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Customer-Centered Web Design

The problems faced by today's Web developers are the same ones faced by any industry as it matures: there is an ever increasing need for value, convenience, and ease of use over the novelty of the technology itself. Learn how to solve these problems using the set of principles, processes, and patterns described.
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One day, while walking down the street, a man encounters a talking dog. Flabbergasted, the man dashes off to tell his friend. As they both rush back to find the talking dog, his friend asks, "A talking dog? What did it say?" The man replies, "Who cares, it's a talking dog!"

A few years ago, the Web was just like the talking dog. It was so new, so fascinating, that its content did not matter. Anybody could create a Web site, and it was fun just to be there. People put Web cameras on coffee makers, on fish tanks, and sometimes even on themselves. People created elaborate Web sites devoted to arcane obsessions, from cult television shows to fetishes too bizarre to put in print.

But then the first commercial Web sites appeared, and for better or worse, the Web took its first few steps growing up.

Since then, designers have explored literally thousands of ideas in an effort to understand and make use of this new medium. The Web is no longer a rambunctious toddler, touching and tasting and trying out every new thing within reach. The Web is maturing, and the problems faced by today's Web developers are the same ones faced by any industry as it matures: More and more people are starting to care about factors like value, convenience, and ease of use over the novelty of the technology itself.

Customer-centered design deals with this change in priorities. In this chapter you will discover the thinking behind customer-centered design, and learn how to apply it to your projects using the principles, processes, and patterns we present.

The Evolution of Web Design

The First Generation · The mantra was "build it, and they will come." Talented individuals and large crews alike built Web sites. These creative and visionary people managed everything from business planning to graphic design and software development in this new medium. But, having built the site, they could say only that they had a Web site. They could not say how their site was performing from the customer's perspective, and what relationship the site had to the business's bottom line.

The Second Generation · The mantra was "advertise that you sell it online, and they will come." Start-ups invested large amounts of capital into expensive ads to drive visitors to their e-commerce sites. Even established companies put ".com" on their letterhead and ran costly campaigns to let people know they hadn't been left behind.

Unfortunately, this strategy did not work because Web design was complex and still misunderstood. For the first time, organizations were building interactive computer interfaces to their products and services. This proved to be a difficult task to execute well. In fact, building a Web site too quickly made its probability of being both compelling and easy to use practically zero.

The Third Generation · Today the focus has shifted to constructing powerful Web sites that provide real value and deliver a positive customer experience. When visitors consistently give a Web site high marks for content, ease of use, performance, trustworthiness, and overall satisfaction, we call it a customer-centered Web site.

We use the term customer rather than user for three reasons. First, only two industries refer to their customers as users: drug dealers and computer companies. We hope to help break this connection between the two. Second, and more importantly, the term customer evokes the fact that successful Web sites account for issues that go beyond ease of use and satisfaction, such as trustworthiness, brand value, and even how well a company's traditional interactions with the customer work, such as telephone-based customer service or the return of merchandise.

Finally, taking a cue from Beyer and Holtzblatt's Contextual Design, we use customer to refer to anyone who uses or depends on the site. Customers can be administrators, partners, managers, and producers, among others. To manage the site, many of these individuals will see a completely different interface. We chose the term customer because it is more expansive than user, referring to all of these individuals and their myriad needs. Consideration of these additional factors is what differentiates customer-centered design from other design approaches (see Figure 1.1).

Figure 1.1Figure 1.1 The key issues driving customer-centered Web design

The challenge to be customer centered exists for all enterprises: large multinationals, government agencies, internal corporate services, small businesses, and nonprofit organizations, to name just a few. General Motors, for example, must manage its customer experience for more than 300 end-customer, supplier, and distributor Web sites. Government sites, with responsibilities to help the citizenry and other agencies, need to satisfy "customer" requirements as well. Intranet applications that optimize a corporation's workforce must provide positive experiences to employee "customers."

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