Back in high school, I took serious weekly music lessons from a great teacher. Once, he gave me the seemingly goofy assignment to stand up and dance, rather than sit, while practicing my tunes. That’s right, dance. He made the point that if I wanted to play in bands I needed to walk the walk. That meant getting a feel for how standing and moving affected the tunes. Now, at age 17, this seemed like the antithesis of cool, but I did it, and it is indeed completely different to play while standing and moving.
What does this have to do with web work? Plenty. An analogue of that assignment is now an important tool among top website designers: role playing. I recently spoke with two people who oversee some of the largest destination sites about this. They highly recommend playing the roles of different types of visitors, or creating personas, when designing a site.
Over the years that I’ve covered software and applications, I’ve met countless developers and designers who walk to the beat of their own drummers. They are often oblivious to how users may react to interface decisions they make, as though they hear the siren song of an offbeat coder in the distance. They are out of tune with the audience they intend to reach.
Consider this quote from a
“Most web sites today are designed with a ‘one-size-fits-all’ philosophy. The web site designer ‘specs out’ the needs of the web visitor, and then creates the content accordingly. However, one size frequently does not fit all. Visitors may use the site in ways unanticipated by the site designer. For example, a site that contains a broad array of information, such as a software support site, may be structured with a deep hierarchcy according to product, version, operating system, and error condition. However, visitors may follow only a few paths through this site, and the deep hierarchy is needlessly burdensome.”
Falling into the one-size-fits-all trap is all too easy. One top site designer I spoke with described a role-playing design recipe that, at first glance, might seem as goofy as dancing alone with an electric guitar, but he swears by it. Here’s how it works: Let’s say you are the designer for a site called Laptops-‘R-Us, and your goal is to sell laptops. Starting with your home page, take the following steps to name your users and mimic them.
Tape several sheets of paper next to each other on the wall. Write profiles for your potential customers on the sheets. Name them, identify what stage of life they are in, write down what each user wants from your site, and identify how your home page and subsequent links cater to each user most efficiently—or don’t cater to them well.
“Dan is 45, he uses Macs only, and has a network of Macs at his house, where his children also favor them. He’s on a budget, but he wants the best, lightweight notebook he can afford.” Does your home page include pointers or tabs right up top that cater to Dan? Do they take him directly—without detours—to logical ways to sort for inexpensive, lightweight, portable Macs? Click through Dan’s first visit to your site, and answer these questions from his perspective, not yours.
“Sheila is 27. She’s still single, doesn’t have a network set up at home, and doesn’t need a whole lot of connectivity, but she wants a rugged, PC subnotebook. She likes to watch movies on planes.” Do a clickthrough, posing as Sheila, asking the same questions as you navigate from the home page to linked pages, drop-downs, pop-ups, and move toward the buying process. Would your design cause Sheila to pause anywhere, or have questions?
Of course, another practice favored by top site designers is conducting focus groups and surveys, but role-playing and persona creation can bring you toward a design that will be ideal to show to a focus group, or ask about in a survey. This practice defies the all too common “I am the ultimate code jockey and my interface rules” mentality. Also, playing the roles of your users aligns nicely with the proven business rule that the customer is always king.