Part 1 of 2
A number of smart businesses are realizing that the organizational characteristics that lead to their successes — such as agility, decentralized decision making, and fast growth — have made their Web sites unworkable through poor development processes and inconsistent user experiences. This frustrates any attempt by visitors to find meaningful information.
The irony here is that for day-to-day business operations such decentralized companies have proven much more "customer-centered" than their monolithic ancestors. By allowing departments to own the customer relationship, these companies rapidly accommodate their customers’ particular needs. However, upon migrating their information and services to the Web, such companies typically offered a site organization that simply mimicked the company’s structure, inevitably confusing the customer, who was not expecting to see labyrinthine departmental structures that they hadn’t realized existed.
Traditionally In the decentralized organization, departments that don’t interact is not an issue, because customers contact only the department that is meaningful to them, not considering the corporation as a whole.
But when department communication is mediated through the single entity of a website, customers can get overwhelmed or confused.
Businesses have recognized this problem from an operational perspective, as evidenced by the success of "Customer Relationship Management" (CRM) technologies that allow an enterprise to follow a customer throughout all their interactions with it. However, such solutions treat the customer as little more than a record in a database, and not a human with needs, wants, desires, goals, and approaches for achieving all of this.
The Web forces companies to evolve their notion of being "customer-centered." Since customers simply don’t care how your enterprise is structured, you must put a single, meaningful face across departments, a face that ensures the customer can find what they want no matter where in the organization it lays.
This is the secret to managing brand perception online. Traditional broadcast media are being replaced by the Web as a primary carrier for brand awareness. Enterprises can no longer depend on "brand messaging" to shape public opinion. Customers form their perceptions through a far more complex set of interactions, both with the company and with other customers. The aggregate of this experience is the individual’s "brand perception."
The best a company can hope for is to influence that perception. And your web site simply exposes your messy and silo-ed enterprise, the customer will assume the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing. But if the site achieves consistency throughout, it presents a unified front that allows the customer to accomplish what they’ve set out to do there.
To develop that single face, follow the steps outlined in this equation:
User Goals and Tasks + Company Mission + Business Goals = Branded Design Solution
User Goals and Tasks. The paramount concern of any website must be what its users seek to accomplish. Through a variety of user research methods, organizations can understand their users’ goals and tasks, and thereby understand what the site must do as regards the primary organization of its content and features.
Company Mission. Since all of a company’s competitors will likely have users with similar goals and tasks, simply meeting their needs would lead to a landscape of nearly identical sites. The design of a site must go beyond what the site does, and the key way a company distinguishes itself is through a coherent singular vision that informs how to meet its users’ needs. It does this through some combination of a corporate mission statement, an understanding of core values, and the employment of the company’s brand attributes.
Business Goals. Any site exists for a number of business reasons, and it is essential that the design of the site be informed by why the company is building it. Only within this framework can success be accurately measured, with the business goals providing the metrics and objectives for the entire endeavor. This awareness colors all activities in the site’s design and development, ensuring that it successfully addresses the company’s needs.
Branded Design Solution. With all the pieces in place, the sum total will be a website with such integrity that it smoothly addresses the desires of its users while satisfying the corporation’s goals for the project.
Now, this is a lot easier said than done. In Part 2 of this essay, to be published next week, I’ll lay out an operational framework for achieving this desired solution.