Unselfish Design: Building a site for your audience, not yourself

Ian Lurie


When you picture your web site, who is it for? You, or your audience/customers/clients?

Seems obvious, right? A web site is built to address the needs of someone else. You want visitors to buy your product, get your message, support your cause, etc. and the only way to do that is to build a web site that appeals to them.

Yet most web sites I see are clearly built to appeal to the tastes and egos of the CEO, the marketing director or the VP of sales. These sites don’t address the needs of the customer.

‘Selfish design’, as I call it, ignores the fact that, when you hire an Internet marketing professional, you’re hiring them to build a web site for your customers, not for you. And it ignores the basic principle of marketing in any medium: Know Thy Audience. Remember, it’s rare that you, the director of marketing or business owner or other decision maker, are going to have the same limitations and desires as your audience. Practice this design method at your peril.

Here’s a quick example: A few years ago I received a call from a business owner. His site just wasn’t generating any business, he said, and he couldn’t figure out why. He sold a special kind of jeans (actually he didn’t, but I’ve changed the product to protect the innocent) and really thought he’d get more Internet business because of the special audience to which he catered. After a little research, I saw he was right – he had a high-end product, desired by a fairly well-to-do audience. It was the perfect Internet business. But no one could find his site. Why? He had a 45-second Flash introduction on his site. This had two immediate, negative results:

  1. His site was completely invisible to search engines. Anyone searching for ‘jeans’ on Google, Yahoo or MSN had no chance of finding him. So his search engine optimization opportunities were nil.
  2. Most of his customers were in a hurry. The last thing they wanted to do was watch a bunch of animation. They wanted to see his products, make a decision, buy and get out.

This client (he became a client, anyway) had the Flash intro because he wanted one. He wanted to ‘look cool’. But to his audience he already was cool, because of the clothing he sold. He didn’t need to slobber all over them (in a virtual sense). He had his designers build a web site that worked for him, not his customers. Selfish design.

Unselfish design, on the other hand, means putting aside your own wants, dumping the ego trip, and instead focusing on what will work for the folks who really matter: Your customers.

Back to the jeans client for a moment: We chatted a bit about his site, planned out some changes that emphasized unselfish design, and took down the Flash introduction. The result was an immediate top-10 rank on Google, and a tenfold increase in pages viewed per visitor. So, where visitors used to reach his site, view one page, and leave, they now view an average of ten pages before leaving. Internet sales jumped, too.

Unselfish design led to better search engine optimization, a more usable site, and a far higher rate of customer participation.

So, when you hire a consultant to plan out your site, remember what you’re hiring them for: To improve your business. And that means creating something that appeals to your audience.

Ian Lurie

Ian Lurie is the founder of Portent. He's been a digital marketer since the days of AOL and Compuserve (that's more than 25 years, if you're counting). Ian's recorded training for Lynda.com, writes regularly for the Portent Blog and has been published on AllThingsD, Smashing Magazine, and TechCrunch. Ian speaks at conferences around the world, including SearchLove, MozCon, Seattle Interactive Conference and ad:Tech. He has published several books about business and marketing: One Trick Ponies Get Shot, available on Kindle, The Web Marketing All-In-One Desk Reference for Dummies, and Conversation Marketing. Ian is now an independent consultant and continues to work with the Portent team, training the agency group on all things digital. You can find him at www.ianlurie.com

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