The Top Six Things Users Want In A Website

I’m working on a few projects with different developers, and whenever a new feature or item has to be added to the feature set, there’s always the, “well, we should be doing it this way because I think this site is cool.” That’s wonderful, because it exposes some great work that’s going on out there, but…

…after one of those sessions, I had dinner with friends, and they started talking about was an online shopping experience. The exact feature set the developer wanted to add, my friends basically said it over complicated the process, and made it hard to complete the purchase (I’m going to hide the name to protect the innocent, but it spelled close to Mike, and they sell, uh, shoes).

Note that my friends use technology all the time, but aren’t experts. They are, however, are consumers and are am important part of the new economy. They are typical users that make user experience experts a need. The one site example is cited a lot (well, Amazon does it), but in very few instances does one site make a competitive analysis across sites in the target audience.

So what do users really want?

User experience and development professionals aren’t the ones that should be suggesting all the bells and whistles, so here’s a list I’ve compiled in my head of what I thought users wanted.

Users want the message to be clear

So many websites try to be clever and cute with the tagline, mission statement and other information that they are never clear why the website is up. The best approach is to have a name that is clear and concise, or to create your own brand (Amazon, Google) so you’re name can show up in a dictionary.

For the rest of us struggling to find a website URL that fits our business model, the other approach is to make it clear on the home page what the website is about. Put plenty of hints (like better copy that the outsource website designer can write) so your users have no question about your service or site goals.

Is it an ecommerce site?

Do you provide services?

Are you trying to get people to sign up for something, so you can contact them?

Then state it! Make no bones about what the site is about.

Users want context to see if they fit

Once the user gets to the site and reads the message, they’ll get a better idea if the site or service is for them. Do you patronize a doctor when you have an eye problem? No. So those customers lost are a good thing, because that means that your resources won’t be tied up answering their questions.

How users evaluate a website after making sense of it:

  • Is this a service I need?
  • Do I see enough value in it (time, money) to use it?

That’s it. If you provide them with enough context to make those two decisions, you’re golden. In the end, users are a pretty simple bunch.

Users want consistency

One of the general rules about user interface design is that a consistently bad interface is better than an inconsistently good interface, because at least users know what to expect. That’s the theory of user interface patterns: use generally accepted methods of navigation (except when you know when to break them), and users will implicly recognize what you’re doing without knowing the science behind it.

That said, users don’t care about user interface patterns. They aren’t going to scream about your use of radio buttons versus tabs, they’re aren’t going to leave the site because you used a checkbox wrong. They will leave the site if the navigation moves around and appears in different places on the page, or get frustrated because they can’t find something.

Users want to be heard without having to shout

The 2 or so million Facebook users that complained about the new user interface were a vocal bunch, but they probably aren’t the most important group. When most people are unhappy about a service, they don’t join groups and send messages like that, because most people have don’t have that much free time. Sometimes the squeaky wheel is the wrong wheel.

They do the obvious thing — they leave the site. (Note MySpace’s leveling off of traffic — that’s the best example I’ve seen in a long time of a site not working for its users).

Happy users return. Sad users leave. Get it?

Users don’t want the shiny (unless it’s in context)

That e-commerce website I was talking about used a heavy amount of Javascript, Flash and other Web 2.0 technologies that translate into a richer experience. However, even on my megafast download of a pipe (I think I’m geting 20 down on a regular, sustained basis), the site is slow. Very slow.

Slow translates into lost sales.

Shiny is great, especially if it’s in context — YouTube and some of the music sites are great examples — but they are also barriers for users. They might not have the right plug in installed. They might be on a slow connection. They might have a computer that belongs in the Smithsonian Institution. More often than not, there’s a reason not to use heavy Javascript, Flash and SilverLight than to use it. The shiny is cool, but only when it makes sense.

Users want to be guided (without being guided)

One of the general rules about website usability tests is that you almost never listen to what users say, it’s always what they do. That said, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been through a test where the user absolutely felt stupid using the service or product, mainly because the site wasn’t intuitive enough

Help text generally doesn’t work. Big long Flash introductions don’t work. Dancing flash people don’t work.

What does work are sites are are intuitive enough and forward thinking enough to provide a path for the user to go. The elements of user experience should be defined enough so the site acts the way the user thinks it should act i.e. the user shouldn’t have to learn it, especially for consumer facing sites. It’s about predictive user experience.