Consumer Sensitivity Boot Camp
Regardless of your level of experience producing web sites, you should revisit Consumer Sensitivity Boot Camp before beginning a new site or new phase of an existing site. Why? Well, if you are an experienced site developer, you're probably too jaded to remember what it's like to be a new user (this has certainly happened to us). If you're new at this, then it's likely that you're so excited by design and technical options that you're too distracted to worry about the user. If you work for a large organization, its personality, jargon, and self-perspective may be so instilled in you that you can't begin to imagine what an outsider encounters when confronted by your corporate culture. So now is a good time to run through our Consumer Sensitivity Boot Camp exercise.
Start by assembling the people who will work on developing the site. If this is just you, bring some other folks on board so you have a broader set of perspectives to draw on. So pull together some friends, coworkers, or anyone with at least a little experience using the Web.
Just about everyone in the group knows from their own experiences that using a web site has both good and bad aspects; the secret is to unlock those sentiments by forcing the participants to articulate them. Do this by asking your group (and yourself) to brainstorm answers for the following two simple questions:
• What do you hate about the Web?
• What do you like about the Web?
Usually we start with the hate question, because, interestingly (and sadly) enough, it's almost always easier for people to talk about negatives than positives. In group settings, it's a great way to break the ice. As the participants spew their venom (or offer their niceties), jot each point down on a white board or flip chart.
Once these issues are aired, run through the positives and negatives. Discuss any natural groupings that you notice. We almost always find that the issues raised fall into three general areas: 1) Technical (e.g., effective use of interactivity, bandwidth/download issues); 2) Look and Feel (e.g., complementary aesthetics and functionality, the importance of good copyediting); and 3) Something Else (e.g., finding information sites, site navigation issues). Interestingly, these Something Else issues often directly relate to information architecture. As this is likely the first time the participants have ever been introduced to the concept of information architecture, we like to emphasize strongly that it really does exist and does merit the same consideration as more obvious, tangible areas such as graphic and technical design.
While the group categorizes these issues, some interesting paradoxes often emerge. For example, a common like about web sites is their compelling use of images. Yet a common dislike is gratuitous use of images, many of which take a long time to download without providing useful information or adding any benefit. As such paradoxes emerge, light bulbs ought to appear over the heads of everyone in the group (at least those who thought that building a web site would be easy). It should now be obvious that building a web site and doing it well are two hugely different tasks. If not, be concerned; your colleagues may not be up to the arduous site design and production process that awaits them.
The final step is to see if the members of your group reach consensus on these issues. If you'll be working together on developing the site, it's important that the team comes to a consensus regarding what works and what doesn't. If there are disagreements on certain issues, it's important to acknowledge those and explore why they exist. We often find that these disagreements are directly tied to disciplinary backgrounds. Pointing them out now is a good way to sensitize the participants to something that ought to be, but unfortunately isn't, always obvious: different points of view are represented among both consumers and producers of web content. There isn't necessarily a Right Way or Wrong Way of going about things, but discussing these issues in advance gets them on the table, and gets you that much closer to making a sound and defensible decision once you are ready to begin developing your site.
Of course, you and your colleagues will ideally carry over into the development process your bittersweet memories of what it's like to actually use web sites, resulting in a more user-centered product.