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Webdesign process: is the customer king?

Is the customer king?

You're probably thinking that should be a statement instead of a question.

Well... yes, the customer is king. And no, he isn't really.

One of the main reasons a lot of websites fail to deliver is because they're made according to the specifications of the company that ordered it.

Don't get me wrong. It's good for a web builder or usability expert to find out what the customer wants.

But it's not enough.

We tell most of our customers at the start of a usability project that it doesn't really matter all that much what they think or want. What we think doesn't matter that much either.

It's not your customer's opinion that counts, it's his customers' opinion

You don't make a company's website for that company. You make it for that company's customers. Their needs and expectations are what matters.

A website can only be truly successful if it caters to the needs of its visitors, not to the needs of its owners or makers.

Finding out what visitors want is crucial if you want to base your functional analysis and information architecture on facts rather than feelings.

Companies know their customers

Yeah, right.

That's what I thought. But 10 years of experience have taught me that a lot of companies know surprisingly little about their customers.

Try it yourself if you don't believe me. Ask your customer (or yourself if you're a CEO, communication or marketing manager) questions like:

  • Who visits your website?
  • Why do people visit your website?
  • Why do people buy your product and not your competitor's?
  • Why do they buy product x and not product y of the same series?
  • What are your potential customers' 10 most frequently asked questions?

It's amazing how often companies don't know the answers to these questions. Or how often the answers start with “I think” or “According to us”. Which basically means "We don't know". Time for user research to make sure you can start your answers with "We know".

User research

How do you find out what people want from a website? That's easy: you ask them. And you check what they're already doing on your site.

A few user research methods we use:

  • Logfile analysis
    Logfiles can tell you what people are doing on your website. They can't tell you what they'd like to do or what they can't do.
  • Keyword analysis
    Analysing the keywords people type into your search feature tells you what people are looking for on your site and which words they use.
  • Customer contacts analysis
    Ask everybody in your company who comes into contact with customers to keep track of the questions they ask so you know what the 10 most frequently asked questions are. If you have a call center, get the data from there.
  • Online survey
    An online survey is a great way to find out more about your visitors' profile and what they're looking for on your website. A short survey with the right questions still gets loads of responses.
  • Interviews
    Interviews with potential and existing customers are vital if you want to get details about what they really want from your website.
  • User tests
    User tests will show you what people like and dislike about your website and your competitors'.

Is user research always interesting?

Absolutely. You always learn something new.

Of course you don't always have to use all the methods we described. Our advice is to choose at least 1 analytical method (logfile analysis, keyword analysis or customer contacts analysis) and 1 other method.

Don't get carried away with the number of people you interview or do user tests with either. Around 10 people is plenty, unless of course you have a huge website with loads of different target audiences.


  • Environmental government agency
    The agency thought their website was mostly visited by 2 types of visitors: - Farmers and environmental professionals looking for scientific data. - Companies looking for information on environmental permits.

    Research showed these assumptions were wrong. Sure, 20% of visitors were companies and around 3% were farmers and environmental professionals.

    But about 75% of visitors were regular people looking for information on air and water quality in their area and tips on how to be environmentally friendly.
  • Air conditioning manufacturer
    Our customer thought the website was very important for engineering companies, architects, etc.

    Research showed these people rarely visited the website. The real visitors were end customers looking for information on air conditioning.

    And they weren't too impressed with sales arguments like ‘titanium air filter’ and ‘only 69db’. Their main reasons to buy a particular air conditioning unit were things like ‘it's really quiet' and 'it fits with our decorating scheme'.
  • Hospital
    The hospital we worked for was convinced their website had to inform people about medical conditions and treatments.

    User research told a different story. People were mostly looking for contact information, phone numbers of doctors and visiting hours.

    As a matter of fact, more people used the website to look for information on the cafeteria than information about a medical condition or treatment.
  • Scientific research institute
    User research showed that the visitor profile was very different depending on the language version of the website.

    The Dutch version of the site was mostly visited by teachers, students and non-scientists, looking for general information or didactic material. The English version of the site was mostly visited by staff and scientists from other research institutes and industry, looking for information on specific research projects or scientists' contact details.

So don't talk to the customer?

Of course you should. Talking to your customer is always important.

But don't just talk to the CEO or the web manager. Talk to people from all divisions of the company so you can find out what their expectations are about the website.

And always, always check the company's wishes and expectations against those of the people it's all about: the website's visitors.

Conclusion: talk to your customer and his customers

What does all that talking get you? An excellent view on what the website should and shouldn't do and what the visitors' top tasks are.

The end result: happy website visitors. Which in turn leads to a happy customer for you.

Care to share your experiences?

We'd love to hear from you.

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