You Are Not Your Member

Seth Godin had a great post a few months ago about a toaster maker who lost sight of its customers. He described a toaster that requires 10 steps just to make toast. He said, “The opportunity online is to fix your toaster. When you want to make toast, the site should get out of the way and let you make toast.”

The same applies to us. Last year, we knew it was time to update our site. The technology was tired. The visual design was dated. The user experience was not right. How did we know? Random comments like:

“ I can’t find what I want.”
“I just call when I want to find out something.”
“The search box $%&*#.”

I was talking to one of our volunteer leaders one day. It was a casual kind of interview as we were scoping out what was right, and wrong, about the site.

I asked him to find the dates for the next meeting of our House of Delegates. He didn’t go to the calendar; he went to the menu section for House content. I asked him why he didn’t go to the calendar. He said, “There’s never anything there. It looks ugly too.”

As we sometimes say in Massachusetts, light dawns on Marblehead.

So it was time to go back to square one, ask our members how they use the site, and ask what they want from it.

We did not know our members as well as we thought. One big surprise was about clinical content. I had always assumed that with all the good clinical content out there (including from our own medical journal, The New England Journal of Medicine), they didn’t need our help.

Hoo boy, was I wrong!

There is too much content out there. They are drowning in it. Our docs said very clearly that they want our help finding the right content to help them get through their day – fast. Relevant by specialty, interest, whatever; doesn’t matter. Just clear out the junk that clutters their day. (Including our own “junk”!) So we’re working on widgets that will pull targeted content from our own publications, and eventually from trusted outside publications too.

That was helpful. But sometimes research can mislead you. When we asked the focus group people if they used RSS feeds, most of them answered, “What’s that?” So we began to think that RSS shouldn’t be a focus. But in another survey, we asked them if they used iGoogle or MyYahoo. More than half said they use it daily or weekly. So guess what – RSS is back in. As my friend Andy Steggles has said, how you ask the question matters.

If you drink the user-centric Kool-Aid, there will be pushback. Your volunteer leaders may insist that they know their members, and tell you how to build your site. Maybe they know, but probably not. Do the research and show them the data.

Your staff leaders may be worried that their content can’t be found. Maybe, but probably not. Do your research, design the wireframes well, test it with users, so you can demonstrate that your members will find it. Show your fellow staffers the data.

A final caveat. Research should guide, but never determine, our decisions. The art of communications and marketing is knowing when to trust your brain, and when to trust your gut.

Using either alone will really mess you up.