Due to the nature of how people use the web, it is important that we constantly strive to meet users’ needs.
When people visit a website, they are normally looking for a specific piece of information. They are highly task-driven. Anything that distracts the user from their task may cause them to become frustrated and leave the website entirely.
On the web, users have access to an almost infinite amount of information at all times. As such, users are easily distracted.
Don't make me think
Using the web also often tends to be an uncomfortable experience. They will typically be reading from a backlit screen, using a keyboard and mouse that may cause a repetitive strain injury, and sitting at an uncomfortable desk.
So our job as web content designers is to help the user find the information they are looking for as quickly and easily as possible.
This concept is summed up by the title of an influential usability book, Don’t Make Me Think by Steve Krug.
This means that we should
- think about our audience,
- write in plain English, and
- structure the information in a way that is easily understood by someone that does not necessarily have strong knowledge of our organisation.
Consider the audience of your content. For instance, the University has certain information that it would like external audiences to know. The needs of current staff are very different. The needs of current students are different again.
You should not mix up information for multiple audiences on one webpage. This requires the user to do the hard work of unpicking the content. It is our duty to do that for them.
Organise information for the user
We should not structure the website the same way the organisation is structured. Even people with a strong knowledge of how the University works do not know everything about each department’s responsibilities.
Users know little and care even less about our bureaucracy. They just want to get to the information. So we should structure the information in a way that users will understand.
A further advantage of this approach is that the structure of the website can remain robust in the face of organisational changes.
For example, the University has a lot of web content about money. People do not always realise which department is responsible for what content. Depending on the subject, it may be Finance, Human Resources, Environmental Health and Safety Services, Registry or Student Services. Ultimately, the user doesn’t know or care.
When responsibility for insurance moved from Finance to EHSS, the web content remained in the same place in the site structure. We did not have to move it from a ‘Finance’ website to an ‘EHSS’ website, which would have had negative consequences on the user experience.
Similarly, content aimed at prospective students has a variety of stakeholders. While Admissions look after the majority of communications with prospective students, other departments have an input. For instance, Registry hold the knowledge about fees and scholarships.
For this reason, we made a very deliberate decision to avoid calling the redesigned website the ‘Admissions’ website. Your average 16- or 17-year-old school leaver has no concept of the Admissions department. They just see ‘the University’, not its individual departments. For this reason, we adopted the phrase ‘Study at St Andrews’ as an active, descriptive title for the section of the website aimed at prospective students.
Advice from the Government Digital Service
This is the government’s first design principle:
Start with needs*
*user needs not government needs
The design process must start with identifying and thinking about real user needs. We should design around those — not around the way the ‘official process’ is at the moment. We must understand those needs thoroughly — interrogating data, not just making assumptions — and we should remember that what external users say that they need is not always what they actually need. We must look carefully at all of the data
We use ‘needs’ as an organising principle since people come to our sites to accomplish tasks and to fulfil needs, not just to hang out. Focusing on needs means we can concentrate on the things that meet the institutional objectives.