Helping Your Visitors: a State of Mind

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#section2

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#section3

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. 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 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#section4

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: 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#section5

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#section6

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?”

35 Reader Comments

  1. but it’s not. Thank you Nick for this wonderful article. As web designers we pratically think in html and css, but we sometimes forget that those markup languages are created for one and only one purpose: to provide the right kind of information to the right kind of people. Content is far more important than colours and shapes.

    I will certainly read your article again when I start developing a new website, to make sure my visitors get the information they want.


  2. Does anyone else think that Dell’s website is cumbersome at best? If I go to their site looking for drivers, I have to click on “Support” and then tell them what sort of a users I am (Home, Business, Educational). Then I have to log in (couldn’t I have logged in first? then it could remember what sort of a user I am). Then I have to enter a service tag for the system that I want drivers for, but even though I’ve logged in, the site doesn’t remember what systems I own.

    Dell may be user-centric, whatever that means, but I think they’ve got a lot to learn about usability.

  3. I’m kinda with Stewart on this, the site is great for when you don’t know what you want and fall into a broad demographic, but once you want something specific things can get messy.

    And the thing about clear and simple navigation is that it can breed familiarity and contempt.
    Separated at birth?

  4. the meat of what Nick is saying is absolutely fundamental – let your users know what they can do and how you can help.

  5. I enjoyed the reading and it reminds of a lot of fundamentals. I like those articles. I should make it sticky somewhere on my computer. I’m keeping it in my mind. Oh, by the way date in the rss is wrong (03 instead of 04).

  6. I agree with Stewart. Dell’s site is totally cumbersome. If I had to choose a PC site which separates Home and Business well, it would be

  7. is one of the least user friendly sites one could come up with. It’s only good for one type of person; the one that has no idea what they need.

  8. I don’t mean to be a basher but Microsoft’s front page has over 70 links. I don’t know about you but that’s what I call a link dump.

    The rest of your article is very enlightening.

  9. I agree with Andy. The substance of this article is spot-on, although the example sites aren’t ones I would have chosen, for reasons already stated by other folks in this forum.

    I’d also like to say I’m glad to see ALA running articles like this one, in addition to its more staple diet of cutting-edge CSS, etc.

    Don’t get me wrong. I relish the cutting-edge standards based stuff. But I also appreciate it when ALA runs good solid material on best practices.

    “Helping Visitors” qualifies as the kind of piece I can show colleagues and clients instead of arguing with them when they want to use menu labels that only make sense to stakeholders.

    I appreciate anything well written and authoritative that I can put in front of argumentative clients … and save my breath for other battles. 🙂

  10. It strikes me that while digging through your logs may be the simplest way to find the language your customers use, it’s not the best.

    Logically, you are only going to find terms you are already using, as that’s how they found you in the search engine in the first place. If you’re totally off-base in your language, visitors will never arrive at your site at all.

  11. “It’s only good for one type of person; the one that has no idea what they need.”

    You mean like most of the people on the web? Most of the people who would visit the sites you and I make? and most sites like it are not made for people who want to immediately charge into the purchasing process, their research and budgeting considerations already taken care of. They are made for people who want to shop. That’s their primary purpose. Just like a real storefront, they have window dressing and encourage you to explore their products. So in that sense, it is user centric in that it is focused on the job most site visitors would use it for. People like you and me are not exactly a target demograhic for companies like Dell.

    Although I admit that it’d be cool if they had a sub site or a link off of the main page for people who are ready to get right down to business and are done shopping.

  12. Good point. Too bad we don’t have access to our competitor’s server logs. 😉

    But still, your own server logs can be a great way to judge what is working and what isn’t. If you’re selling Granny’s Slow Cooked Country Peas and you describe them as “chocked full of slow cooked country goodness and green pea-ness” and “slow cooked” and “country goodness” turn up consistently in your search engine hits, but “green pea-ness” never does, you should probably consider a rewrite.

  13. Post-modernists claim that it’s much more likely for any attempt at communication to be misread than properly interpreted, and by extension all attempts at communication are pretty pointless. But then, post-modernism is filled with good ideas taken to logical extremes, at which point they become rather ridiculous. While I don’t think bleeding edge literary theory ever directly impacts common society, it does trickle down more effectively than Reaganomics. I think that the particular belief that language (written, spoken, or purely visual) is relatively worthless has lead to the abundance of jargon, corporate lingo, and academic language which fulfills the potential for language to be meaningless. There’s a plug-in for Dreamweaver that will insert filler text into your files. It can use Lorem Ipsom or meaningless corporate fodder. I have heard (but have no way of verifying) that a student once turned in a paper written by the Postmodernism Generator (located at and received high marks. At least when academic works were penned in Latin we could admit that it was a different language.

