Monday, July 14, 2008

Watch out for the hippo in the room

Forget about the elephant in the room, it’s the h-i-p-p-o we need to watch out for. As in the “highest paid person’s opinion” which, good intentions notwithstanding, isn’t always the most informed. More often, it’s “the reason most web sites suck,” says Google’s analytics evangelist, Avinash Kaushik.

AdAge recently covered his speech to about 200 such hippos – marketing executives from consumer brands like Coca-Cola and Timberland – and his blunt narrative struck home. As someone who has managed the experience for several web sites, I’m all too familiar with the hippo scenario: An enthusiastic exec returns from lunch with new home page layouts scrawled on cocktail napkins. Or the Monday morning email from the CMO with landing pages s/he mocked up in Photoshop over the weekend. After a long inhale, you thank them for their efforts and assure them that we’d consider their ideas.

How often have you sat in meetings to present new designs or user interactions only to reach a conclusion based on the highest paid person’s opinion? If your site design is based on opinion only, it’s probably not serving your audience unless your executive has supernatural abilities to channel customer feedback. (And I’m guessing that’s not the case!)

Turn the conversation to the customer
Next time you’re handed a decree from senior management to change the site, redirect the conversation by putting the focus on the customer. Ask the hippo, “How will your suggestion improve the user experience?” Here are the questions you should be able to answer:
* Who are our users?
* Why are they coming to our web site?
* What are they trying to accomplish?
* Are they successful at reaching their goals? Why or why not?

If you don’t have answers to these questions, tap your users to fill in the gaps. There are many free, online survey tools you can employ such as SurveyMonkey and Zoomerang to better understand their goals, how they’re using your site, and what additional help or support they might need to complete their tasks. Kaushik urged companies to use online surveys to find “segments of discontent” within their user base. By supporting your harshest critics – users with the highest expectations - you’ll be able to meet the needs of a significant portion of your user base.

Armed with rich user input, your site will meet customer needs; and with a little diplomacy, you may even quiet the hippo. Just don’t linger by the watercooler.

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