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Issue № 171

Helping Your Visitors: a State of Mind

by Published in Writing, Usability · 35 Comments

What does “helping your visitors” mean exactly?

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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 isn’t. 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 that’s 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 “catalog” works.

Recognize this moment of difficulty and you’ll 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 she’s 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 can’t 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, we’re 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, you’re 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 can’t the rest of us? Why can’t we design and write homepages that are primarily created with a view to helping each visitor find what he or she wants as quickly as possible?

3. Accept that visitors scan your headings and links

You’ve 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, here’s 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 organization.

And there’s 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. That’s 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.

Don’t use your company’s “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 I’m looking for!”

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 or services.

And when you use the terms that people enter into search engines, you achieve instant recognition. “Hey, these guys are speaking my language!”

Executive Summary

We all want to help our visitors achieve their goals, right? It’s what we want and it’s what they want too.

Being helpful, being focused on helping visitors is a state of mind, it’s 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 people’s 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?”

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