The temple at Delphi bears the inscription, “Know Thyself.” I would also counsel you to “Know Thy User.” Though I’ve mentioned the utility of listening to users before, the point bears repeating.
With the prevalence of online companies that work business to business (B2B), their ranks swelled by many consumer sites now switching focus, the urgency to center attention on users and their needs has decreased.
Even the term “B2B” erodes the idea that human interaction or human understanding is a necessity. But a business — whether a megacorporation, a small doctor’s office, or an end-to-end e-solution provider working out of a garage in Van Nuys — cannot use your Web site. Only people can use your site, and there’s the rub.
Someone once told me that there is a fine line between ignorance and arrogance. Nowhere is this better typified than in the attitude that you don’t need to get into the user’s head to understand how to sell to him or her.
Let’s pretend that you’ve got an e-business focused on the witch doctor market. Your plan is to build an online marketplace that facilitates the trade of wool of bat and the like and to streamline communications between witch doctors and the spirits they call forth. All very well and good. You’ve got your site up and running, and you’re waiting for the witch doctors to start logging on and paying you for your services.
It is now likely that you are having trouble getting any witch doctors to use your site, since witch doctors are probably much like medical doctors in their relatively slow adoption of unproven technology. It may also be that they tried your site once and it didn’t help them enough for them to keep using it. If your site is focused on fixing the “witch doctor industry” and not on helping actual witch doctors, you’ve got a serious problem.
What you need to do is get into the heads of the witch doctors and examine how they live their lives. If they have to spend hours every week searching the forests for kava root, and you can put a materials search online, they might use that. If witch doctors make most of their diagnoses with one hand over the patient’s heart, it might be difficult to move consultations online. Deciding which incantation is proper for different ceremonies may be a common concern for witch doctors. A service that assesses the ceremony and suggests proper incantations, along with feedback and suggestions from colleagues, would likely be quite helpful. If spirits don’t do email, your communications platform will be lacking a few crucial pieces. To build a good site for witch doctors, you simply need to understand their situation.
Regardless of the market you are trying to serve or the type of customer you are trying to help, you must know of and understand the problems before you fix them. Otherwise, you are like a doctor placing BAND-AID bandages all over a patient without having any idea of where it hurts.
Do research, study your target market, delve into your user’s day, and test your site with the people who will have to use it. If you’re not helping your users, no amount of voodoo will keep them coming back.