Should you design websites for the ‘1%’?

A concern I’ve had for the last ten years is how websites are designed and approved by organisations (both in government and the commercial sector).

In a better-than-average world, when asked to develop a new website or improve an existing one, the web team goes out to discover what users think of the site.

This involves identifying the site’s key audiences and using surveys, focus groups, other research and past feedback to identify good and bad design and usability features.

After this the team come up with concepts, tests them on audiences and refines.

(In a average or worse world the web team isn’t given the time or resourcing to do all this research, so short-cuts the process with their ‘best guess’ design improvements based on feedback and experience. This is far too common but can still deliver improvements.)

When the web team reach final agreement on a few design alternatives, they go to senior management for approval, often with a detailed case explaining all the design decisions.

And this is where the process breaks down.

  • “Can you make the website more blue? I want it to be bluer.”
  • “I like (pick a random site visited in the last day). Can you redesign it so that our website looks just like that one.”
  • “I don’t use search, I use menus, so can you move the search to the bottom right of the page”
  • “I don’t believe anyone wants three columns in a webpage, please restructure to two columns.”
  • “It’s too hard for me to find anything, can you simply list all the main site categories and pages in the homepage.”
  • “We’d prefer to organise information by our divisions rather than by subject, I’m sure that would be much easier to understand”
  • “We actually wanted the website to look just like the printed brochure”
  • “I like the shirt I am wearing today, make the website the same colour”

Suddenly web teams have to reassess what they are attempting to deliver and who they are delivering for.

Their collective expertise and research is no longer relevant.

The audience of the site is no longer relevant.

They are designing for one person, or a small group of people – decision-makers who are often not the target audience and possible don’t even use the website.

This is a source of great frustration for web teams. They are no longer designing for the 99% of their audience, they are designing for the 1%.

Now what if this process was turned on its head…

Rather than having an executive or Minister approve a website, we instead released several near final designs for A/B testing on online audiences (as organisations like Google, Amazon and Microsoft do), a proven and effective technique, or took the final couple of design alternatives and put them online for the public to vote on and thereby approve.

Of course there would still need to be some level of senior executive involvement in defining the organisation’s overall requirements for the website. The site does have to meet the organisation’s goals.

However the actual approval would come from the audience, the 99%, people using the website, the people you wish to communicate with, support, engage or influence.

Radical? Maybe.

Effective. Certainly.


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Steve Cottle

Great post, Craig. I’ve also seen user preferences overruled by an organization’s leadership, which I’ve always considered counter-productive. I like your proposal and would add that organizations should also try understand who is providing feedback and ensure they actually represent the target audience. You may want to attract new users but only be receiving feedback from long-time users who are change averse, or maybe what you want is better utility for your hard core users, not any casual passerby.