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Why We Prefer Customer-Centered Design

One way to explain the value of customer-centered design is to compare it to other design styles. In this section we look at four styles centering in turn on the user, the company, technology, and the designer.

User-Centered Design · Customer-centered design is most closely related to what is known as user-centered design, an effort pioneered in the 1980s for engineering useful and usable computer systems. Customer-centered design builds on user-centered design, adding concerns that go beyond ease of use and satisfaction. In particular, it also focuses on the fusion of marketing issues with usability issues.

On the Web it is much easier to get an audience than by traditional means, but you also want to convert Web site visitors to customers and then keep them coming back. Unlike someone selling shrink-wrapped software to a customer who buys before using it, you want to convince Web site visitors to become customers and make their first use enjoyable—all at the same time. Pay special attention to business goals, marketing goals, usability goals, and customer experience goals. These goals often conflict with each other, and you will be able to find a balance among them only if you are aware of them all at once. These issues are much more intertwined and harder to design for on the Web than for shrink-wrapped software.

Company-Centered Design · A style that used to be quite popular among Fortune 500 companies is what we call company-centered design. Here the needs and interests of the company dominate the structure and content of the Web site. The fatal flaw is that what companies think should be on a Web site is not necessarily what customers need or want. You have probably seen Web sites that are organized by internal corporate structure, with sparse information about the products and services they offer. These kinds of sites are derisively termed brochureware. They contain little useful information and completely ignore the unique capabilities of the Web as a medium. Brochureware sites are acceptable only if they are a short-term first step toward more sophisticated and more useful sites.

Another example of company-centered design is the use of jargon known only to those in the business. One of our friends recently wanted to buy a digital camera. As an amateur, he wanted a camera that was easy to use, one that would help him take clear pictures. But instead, most of the sites bombarded him with terms like CCDs, FireWire, PC card slots, and uncompressed TIFF mode. The fact that he didn't know what these terms meant embarrassed him. He was put off and confused. The companies had made the wrong assumption about their customers' knowledge. None of them answered the simple question of which camera was best for amateurs. This is an example of why company-centered design is almost always a bad style.

Top Ten Signs That Things Are Going Badly

  1. "Our Web site is intuitive and user-friendly."

  2. "We need to start doing some usability tests before our launch next month."

  3. "We can use [XML / SOAP / insert other buzzword technology] to fix that."

  4. "If you stop and think about how the interface works for a second, it makes complete sense."

  5. "How can our customers be so stupid? It's so obvious!"

  6. "Well, they should RTFM!"1

  7. "We don't need to do any user testing. I'm a user, and I find it easy to use."

  8. "We'll just put an 'Under Construction' sign there."

  9. "Shrink the fonts more so that we can put more content at the top."

  10. "We need a splash screen."

Technology-Centered Design · Sites constructed on the basis of technology-centered design are often built with little up-front research about business needs and customer needs—just a lot of hacking and caffeine. We have all seen these kinds of Web sites—the ones overloaded with animation, audio, and streaming banners. The problem with this approach is that it often results in amateurish Web sites that are not useful, usable, or desirable. Technology-centered Web sites were pervasive in the early days of the Web, but thankfully they are becoming less common as the Web matures.

Designer-Centered Design · Designer-centered design (also known as ego-centered design) is still popular in certain circles. One designer was quoted in a popular industry rag as saying, "What the client sometimes doesn't understand is the less they talk to us, the better it is. We know what's best." This is exactly what we mean.

Don't get us wrong, though. Some design teams have deep-seated creative urges that are matched only by their incredible technical ability. They can create sites that are cool, edgy, and loaded with the latest technologies. In some cases, this is exactly the image a company wants to project. Unfortunately, these kinds of sites can also be slow to download, as well as hard to use, and they may not work in all Web browsers. Designer-centered design is fine for some art Web sites, but not for e-commerce or informational sites whose livelihood depends on a large number of repeat visitors.

In company-centered design, designers give no thought to why people would visit the company's Web site and what they would want to do there. In technology-centered design, technology is an end rather than a means of accomplishing an end. In designer-centered design, the needs of other people are placed beneath the creative and expressive needs of the design team. Contrast these styles with customer-centered design, which emphasizes customers and their tasks above all, and sees technology as a tool that can empower people.

Company-centered, technology-centered, and designer-centered design styles were understandable in the early days of the Web when designers were still finding their way. In the old worldview, few people really considered what customers wanted. Now, successful and easy-to-use sites like amazon.com, yahoo.com, and ebay.com are designed from the ground up to meet the needs of their customers. In the new worldview, your careful consideration of customers, as reflected in your Web site, will help you achieve long-lasting success.

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