call something? Will people understand what it is? When they see something, will they understand what to do?
I say back and forth because I’m usually in the middle between the client, who has its own language and understanding, and my designers and developers, who have their own. And each is completely convinced that they are right.
My role is to put myself in the customers’ shoes and look at it from an entirely different, sometimes illogical, and often times frustrating point of view. I do this because we sometimes have no idea what’s in someone’s head when they visit us online.
A few days ago I experienced, offline, a perfect and funny example to show what I mean.
This past weekend I ran half of the Burlington Marathon. I’m not a marathon runner so I don’t know all the ins and outs of how things work in a race.
In any case, I met a neighbor the day before the race and she said to look for her at mile 16. She’d be part of the crew handing out water and the like, and she said she would save me some “Goop.” If you don’t know what goop is, it’s the energy paste distance sports people use to recharge during a long event. It usually comes in small packages with tear off tops and comes in a bunch of different flavors.
As I came up to mile 16, I started looking for my friend. While I didn’t see her anywhere, there were a bunch of people handing out water and Gatorade. Further down, a couple of people were holding cardboard plates with white “Goop.”
“Okay,” I thought, “this must be it.” I scooped a tiny bit of goop on my finger and popped it in my mouth. Yuck. Totally tasteless and a little gross. “Hmm,” I thought, “they must have the generic kind if they’re giving out so much of it.”
At mile 18 I saw my friend. She sees me, starts jogging along side of me and directs me to the people handing out goop. And I pick up a couple of packets of flavored goop with tear off tops. Obviously, something has gone terribly wrong. A few miles ahead, there’s another station with the colorless goop on cardboard plates.
“What is that stuff?” I shout as I run by.
“It’s Vaseline,” they shout back. “It’s for chafing.” Despite the brief wave of nausea that hit me, I continued on, running a much faster pace overall than I had expected to. Blame it on the Vaseline.
I was expecting goop at mile 16. I saw what looked exactly like goop and did what you do with goop. I ate it. Except that everything was completely wrong due to my misperceptions, bad labeling and my friend’s incorrect information.
As I thought about it, this is the Web experience of so many surfers. We have an idea in our head, or someone has told us about something. We go to different sites with the thought that people will speak to us with the same terms in our head or that we’ve heard. What happens, though, is that companies speak to us in their own language, with their own meanings and nuances. And we, the customers, get frustrated and leave.
Maybe one day, neuroscience will solve all of this. In the mean time, we need to build chaos into our systems to anticipate the misperceptions of our customers and to figure out a way to speak their language, not ours. Smart companies do this with misspellings for search or URLs, for example. But we follow rigid taxonomies and structures when it comes to a Web site.
Perhaps that’s why some, like Jeremiah Owyang, see a decline in the corporate Web site. If that’s the case, it might be for the better.