No, They're Not Stupid

Here’s a hard thing to do for a proud small-biz web site owner.

First, get a total stranger to come and look at your site.

Find a friend of a friend who falls within your target demographic. Sit her down in front of your computer and log her on to your web site.

Now set this person some tasks that require going through a few levels into the site.

Find this. Read such and such. Buy something.

But that’s all. Don’t tell her how to get there.

Just take her to the site and say, “OK, buy a bar of chocolate.” Or whatever the task is going to be.

Chances are that this first-time user won’t take the expected route to where you asked her to go.

Maybe she’ll get lost the moment she leaves the homepage. Maybe she just won’t see that “Buy Chocolate Here” link. Maybe the navigation on your site isn’t that great after all. Maybe stuff is just hard to find. Sure, it’s easy for you, because you live and breathe your site.

At some point, this stranger may look back at you with an apologetic shrug and say, “Sorry, just can’t find it.”

Now here comes the hard bit.

At this point that little voice in your head will say one of two things.

One – “Jeez, of all the people I could have picked to do this, I had to pick a complete moron.”

Two – “Ouch, if she couldn’t complete that one simple task, I may have a problem here.”

In the absence of any research on this – that I know of – I’ll make up some results.

My guess is that 90 percent of site owners would respond with a variation of the first option.

We think our sites are great. We spent weeks, months and sometimes years getting them the way they are. We invested big bucks. We may even have flown a guru or two into town to make sure we were on the leading edge.

Trouble is, none of this amounts to a hill of beans if our visitors can’t find what they’re looking for. Quickly and simply.

And the other trouble is, the more time we spend in and around our own sites, the more blind we become to any failings they may have.

So here’s the challenge for the week.

Make a regular habit of getting outsiders to go through your site. Sit with them. Look at their faces as well as at the screen. Watch for signs of hesitation and frustration. See how they set about looking for things – and how this differs from the way you would do it yourself.

And, at all costs, avoid the trap of thinking that these people are stupid if they can’t find what you asked them to look for.

What they actually do at that keyboard represents the brutal reality of your site.

Whether you like it or not.

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