Having a deep understanding of the gut instinct of your customer is the number one skill of managing a website. That involves getting face to face with them.The web is a self-service environment, and self-service is about convenience, speed and price. When people are engaged in self-service they behave in a gut instinct manner. They behave without a lot of conscious or deliberate thought.
People read on the Web but they read like they're driving down a motorway. They are reading at high speed; they are reading by gut instinct. If you want to understand their behaviour-if you want to understand what makes them click-you need to observe.
That's because when people tell you what they want to do, or what they did do on a website, they are probably not being accurate. It's not that they are deliberately lying. It's more that what they think they did is usually not what they actually did.
That's why usability is such a powerful concept. It's about observation. It's about learning to design based upon what people actually do on your website, not what they say they do.
Some years ago I had a chat with a manager from McDonald's. They told me about how one day they were in their office, and the phone rang. It was a call from head office. The first question the manager got asked was why they were in the office.
If you're a McDonald's manager, you spend a lot of time on the floor, because that's how you manage a self-service environment. That's how you learn how your customers behave. That's how you design a better self-service environment.
Self-service is about removing human interaction. Human-to-human interaction is flexible. In a plush restaurant you don't need clear signs for the toilets, because you can always ask the friendly waiter. In a self-service environment the signs need to be clearer.
The more of your staff you remove from interacting with your customers, the more you as a manager need to get to know the gut instinct of your customer. Thus, managers of websites should be immersing themselves in the behaviour of the people their website is targeted at.
Get out there and observe how your customers read your website. Get out there and talk to them. Learn to read between the lines of what they are saying to you. Immerse yourself in their behaviour.
Remember, your gut instinct behaviour on your website is probably very different to the gut instinct behaviour of your readers. That's because you know your website inside out. Most of your customers hardly know it at all. To your potential customers it's a totally new experience.
Good self-service design is about focusing on the essentials. It's about stripping away everything that is unnecessary. It is about limited choice rather than endless choices. It's about understanding the essence of what someone needs to do to complete a task.
Web management is about understanding how people interact with content. You won't learn to become an effective web manager by sitting behind your desk. Get out there and wear out some shoe leather.
Gerry McGovern, a content management author and consultant
, has spoken, written and consulted extensively on writing for the web and web content management issues since 1994.