Over the last few years, I’ve woken up almost every day with insane neck pain. I’ve tried a bunch of different solutions for this: yoga, chiropractic, massage, and so many new pillows (some quite expensive) that my fiancé Nick frequently jokes about my “pillow quiver” – the two Tempurpedic pillows that I switch through every night depending on what position I’m in.
For those who don’t remember the Sobikawa pillow, it is a Japanese pillow that is filled with buckwheat husks. The idea is similar to memory foam, but with one key exception: the husks actually conform to your shape and stay there, making sure that your neck is completely in alignment all night. I had one years ago that I’d bought for $20 at a Walgreens, and I always regretted getting rid of it. But apparently, you can still get them pretty cheaply at target.com.
Cost: around $50, including shipping and tax. Result? The best week of sleep I’ve had in years, and while my neck still has some tightness, the pain that I used to wake up with has already started to go away. The super-expensive Tempurpedic pillows that I’ve been sleeping on for the last couple of years are now sitting in a closet. This simple pillow, filled with organic stuff that would have been thrown away anyway, was what I needed all along.
This experience exemplifies an important component of good design. Sometimes when we decide that we need a new marketing campaign, website, etc. it’s very easy to get caught up in the technology, or in the physical components that we’re looking to create. But often, when this happens, we lose sight of the most important goal of truly effective design: solving a specific business problem.
I see this most frequently in website RFPs. The RFP will list a wide array of technical features that the client wants on the site, but it won’t mention anything about the reason those features are important to them, or what the site itself is meant to accomplish. When we speak with the client contact prior to crafting the proposal (we don’t answer RFPs without having at least one conversation with the client contact to confirm goals and scope), you often find that the client doesn’t actually have a specific reason for that feature; they included it because they thought it was interesting, or because their competitors are using something similar.
For any design project to actually do the work you want it to, it has to start by identifying the real problem that you’re trying to solve. It’s extremely rare that your problem is not having enough technical whiz-bangery or Flash on your site. Much more often, the problem comes down to this:
your website doesn’t communicate your brand in a way that is meaningful and authentic to the people you want to connect with.
That’s it. That’s all. Really.
This is why things like user experience, audience testing and discovery are such a large part of good website design. It’s also why, if you haven’t taken the time to properly think through what you genuinely provide for your customers and craft a brand that properly reflects that, it’s useless to worry about creating a website.
Unless you can approach your project with this level of awareness around who your customers really are, and what they really want/need to hear from you, interactivity and fancy widgets become nothing more than meaningless decoration. Extremely expensive meaningless decoration. Fancy pillows gathering dust in a closet.
Does this mean that you shouldn’t add interactivity or technical features to your site? Not at all.
But every feature on your site, just like every image, shape, type or color choice in a printed piece, must be there for a specific reason.
It must serve a specific need that your customers have. And, most importantly, it must be presented in a way that inspires trust, confidence and an interest in exploring further.
This is the benefit of iterative design, and of open source systems such as Drupal that allow you to evolve your site as your customers’ needs evolve. These approaches allow you to do something very important: start simple. Figure out the basics. Who are your customers? What do they get from you that they can’t get elsewhere? What is their reason for being at your site? What do they need to accomplish there?
For most businesses, there are certain common things that users need. They need a phone number where they can contact someone if they have a question, or if something goes horribly wrong. They need to get a quick overview of what you do, and how it might benefit them. If you’re a retailer, they need to know that they can find what they want at your site easily, they need to trust that their credit card information is safe in your hands, and they need to feel that they’re buying something from a business that is credible. For a food company, they need to know where they can buy your product in their local store, or how to get it for their store, and it would be great if they could buy it online. More importantly, they need to be able to imagine what the product actually tastes like, and that imagining should make them want to try it enough to add it to their cart.
In both of these cases, the last need is the most important. And unfortunately, it’s the one that’s most often overlooked in favor of the technology required to meet the first few needs.