Helping your Visitors: A State of Mind
by Nick Usborne
What does helping your visitors mean exactly?
It means writing your sites, newsletters and emails in such a way
as to help each visitor achieve his or her goal.
That may sound like a simple task, but it isnt. Before you
can write in a way that helps your visitors, you have to recognize
and achieve a number of things.
1. Recognize that websites are hard to navigate
Even the simplest site is a lot harder to figure out than a catalog
or magazine. We all know how to use a catalog. Start
at the front cover and keep turning the pages. Same deal for every
catalog you touch. It has always been that way and always will be.
If only it were that simple with a website. Unfortunately thats
not the case. With every new site we visit, we have to learn
how it works, how its pages turn, how to find what we
are looking for.
The fact that no two sites are exactly the same creates a roadblock
or speed bump for each new visitor. When they arrive at your site
they have to pause, look around and figure out exactly how this
Recognize this moment of difficulty and youll see that the
text on your homepage has to be very clear and has to help direct
the visitor forward to the information he or she is looking for.
2. Understand what it is your visitors are looking for
We may pay lip service to being visitor-centric, but
all too often our homepages primarily serve the needs of the organization,
or even our own egos.
We carve up the real estate of the page to represent the different
stakeholders in the company. Or we thrust our own views on design
upon the visitor. Internal politics and ego are just two of the
things that make it even harder for a first-time visitor to figure
out how to find what shes looking for.
And to write a homepage that really and truly is there to help
the visitor above all else, we first have to understand the needs
of the visitor.
At this point too many people just throw up their arms and give
up. We have so many different kinds of people looking for
so many different products and services, we cant possibly
write our homepage for the visitor.
Nice excuse, but no reward.
Dell.com does it. Dell has what is probably to most visitor-centric
site of all the computer manufacturers. For years now they have
built a homepage that holds back on saying, Look at us, were
great. Instead they devote a significant part of the page
to an area where visitor can self-select.
The design and text on the page immediately recognizes that some
people are looking for home computers, while others are looking
for networks for local government offices. Both audiences and more
are addressed. The Dell.com page says, in effect, Yes, youre
in the right place. Yes, we can help you. Yes, self-identify and
please click here so we can help you find exactly what you need.
If they can do it, why cant the rest of us? Why cant
we design and write homepages that are primarily created with a
view to helping each visitor find what he or she wants as quickly
3. Accept that visitors scan your headings and links
Youve done it yourself. You go to a new site and scan the
page. You may read one or two headings and links in their entirety,
but often you will skim over others.
Here comes excuse number two: Hey, we have a huge site here.
We have to create a large number of sub-heads and links on the homepage.
Well, heres a really big site that seems to have worked around
that one: Microsoft.com. They may be the dark side to
some designers, but they have a very lean homepage for such a huge
And theres something else to note about how they do things
on the Microsoft page. See the link text? They say enough to get
the point across. Thats helpful. All too often design constraints
limit links to just three or four words each. When that happens,
you often leave the visitor guessing about what is really behind
that link: is it what they are looking for or not? Say enough to
make it clear.
If you want to help your visitors, try to reduce the number of
headings and links on the homepage, and make those forward links
as clear and unambiguous as possible.
4. Be relevant in the words and phrases you use
If you want people to know how to find what they want on your site,
be sure the language you use is relevant to their needs.
At its simplest, this means avoiding corporate-speak and industry
jargon. It means taking the trouble to find out which words and
terms your visitors use when thinking about your products and services.
Dont use your companys hot terms. Write
in a way that is relevant to your visitors.
The words and terms you use are essential to helping people find
what they want. Use language that they recognize. Write in a way
that makes them sit up and think, This is exactly what Im
How can you achieve this? The simplest way is to research your
logs and see what search terms people are using when they arrive
via the search engines. See which words and phrases they use in
their searches. This is the simplest and most elegant way to get
a feel for the language they use when thinking about your products
And when you use the terms that people enter into search engines,
you achieve instant recognition. Hey, these guys are speaking
We all want to help our visitors achieve their goals, right? Its
what we want and its what they want too.
- Being helpful, being focused on helping visitors is a state
of mind, its an attitude.
- It means being an advocate for the visitor.
- It means stripping out the corporate-lingo and industry-speak.
- It means speaking in their language and demanding clarity in
what we write.
- It means writing headings and links with an understanding of
what our visitors want, and what they need to know in order to
move forward from the homepage.
- It means designing each page so that peoples attention
is drawn to key messages and links.
- It means fighting some fights and reclaiming the homepage
for the visitor.
- It means putting a sticky note on your monitor, just to remind
you to stay focused:
- What can I do to this homepage that will make it more
helpful for my visitors?