Gerry McGovern’s newsletter this week is all about the power of watching and listening to the people who use your website. According to Gerry, observing actual behavior really is the only way to know how successful (or not) your site is. It’s all about making sure people can find and do what they want, as fast as possible, and come away with the right answer. It’s all about making sure you don’t waste your audience’s time.
Pretty simple – right? Makes perfect sense. Yet how many web managers and web contributors and - dare I ask? - government managers who want their content to be prominent on agency websites have actually watched and listened to people using their websites?
In almost every class I teach, I ask how many people do - or have done - usability testing (which is using various techniques to watch and listen to people using your website). I’m always surprised how few hands go up. Government websites have been around for 15 years now, but we’re still trying to sit in our offices and second-guess our audiences. Or worse, we use our sites to tell our audiences what we think they should know. Now, there may be some people out there who want government to decide what they should know. But I don’t know those people.
From early on, I knew that listening was key to the success of a web manager. It probably came from those counseling courses I took in grad school. I took to heart what people said or asked in their emails and what they said when I talked to them on the phone or at public demonstrations of HUD’s website. I used what I learned, and I think it helped.
But I confess…it took me years to actually watch someone use the site, in a usability setting. And when I did, I was stunned at what I saw. Sure – some content worked well. Yay! But other content that I thought we had made so obvious and easy, wasn’t. Words that we thought everyone understood were confusing. People took wrong turns. People thought through problems differently than we had. People wasted their time, trying to get an answer on our website. After watching for 15 minutes, I got religion.
Do yourself – and your web audience – a favor. Put aside those site traffic reports and customer satisfaction surveys, and spend some time really listening to and watching people use your website. What you learn will give you the power to make your site better.