In research, we know that there will be a lot of examples in the middle of whatever we’re studying: most of the onions will be fairly round, and about the same size. There are also the sports: the very big ones, very small ones, and very oddly shaped ones.
In the context of search, that means there’ll be a lot of people who look for a company by typing in the company name, a lot of people who look for a product by typing in the name or brand of that product, a lot of people who look for a service by typing in the problem that service is intended to solve.
Then there are people who’ll type in “would texas and oklahoma by northwest of louisiana” and we don’t know what the heck they meant by that. Those are the sports.
For most sites, the majority of visitors will use Internet Explorer, Firefox, or Safari, and someone who uses Netfront or Netscape is a sport.
Tim Brown, in his thought provoking book Change by Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation, says that we ought to observe the sports. We know how most people use kitchen tools, and we know how we do it ourselves. So when Brown’s company was working with a company that made kitchen tools, they studied children and professional chefs — the sports, when it comes to kitchen tools, and that gave them some new insights they wouldn’t have come up with otherwise.
We recently built a website for a client who hadn’t really grasped the concept of the internet. We’ve worked with a couple of people in this population before. We know that they kind of think that Google is in charge of the internet; this recent client asked whether we’d send them a code they could use to put their new website “on the Google site.” We don’t know exactly what they’re imagining, but we’ve had people ask us before whether they needed to buy a space from Google in order to get a website.
If you’re tempted to be scornful of these people, don’t be. There are lots of things you don’t know which they might. Let’s see your entrechat quatre six before you get snarky about them, okay? But I digress.
We’ve also built sites for highly tech oriented people, people who completely understand how the internet works, technically. Often, they have a completely false idea of how their visitors approach their site. We looked recently at the site of a computer repair company which took pride in their SEO, and indeed they have a near perfect score at a popular automatic website grader.
When we tested their site with human beings, though, and particularly with people in their target audience, we found that they didn’t even read the homepage. It doesn’t look like a homepage to them, so they decide that they’re at the wrong place and start pushing buttons in hopes of finding the real homepage. This company probably won’t become a client of ours, though we’d love to work with them, because they, like the people who think that Google owns the internet, are working with a very different paradigm from ours, and they may not want to change it.
People at the edges, the sports, are not your typical customer. You can’t plan your website to accommodate them, or you’ll have issues with the middle of the group, and they are the ones who bring in the funds for your business. Yet the sports give you insights into where your customers might have problems, and into what additional functionality you could be offering and aren’t.
The middle of the group people will make work arounds to deal with flaws in your site. Your response, if they happen to mention it or you happen to see what they’re doing, may be, “You’re not doing it right!” But they may not complain.
They may get slightly frustrated, though, and leave as soon as a better alternative comes along. You may never know what it was that made them leave — they may not really be able to articulate it themselves, in fact.
The sports will get confused and lost, or they may come up with much better ideas that you could build on.
So here are two things to think about when you consider updates to your website:
- Be sure to get enough data that you know which of your subjects are the sports. The one person you ask because you think that he or she is very insightful and savvy? Probably a sport. His or her opinion shouldn’t be confused with the way that most of your visitors will experience the site. Use the data from your analytics to make those basic decisions.
- Be sure to get data from the sports. Once you know how most people are responding to your site, be sure to look more deeply into the data — whether it’s in your analytics, in your test subjects, or in the comments made by your staff — that doesn’t match the overall generalization. That’s where your most innovative ideas are likely to arise.