The Softer Side of Web Design

November 12, 2014

Our work is built around facts: budgets, deliverables, schedules, and requirements. But we can’t ignore the softer side of our work: feelings.

A surprising amount of the work that we do is bound up in feelings. To create effective web experiences and processes, we can’t help but consider the emotional impact of our decisions, whether it’s the phrasing of a call to action, creating a content workflow in the CMS, or assigning a staff member a new responsibility.

In many ways, how we manage these feelings and emotional implications will determine the success of a project. Here are a few ways in which this plays out.

Caring About Your Business

The foundation of content strategy is establishing communications goals, and those typically spring from an understanding of your business goals. That sometimes requires setting aside our personal inclinations and preferences.

Once we understand what your organization is trying to achieve, we can determine the role that web content plays in helping achieve those goals. From there, we need to determine what that content needs from us in terms of messaging, structure, and process to support its mission. It’s how we handle that last bit that really indicates how committed we are to supporting our business objectives.

That may seem like a harsh line to draw, but it’s the truth. Your website is a major business asset, a universally accessible front door, handshake, and transaction point. So, simply put, you can’t care about your business without caring about your website.

Much like we wouldn’t send soldiers to the front line without provisions, armor, and ammunition, we can’t send our content out to the front line of user experience unprepared. It should be developed with best practices in mind, managed with sustainable and sensible processes and workflows, and measured to show conversions and outcomes and inform future decisions.

Caring About Your Users

The balance we strike in every project is the one between meeting user needs and fulfilling business goals. Our research and discovery process typically entails getting to know both the users and the business, so we can see from each end where the needs and opportunities lie and strive to hit the sweet spot that accommodates both. That’s where success lies (and why, for instance, you shouldn’t use your org chart as your site map).

In doing this, we realize that it is about a lot more than just tasks and bottom lines. People approach websites from an emotional context. They have things to do and decisions to make, and there are emotions associated with those. Maybe it’s a student concerned about his financial aid package, or a senior citizen confused about her Medicare options.

“Content strategy practitioners – and, really, the entire UX umbrella – serve a unique role in the life of a web property, in that we act as an advocate for people we may never know,” Blend Interactive’s Corey Vilhauer wrote in a compelling 2012 post about empathy and content strategy, and they are words that still ring frequently in my mind. “Our goal: provide a level of empathy for these strangers. Guide content, design and functionality for an audience of John and Jane Does. Give answers to questions that probably haven’t been asked yet.”

Understanding the context from which the user is approaching our website informs everything from selecting photography to developing voice and tone to phrasing a call-to-action. We want to meet users where they are and help them along their journey in a way that develops affinity between them and the business.

Relatedly, Jim Dalglish, our head of user research, recently wrote about the idea of motivate-ability, “determining whether your website motivates users to take a specific desired action.” Motivate-ability really resides at that aforementioned sweet spot, driving business goals while meeting users’ needs.

Our ethnographic research approach, as Paul Boag indicates, can help truly understand user needs and paint points, as it provides a more up-close, immersive exposure to where they are coming from. But Boag also points to the value of being a well-rounded person and seeking experiences beyond the web industry so we can better empathize with clients and users, who usually come from other industries. By being whole people, we can create whole products.

If you want to read more about motivating web users, I recommend Neuro Web Design: What Makes Them Click? by Susan Weinschenk. It’s a brief and accessible overview of what motivates user behavior on the web.

Caring About You (the Client)

User needs and business goals are great, but on the client side there’s another type of user to consider: the people who will be maintaining the website going forward. That includes in-house communications, web development, or IT staff.

A web project is not just about the resultant words, pixels, and code. It’s really about the people behind it. Who’s writing content? Who’s updating the CMS? These projects typically bring new content expectations, perhaps new staff roles, new content standards to enforce, new workflows to implement in a decentralized environment, or new systems to manage.

In some instances, they require a fundamental revisiting of how the organization perceives the value of the website. Rarely does a web project not call for some degree of culture change. And that means people’s feelings enter into play. A staff member whose role has been primarily in the print domain may need to adapt to working with web content, which could be a difficult transition. Or one content owner’s longstanding beliefs as to how the website should work could be challenged, prompting defensiveness.

“Content strategy and UX are dedicated to enriching the experience and understanding of the people who will come in contact with our web properties,” added Vilhauer in his post on empathy, “but those web properties are run by professionals who are deeply affected by the changes and shifts we put in place.”

In planning and implementing a web project, we can’t ignore this critical audience. A lot of this plays into our “day two” approach to web design projects. How can we ensure that your website remains successful for the long haul? A lot of that has to do with the time we invest in creating sustainable processes and establishing inclusive governance.

But a lot of this also plays out during our research and discovery phase. In addition to talking to members of website’s target audiences, we also field feedback and suggestions from internal audiences, including content owners, site editors, and other internal stakeholders. How can we improve their content workflows, the CMS authoring experience, and other internal challenges they face in maintaining an effective website?

Feelings, Nothing More Than Feelings

It may seem counter-intuitive to couple so much of how we think about an aspect of doing business with squishy, squishy feelings. But ultimately it’s people who are responsible for our website, not robots. And people have back stories, motivations, pain points, secret wishes, and conflict. So the more we can reasonably address those feelings, the better off our web project will be.

Read more on the intersection of web design and content strategy:

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