    The primary function of such language seems to be to exclude others and feed the fevered egos of corporate big wigs and intellectuals. Jargon is a bit more acceptable. In our profession, for example, we have to toss around terms like xml and css in order to communicate with each other. We’ve got to call them something, and we can’t call them spaghetti and meatballs or things would be really confusing. We can go full throttle jargon when talking with other web professionals, but we tailor are pitches to clients to match the level of technical understanding of the client (“If I use pretty colors the stuff will look better on that tv thing attached to your computer”). We need to do the same thing for site visitors.

    Not to fan the flames of egos, but most web professionals are smarter than the average bear. So if you are responsible for providing content as well as markup and structure and graphics and whatever else the client demands, and you’ve got what seems to be a perfect write up in front of you, it’s probably just over the head of your average site visitor.

    Here’s a good example of the sort of language I’m talking about:

  14. I just want to say “Thank You”, Nick, for writing this. So often designers and coders alike fail to understand what an average *person* [rather than user/eyeball/hit/etc.] is going to want to do on a site. More often, the creators push their own agenda of what they want that user to do. Big difference, and one more of us should be aware of.

    Thanks again

  15. Nice article. The only thing I would like to add based on my experience is to use as much self-evident navigation titles whenever possible. For good or bad, most of the www users have come to accept and understand what type of information they will find behind the links titled “home”, “about”, “products and services”, and “contact”. This is one of very few rarities that needs to be taken advantages of. Still I see many established sites being cute with their navigation titles. They’re either too vague to the new visitors or unnecessarily descriptive.

  16. Good article! However, this stuff should be fundamental for every web designer. All of the points the author makes are good ones, and although some commenters have frowned at the dell and MS examples, the reason those pages are designed in their respective manners is because both of those companies utilize User Centered Design to really get to know their users: who they are, their crucial tasks, their needs, their attitudes. It is much more imvolved than just analyzing log files.

    These are all things that go way beyond using descriptive linking and appropriate language: those are the “basics”. UCD should be used to drive information architecture, and all other aspects of the user experience. The site creators take the findings of UCD research, and then make the appropriate compromises to accomodate both the user experience and metric driven business objectives.

  17. I have traversed Dell’s website and many times and I must say that I disagree with the article on their ease of usability. Both are cumbersome and confusing, and I’ve gotten lost and frustrated in both quite often.

    I would say that, however, is very usable. The navigation is very clear, straightforward, and consistent, and the content is minimal and to the point.

  18. Over the past couple of years, I did a major overhaul of how I write web pages. (much of this due to suggestions at

    I’ve finally implemented a couple of web sites which use these techniques:

    There are still a few major shortcomings which I am in the process of correcting:
    Most significant is that both of these sites only work well with IE6 and with Javascript ON

    …I know… bad… bad…

    …I have some solid plans for getting them to work well with or without Javascript and with IE5+ & Mozilla.

    Nevertheless, check them out with IE6 and Javascript.

    Visit the inside pages and check out how the subnav tree on the left mirrors that section’s dropdown menu up top.

    Also, the site APPEARS to be a frames site, but is not (view source to see).

    Also, many of the goodies I describe use a minimum amount of Javascript so as to rely on CSS as much as possible. This makes these download and run much more efficiently than the similar Javascript-heavy tools of past years.

    I also use much CSS to keep the actual page content to a minimum. Also, since the Javascript menus NEED a little javascript to work, these are referenced in an external javascript file. Keyword density is helped by this strategy.

    Finally, while I said that Javascript won’t work yet, I did design it with the idea of a graceful degrade with Javascript turned off.

    The ideas, once I get it working, is that the top navbar buttons would work without Javascript and the left navbar would still be in view without Javascript.

    Compliments AND Criticisms welcome.

    Rob McEwen
    PowerView Systems

  19. Also, many of the pages are still spartan (and the home page is about to get a makeover). The following is a good example of how all the pages will eventually look:

    (In both instances, each of these clients had tremendous problems with their previous web site providers… they both said, “just get it up there, even if some pages are a little sparse or missing”)

    Rob McEwen

  20. I found the subject and many of the points of the article to be very correct, however Microsoft.Com is just not a good example of “Helping Your Visitors.” That web site makes an average user [or even an experienced web developer] sit there for several minutes before finding a relevant link. I think that YES we must design with the User in mind, but this Does NOT mean we should create a page with 1000 links on it. I’ve seen people goto that website and simply give up after looking at all those links….its just confusing and really poorly designed.

