June 28th, 2011 by Lincoln Baxter III

Why should I care about your website? The “Court -> Marry” approach.

Who are your visitors? Consider the example where you and I work for a technology company attempting to sell solutions to customers on the web. Our homepage is currently cluttered, and we’re not seeing the conversion numbers that we would like. One of our colleagues has suggested that in order to improve adoption of your products, an architecture diagram with links to various solutions be placed on the splash, or landing page of the company website. It shows a great many products, and how they are all related, but there is not a great deal of immediate information on how to get started with any given topic. This will be the first thing new visitors see when they come looking for… what was I looking for again? There are categorically two kinds of people who visit a website, we will refer to these as group one, and group two:
  1. People who know what they are looking for.
  2. People who have no idea what they are looking for.

Let’s consider the impacts of this impression.

Which of our two groups of people would benefit from an architecture chart (such as the one your colleague suggested?) That’s right, you guessed it; those people are in group number one. They already know what their architecture is going to look like roughly, or know enough to realize they need to do some architecture research and are looking for a specific solution. They may already even be a customer and are simply coming back to the website to find more information about a product they are already using – looking for a user-guide or perhaps the service-desk phone number. Congratulations! You have successfully provided little no value to these users, because you force them to look at a page of marginally information before they can get to what they really want, after digging through a series of links or buttons; we really should have just shown them the information they wanted in the first place, without the little overview of… everything. So what about our second group? Surely everyone else who falls in to group number two must surely benefit from seeing a pretty diagram of all our products laid out in front of them? If we show them everything, they’ll surely be interested in at least one of our goodies, right? Wrong…

Nobody wants it

Unless you have a whole lot of clever visuals and a very well type-set theme, you’ve successfully overloaded your new guests from group number two. Simply because visitors don’t know they want, doesn’t mean they’ll be able to figure out what they want if you show them a picture of everything you can sell them. So let’s think about a restaurant for a moment: It’s the first time you’ve ever eaten here, and the table staff hands you a menu. You open the menu and are presented with 9-point font and about 100 different items, all looking strikingly similar, yet different enough that you’re having a hard time actually deciding whether or not you want the green curry or the yellow curry. You don’t want to pay for both, but waiter, what’s the difference again anyway? Now, if the menu had five items on it, you would probably have quickly decided to go with the green curry, because you weren’t in the mood for pasta or soup.

Wow.

That was fast, and easy. Maybe you were extra hungry, and even asked for an extra side of noodles. It’s not on the menu, but you know they can make it for a reasonable price, and you weren’t too distracted by other choices; you had plenty of time to make up your mind, instead of wasting brainpower reading the rest of the menu. And guess what! Our website is no different; we have hungry customers, but they have no idea what they want. We want our website to be a short menu, presenting only the most valuable options, because once we have made the first sale, people will always ask for little extras. Getting back to our second group of uncertain visitors, this group needs to be held by the hand and guided in from a much simpler starting point. The second, less certain, group is typically much larger than the first, and sometimes more valuable from a growth standpoint (depending on our business model,) since the first already knows what they are looking for. Why not show these new visitors a very simple explanation of the kind of problems we solve, give them a short, concise set of steps to learn more, or even try the product for the first time for free? In short, convince them they need us. But wait, that’s no good either since we’ve now abandoned our previous, more educated and familiar visitors! How can we show our current clients exactly what they want to see, but also show our new guests a brief pitch on why and how to get started?

The “Court -> Marry” approach

The answer, as it turns out, is quite simple, and has benefits beyond avoiding this painful problem: Either provide a very short pitch, followed by links into various product sites, or change the landing page based on whether or not your visitors are logged in! If a visitor is not logged in, or we have not seen them before, we can assume that they want to know why they should log on, why they should create an account, and why they should do business with us. This is the courting phase of the relationship: we are just starting to get to know each other, and we need to convince them that we are the right solution for them. Be a good date, shall we? If a visitor is logged in, we can consider ourselves now to be married, and can assume that they are in group one (our more self-aware visitors.) Because they already have a foot in the door enough to create an account, we can safely assume they are probably already using something, or have begun to start learning something, if not many things that we have to offer. This is the point when we start showing more individual products and architecture suggestions, and less of a “come here and get started” message. This is the “court -> marry” approach for making first impressions with a website. Put simply, we show new visitors the sales pitch, while showing old visitors their personal, more detailed content. The problem now becomes how to get visitors to sign up, but we would have had that problem anyway if we want to have their business! As part of creating the relationship with a new customer, have them create an account on your website. Since we are likely driving most of our business and support through the website already (if we aren’t, we should consider it,) we utilize the on-line communication tools for this dual purpose: Continue to bring return traffic to our website, providing continuing marketing opportunities, while also courting the new visitors.

A real-life example

Consider GitHub, a website that follows these simple practical web user experience practices that have been proven over and over again. Our company is no different from any other company that is trying to promote its business. GitHub is particularly well known for taking these approaches to heart, and pushing the limits of web-browsers in order to facilitate positive user/visitor interactions.

Phase 1: “Courting,” – signed out.

“Show me what I get. Why should I believe you?”

Simply put, this phase is essential because if visitors don’t know what they want, showing them everything you have is not useful to them. Show them how to quickly get something close to what they think they need. They will continue to investigate if the initial courting experience is a success. Notice how most of the space on this page is spent in defining the value that you will get if you use github, and also the value that others are already getting by using github. In addition, testimonials don’t need to be cheesy, and they also have great impact when visitors are not yet sure if they can trust you. Your old users get a nice pretty login link if they are not logged in, and they will use it because they know it brings them to their personalized content.

Phase 2: “Married,” – signed in.

“Show me what I care about. Take care of my specific needs.”

This can be as complex or as simple as we want. There’s no need to present too much custom information on as long as the experience more tailored to what a current client might want to see. Links more appropriate for people who are already in a relationship with us. The point is, we have to show what people want to see, and once we are married, they don’t want to see us flirting any more; they want our full attention, what’s inside, and we have to offer now that we care.

Conclusion

That wasn’t so bad was it? A few developer hours, a few more designer hours, and your website can benefit from these practices in almost no time. It also turns out that the same model also functions well when trying to grow communities around initiatives or causes. Thanks for reading, and I hope you enjoyed this light reading!

References:

http://articles.latimes.com/2009/mar/16/health/he-choices16 http://money.msn.com/saving-money-tips/post.aspx?post=fc73429d-a531-4675-8078-00b8c2ff68b3 http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/27/your-money/27shortcuts.html
Lincoln Baxter, III

About the author:

Lincoln Baxter, III is the Chief Editor of Red Hat Developers, and has worked extensively on JBoss open-source projects; most notably as creator & project lead of JBoss Forge, author of Errai UI, and Project Lead of JBoss Windup. This content represents his personal opinions, not those of his employer.

He is a founder of OCPsoft, the author of PrettyFaces and Rewrite, the leading URL-rewriting extensions for Servlet, Java EE, and Java web frameworks; he is also the author of PrettyTime, social-style date and timestamp formatting for Java. When he is not swimming, running, or playing competitive Magic: The Gathering, Lincoln is focused on promoting open-source software and making technology more accessible for everyone.

Posted in Design

2 Comments

  1. Ted says:

    I’ve got work to do. Homepage redesign to be forthcoming.

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