The Importance of a Customer-Centric Design Approach

Gerry McGovern is a world-renowned content-management expert and author of the books, "Content Critical" and "The Web Content Style Guide." User Interface Engineering's Christine Perfetti recently talked with Gerry about the importance of a customer-centric approach to design. Here is what Gerry had to say about his experiences.

UIE: Over the past several years, you've been traveling the world sharing content management and information architecture best practices. Have you come to any new insights?

I've seen that customer focus is the essence of the web economy. The web changes the dynamics of the relationship between the organization and the customer. The customer is more empowered, more in control.

Most organizations aren't focusing enough on the customer. Their marketing material might talk about how important the customer is, but the culture of most companies is organization-centric—they focus on themselves. The problem with this approach is that organization-centric websites fail. The customer-centric websites are the ones that succeed.

What changes have you seen on the Web since you first started talking about it in 1994?

I’ve experienced three major phases for the Web: Infrastructure, Architecture, and Content.

In the early days (1994-1999), the major focus was on Infrastructure. Just getting everything technically working was not that easy. There was a big fascination with technology and a belief that all you needed to do was get the right technology and everything else would fit into place.

Around 1999, a greater emphasis on Architecture began to emerge. People had experimented a lot with layout and navigation, and there was a sense that it was time to begin formulating some rules. Large organizations, which often had totally different designs for their many websites, began to develop best practices and standardize.

In 2003, content began to be recognized as important. The infrastructure and architecture challenges had matured somewhat. There was more time to think about content. Over the years, it surprised me how little respect content had within most organizations. It was seen as a menial, trivial task. Print content was copied and just put up on the Web. From 2003 onwards, the better organizations recognized that there was indeed such a thing as web content, and that if it was professionally managed it became the engine of value for the website.

What led to this increased emphasis on a site's content over the technology?

More and more web teams are realizing that infrastructure and architecture gets you on the pitch, but it is content that will win you the game.

Content makes the sale, delivers the service and builds the brand. The architecture is the container of the website, but content—well, it’s the content in the container. We don’t buy from iTunes because of its architecture; we buy because of its music. Great information architecture is invisible so that the content can shine through.

You've stated that only a small percentage (approximately 10%) of content really makes any difference online. Does this mean that the bulk of content is a waste?

Essentially, yes. Most organizations face two challenges when it comes to content: data management and content management. Organizations produce huge quantities of content/data that needs to be stored for legal and other reasons. Nobody’s interested in this sort of stuff, unless in exceptional circumstances.

Then, you’ve got a small quantity of content that the customer wants—that will help make the sale, deliver the service, and build the brand. This is what I call the killer web content. The other stuff is the filler web content. If you mix the two together, the filler smothers the killer. The job of a web manager is to identify the killer web content.

What are the first steps an organization should consider when they need to get their site's content under control?

Stop thinking that they’re the center of the universe, and that any sane human being will be interested in reading their press releases and all the other self-congratulatory waffle they publish. Start thinking about how they can create a website that can serve their customers better. (This is as true for an intranet as a public website, where the customer is a staff member.)

Being customer focused is not some ‘nice thing to do.’ Customer focus is about hard-edged business. Customers are hugely impatient on the Web. They don’t need to hang around a website that is not directly focused on them. Customer focus is the beginning, middle and end of a successful web strategy.

In your book "Content Critical" you describe the web as a medium for publishing content and recommend that designers view their site as a publication. Given this, when hiring, what roles should an organization seek out for a successful web design team?

The number one skill that every web team should have is the ability and desire to relentlessly focus on the needs of the customer. Web teams must enjoy being around the customer, they must be stimulated by thinking of the customer. You have those skills and everything else fits into place.

The number one skill of an editor is not the ability to write. There are many people who are technically good writers but their content is not engaging. The editor must know their reader/customer inside out. They must also have empathy for their reader—be able to think like them, feel like them.

How do you recommend teams go about testing the effectiveness of their site's content?

An emphasis on usability practices is critical. Get in front of the customer. Watch how they use your product. But, of course, there is nothing new about this approach. It’s how Ray Kroc built McDonald’s. It’s how Sam Walton built WalMart.

A testing technique I have been developing over the last five years is called Customer Carewords. It’s a voting technique that allows customers to vote for the words that mean most to them. Words are what drive actions on a website and if you identify the exact right customer words you’re going to achieve more success.

Has the emergence of RSS feeds changed the way readers interact with web content?

RSS is just another reflection of the empowered customer. It is the customer controlling how and when they want to receive the content. However, I have not noticed a substantial uptake in RSS.

The same with blogging, which is also about empowerment—people finding their own voice. Blogging is just one more sign of an empowered, intelligent, engaged society. No longer is the customer to be always talked at and told what to do. (This is not to say that mass marketing and advertising does not have a role for certain products and services.)

Do new design approaches, such as Rich Internet Applications and AJAX, change the way teams design for content?

I’m afraid I’m no expert on technical issues. Without technology we’d still be living in caves, but there is always a danger that technology becomes the end and not the means.

I tested a series of headings and summaries with 2,000 people in 12 countries. Some summaries and headings never got a single vote. These extremely poor performing headings and summaries had one word in common: technology.

I’m wary of web teams that can’t stop talking about the technology. Morning, noon and night, it is the customer you should be thinking and talking about.

Do you have any recommendations for design teams dealing with organizing content when the site has many different users with divergent needs?

Great websites tend to have a very clear purpose. Like Google, Skype, Netflix or iTunes, they tend to do a few things really well. Websites that are trying to talk to multiple customer groups with multiple needs are by their nature very complex. Simplicity is the foundation stone upon which the self-service model and the convenience society is built.

You might have a divergent customer base but there might be a few tasks that are common to all these customers. Many different types of customers go to an airline website but most of them want to book a cheap flight.

Most sites that have divergent customers with divergent needs probably should either seriously scale back or shut down. It is always a big danger sign when a web team claims all its customers are so different. It generally reflects a lack of management. Any website that tries to serve every customer and every need will do nothing well.

Hear more from Gerry McGovern in his podcast Managing Sites for Top Tasks.

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