    Simplicity is king…. why choose from 100 links when 10 will do. Microsoft is a HUGE company that offers several different products, why not have a simple interface that allows the web user to look by sections, like “Hardware” “Windows” “Software” etc.

    thats just my 2cents.

  21. I tend to agree with users who’ve posted reflecting on their substandard experiences using the Dell and Microsoft sites. These sites provide a good example of the difficulty of designing “one size fits all” navigation scheme for a large site. For sites like this I’ve found that navigation designed for your primary audience backed by a usable search feature for quick access often works best.

  22. I just had to visit this week to look up some specs on a Dell flatscreen monitor at work. All I wanted to do was go to a Products page, click on Monitors or Hardware, etc., and find what I needed. I had to drill down eight links from the main page to find what I was looking for.This, of course, was after a failed attempt with their site search engine because I initially did not want to self-identify (but gave in, and went back to the main page to start from scratch).

    I hope to God that none of your readers take that part of your article seriously and base their site’s navigation off of Dell’s.

  23. Writing for the web isn’t always obvious.

    I am one of those guys who thinks that many Blogs are an abomination. Especially when related to a Portfolio site. You don’t want to read everything about the designer. You want to know what he can do for you., while probably the final frontier when it comes to “Flash Interface Artists” now that WDDG has “turned to the light”, has a healthy bit of advertising text. In many ways what writing directed to the customer is all about. It’s a lot of cookie-cutters but sometimes that is what seem to work.

  24. External referrer logs will only give you war, fuzzy feeling inside.

    Internal search logs are the most powerfull tool to analyze user behavior. See what search words are used in your Search Box (you ave one, don’t you???) and see what pages do they get at the top.

    Watch carefuly the zero results search terms. Those are the first terms that should be taken care of.

  25. Dell.Com isn’t user-centric. Whenever I visit Dell’s site I have to determine the context of my visit ahead of time.

    Sometimes I’m buying for myself; sometimes for a large company; sometimes for my parent’s small business.

    I’d rather identify what I’m after: a product or a service. Then I can continue from there.

    What does identifying yourself as a consumer, small-biz or large company serve to do? It allows Dell to discriminate you buy presenting different pricing to you.


  26. Word reduction is a fantastic technique: take what you want to say to the user and cut it down to plain and straight-forward language (allowing for tone, of course. 😉 ).

    To paraphrase acclaimed copywriter, Luke Sullivan, “If you can’t reduce your [statement] to a few crisp words and phrases, there’s something wrong with your [statement].”

    Note: Please don’t confuse my use of the word simple with simplistic. I don’t mean to be simplistic. Just. Simple.

  27. I side with Mathew, and agree that is extremely usable, and has one of the clearest and most effective interfaces I have ever seen.

    Dell and Microsoft I agree suffer from the problems others have mentioned.

  28. Generally a good article, but I have to take issue with the use of Dell as a good example of design.

    When I go there, I want to buy a computer. These days Dell doesn’t let me do that – instead it wants to know what type of organization I work for! I find this hugely frustrating, not to mention an invasion of my privacy. Are the computers on sale in each section the same machines, and are they the same price? There’s only one way to find out, and that involves a lot of clicking.

    Imagine if your local supermarket insisted on asking what you do for a living before agreeing to sell you some bacon.

    So I’d add to the article: “don’t put stupid marketing things between your customers and what they’re trying to find”. In this case, it’s computers, in case that’s still not clear.

  29. … that the folks that really need to read this aren’t. I’d have to say that the article did a great job of summarizing the arguments by the preacher to the choir. Thats not bad, as even the choir strays and sins (which is probably worse because you know better)!

  30. Many good points, an excellent read.
    However, i’m a follower of a tactic a friend calls mind-surfing. Basically it involves space-claim management of content based on the methods people use to scan content prior to choosing a course of action.

    With this paradigm, both images and text matter in the context of the medium and the relevance of size and location.
    Or put more simply, .. some see the picture first, and associations commence from there, others seek the title/heading/keyphrase first. Managing content in the terms of visitor Cognition has value in this regard, effective for task-based navigation.

    I have been looking for someone to collaborate on crafting something of a dissertation on this, since i sincerely believe that such cognitive mode attention coupled with your observations are quite key to truely effective outcomes.

  31. Ever considered this. Try going to the Dell site knowing you want a computer. Then ask yourself, what should I buy and then try getting something you want….

    In my humle opinion the Dell site SUCKS big time!

  32. Reading your article made me smile as it validates our argument for splitting our new site into customer groups.

    Great article.

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