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Don’t be a defender of ideas

27 March

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Given the huge success of both the film and the book, it’s likely that many of you will have enjoyed ‘The Big Short’ – the frankly shocking tale of the 2008 financial crash – in one medium or another.

In the book version Mark Burry, played by Christian Bale in the Hollywood adaptation, is explaining the genesis of his plan to make money from what he predicted would be a huge financial collapse. His investors were growing nervous at the amount of money he’d ploughed into this bold idea, coupled with the potential length of time they’d need to wait for a return. They demanded he explain his rationale. In his words: “I hated discussing ideas with investors because then you become a Defender of the Idea, and that influences your thought process.”

That got me thinking – Defenders of the Idea are all around us, especially when it comes to the online world. Pages are too long, pages are too short, no one clicks more than three times to find what they’re looking for, no one watches videos online and so on.

Usually, these are people at the heads of department, or even the heads of the company – people who assume that, because they know their industry, they know their customers. More specifically, their customers’ behaviour when using their website.

Don’t defend the idea, do deliver the data

There are two primary tenets underpinning a good user experience attitude in a company – you are not your customer, and all web visitors spend more time on websites other than yours. But it’s easy to forget this when faced with your own site.

We were recently called in to consult on a new website where the director’s view was: “No one knows our industry like me, so I’m going to tell you how the site will be structured.” When we told him that his initial idea was potentially not great for users (we always say “potentially” in the first instance because without the data we would also just be defending an idea), his response was rather shocking: “I’m not interested in UX, in testing or in anything like that. It won’t tell me anything about my industry or my customers that I don’t already know.” Wow.

I was stunned – here’s a company with an underperforming website, who have called us in to ask for our expertise. But, they would sooner work in a bubble than be told from his actual users (or even the sales team, who are always a goldmine of information collected from daily customer interaction) what they’d like to see on the site. There was no data to back up his claims, just the belief that his idea was correct. It may well have been, but without any data to counter his argument, all we’d have done by countering him would be to force him further into his self-made corner.

The beauty with digital is that everything can be measured, everything can be tested, and results agreed upon based on your user needs. Here’s where the two mantras come in handy:

You are not your customer: you may think that whizzy new feature you’ve added to a product is what your user wants. That fact about you being Britain’s biggest widget supplier may be a source of pride for you. But, if your user is just looking for a cheap and quick fix, do they care? Even the most successful businesses have tripped up by foisting something on their customers that there’s no real need for and been shocked when they didn’t respond with great enthusiasm. So don’t cling to the idea that you know best – ask them what’s important to them and act accordingly.

People spend more time on sites other than yours: have you come up with a wacky new idea for your site navigation that closely resembles the ‘pick-a-number, pick-a-colour’ game from school? Think it would be amazing to hide all your text until the user completes an elaborate series of steps that they have to guess at? Sure, they’d both be cool ideas if you value style over substance. But there’s a reason certain web standards transcend time, genre and audience. It’s because it is the easiest way for a user to land on a completely new site and have a decent idea of what’s expected of them.

So remember – don’t believe your ideas about your website are the only way to go about it, and don’t believe that your industry knowledge equates to customer insight. All it will do is ensure that, when others present a different opinion on how the site should work, you’ll end up defending what is potentially a bad decision.

Don’t rely on the data, do develop the idea

However…

All good tests come from an idea (even a bad idea). There are plenty of user experience blogs out there that will give you all manner of stats based on countless user tests. They are great for getting a quick ‘finger in the air’ as to whether your idea is fab or fallacy. And some tests are so wildly one-sided that further tests would be a waste of time.

But while these are worth checking out to ensure you’re not making any very fundamental errors, it’s worth remembering that every site IS different. So, it’s also important you test your ideas yourself. You never know, you may discover your audience is the only group of people out there who respond to your wacky idea. Suddenly you are the proud owner of a website that is streets ahead of the competition. And, given you only usually need five people to highlight 85% of your website’s faults, user testing is cheaper than you think.

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