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What Are Your Users Trying to Tell You?

  |  August 29, 2012   |  Comments

Companies need to realize that consumers are manipulating and repurposing websites to better suit their own needs.

With the rise of social media, there's a lot of talk about how companies can no longer maintain total control over their message. Instead, the public has claimed a larger role in guiding the discussions around brands. Smart marketers are tapping into these media to learn how consumers are engaging with their brand and using their products - and the real smart ones are using these insights to improve their offerings.

There's one area where consumers are doing more than just talking, and that is how they engage with websites. Companies can no longer assume they'll put their website out there and their customers will engage with it as given. Instead, consumers are manipulating and repurposing websites to better suit their own needs.

This happens in a few different ways. On the more conceptual side, designers sometimes like to take a crack at redesigning other people's websites to fix the problems they see. While these redesigns often don't account for all the constraints and considerations that the actual designers had to contend with, they do inspire and clarify which elements of design resonate with consumers.

On the practical side, there are many tools that allow users to actually change how they use websites. Whether these are browser extensions that can be used across the whole web, or tools built for specific sites, they strive to improve web experiences for users.

Here are some of the trends that emerge when you look at these modifications.

Emphasis on Usability

The browser extension and app Readability makes content easier to read by extracting text from the site you're viewing and formatting it with a readable typeface and font size. This is in response to websites that get so carried away with design features (like low contrast text or white text on dark backgrounds), that they become inaccessible to readers with impaired vision, and uncomfortable for readers with normal vision.

Another extension, Adblock, hides ads on websites from users. The popularity of Adblock is largely due to intrusive Flash or pop-over ads that can compromise the site experience and make it harder for people to do what they want to do on the site. In 2011, Adblock began allowing non-intrusive ads (especially text ads) in an effort to show that users will reward sites that don't allow ads to ruin the experience.

Phoronix website (as seen by default)

Phoronix website (with Adblock turned on)

Phoronix website (in Readability)

Emphasis on Simplicity

Both Readability and Adblock help users by identifying essential content and stripping out distractions and clutter. This is also a trend that we see in many unsolicited site redesigns (where designers mock up a redesign of an existing site to explore design options). A recent example is a Wikipedia redesign, which puts the emphasis on the search box, where most people start off, rather than the lists of languages.

Wikipedia (current design)

Wikipedia redefined

Of course, not everybody agrees about what is and isn't clutter. To many site owners, ads are not so much clutter as essential elements. And many international users wouldn't be happy with the way the proposed Wikipedia redesign hides alternate languages. But the emphasis on essential content and functionality is still sound.

Emphasis on Control

Users often like to be able to control their experience on the websites they visit. A great example of this is Social Fixer, a browser extension that gives users much more control over their Facebook experience. Social Fixer enables you to get rid of panels that aren't useful, and change the way the feed appears, as well as other parts of the interface. In many cases, it allows users to reverse or alter the choices Facebook has made on their behalf - choices that don't always mesh with what users actually want.

Social Fixer control panel

Unless you run a really prominent website, there's a good chance that your site won't be getting an unsolicited redesign or a targeted browser extension. But it's still helpful to look at how consumers are modifying sites to see where users are frustrated with their current web experiences and which experiences are seen as ideal. Then you can try to provide that experience from the start.

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Sarah Negugogor

As a senior information architect in Siegel+Gale's Simplification practice, Sarah Negugogor creates clear, user-centered communications that connect with their audience.

Sarah has long been intrigued by the challenge of how to translate complex concepts, particularly scientific and technical information, into plain language that everyone can understand.

As a writer at Carnegie Mellon University and Polytechnic Institute of New York University, Sarah developed communications that explained the universities’ research in clear, engaging language. Most recently, she honed her online information design and web writing skills as web services manager for The Segal Company.

Sarah holds an M.A. in professional writing from Carnegie Mellon University and a B.A. in English from Oberlin College. She currently lives in Brooklyn under the reign of a French bulldog.

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