User-Centered Design and Your Website

Who is your website FOR? (Hint: It’s not for you.)

Your website should be for your CUSTOMERS, not for YOU.

Read that again. 

When your website is for your customers, it’s designed to provide a better experience For. Your. Customers. Sounds logical, right? But it’s not the way many websites are actually designed. In fact, most websites look good at first glance, but aren’t particularly usable. This is a design flaw, and it happens all over the place, not just in website design. Sometimes it’s obvious, but sometimes it’s a thing that we’ve become so accustomed to that we don’t even recognize it anymore.

The Norman Door

Consider the door. It should be immediately apparent how to interact with a door – but sometimes it can be the least intuitive experience! Exhibit A: This photo of a clean, pretty glass door. Take a good look at this door. How do you suppose you would open it – push, or pull?

Vertical bars on both sides of a closed glass door. Do you push or pull to open it?

Designers call this a Norman door, which is a concept and not an actual style of door. It’s basically any door that’s confusing or difficult to use.

When you approach a door, ask yourself whether the door makes sense. Grade it pass or fail. If you have to guess whether to push or pull, the door fails. If you can’t locate a place to push or pull, the door fails. If you try to push/pull and the door actually slides, the door fails.

How often have you laughed – or gotten annoyed – at yourself for not understanding how to open a door? But it’s not the fault of YOU, the user, that the door failed. In fact, self-blame is a common sign of bad design.

Norman Doors and Websites

Many of us, designers or not, set out to build a beautiful website that we think reflects us. We build pretty websites with a sense of style, pretty colours, and hopefully good copy. Then we sit back and pat ourselves on the back for a job well done. 

But is it? We rarely approach our own websites with a pass/fail test as a user. 

How many of us have Norman doors for websites? It can happen even with good intentions. We all need to start somewhere, and sometimes businesses want only an online calling card, something to get the very basic information “out there”. As long as a user isn’t actively blocked from accessing the information on your website, then perhaps that Norman door is okay – at least for now.

Unfortunately, the Norman effect is often unintentional. It could result from:

  • the designer’s choices
  • the designer’s lack of experience
  • miscommunication between the designer and the client
  • a website theme or template that doesn’t quite cut the mustard, but you’re committed to it (for a variety of possible reasons)
  • a technical, or technological, snafu.

So what should we do? Whether your Norman door website was intentional or not, it’s always worth a revisit. Take a step back. Shake off all you think you know about your website, and try to come at it with fresh eyes – and a different perspective.

Can you fix a Norman Door?

There are often hints that give us extra clues on how to overcome the problem, such as handles, doorknobs, etc. These things usually don’t have any impact on the overall usability and accessibility of the door; they’re really more like bandaids on the problem. 

Gary Larson cartoon of a young student pushing against a door marked "Pull" on a brick building with the sign "Midvale School for the Gifted".
Classic Gary Larson cartoon.

You might put an additional clue in the form of a sign that says “PULL” on one side, “PUSH” on the other. This doesn’t improve the function of the door in the slightest, but at least it gives a visual cue. Whether or not we pick up on that visual cue is another thing – nearly all of us have felt like the kid in this Gary Larson cartoon, pushing against a door clearly marked “Pull”.

You could also add an automatic door-opener to a Norman door. This is an add-on tool that anyone can use. Like the other bandaid solutions, this doesn’t solve the problem of the door’s bad design itself, but it does make the door usable for more people.

What is User-Centered Design?

User-centered design is human-centered design. You want to make it as easy as possible for your human visitors to do what they’re trying to do. Remove the obstacles standing between them and the information or product that they need.

You’ve probably heard this before: Nobody cares about your product or services. Everything they are interested in is what you can DO for THEM.

It’s not because a beautiful website isn’t important (it is!). It’s not because they’re mean. All of us want to find what we’re looking for online as simply and easily as possible.

You don’t want to put another Norman door into the internet world on purpose. We already know there are enough of them out there already! Your website needs to be super clear that you can solve your customer’s problems. 

Does My Business Need a User-Centered Website?

Everything changes. Technology changes. Your business changes and evolves over time. Your customers probably change over time – do you think an older retired person uses a website the same way as a Gen Z user, or even Gen X?  

The reality is that you can’t build a relationship, let alone trust, with your customer or client if you can’t get their attention in the first place. If your customer’s online experience with your business is less than ideal, that’s just one more obstacle that you’re expecting them to overcome. Worse, it’s an obstacle that you’ve not only created yourself, but might even have paid a lot of money for.

Maybe you have an “evergreen” website – one that mostly stays consistent, like a lawyer firm or other professional service. Maybe you sell an online course, offer short or long-term coaching, or you run a really cool podcast. Maybe you have a dynamic e-commerce store. 

Every business should consider what its online user needs from the website, and from you. For example: Is your user trying to book an appointment? Register for a workshop? Subscribe to your podcast? Buy a gidget? Whatever your answer, that action needs to be immediately obvious when they hit your website.

What if My Website is a Norman Door Right Now?

To help your users mitigate the Norman door effect of your website, there could be clues and signs you can add. 

These might include:

  • Focused accent colours
  • Clear calls-to-action
  • Simple, clean layout
  • Search buttons
  • Quick links to relevant information

The most obvious is to make sure the website is a responsive design. This is like the automatic door-opener installation – it’s added to the existing website, and it makes the existing content more usable, but just like the door-opener it doesn’t address the root problem of the bad design. 

There’s nothing inherently wrong with those options, and honestly at bare minimum you must have a responsive website – that’s been consistently pushed since the phrase was coined back in 2010. All these options involve little effort for you as a business owner because an experienced web designer should be able to look after those things. 

The other option is to put aside some time, thought and consideration into redesigning to focus on the human element. That means changing your website goal to be a user-centered design.

The other option is to put aside some time, thought and consideration into redesigning to focus on the human element. That means changing your website goal to be a user-centered design.

How to Make the Switch?

Designing a website that is based on your user requires a mindset change for many of us. It involves moving from a website that you think is beautiful, to creating a place that solves your customer’s problems. The goal becomes providing the optimal experience for your user.

Basic tips

Don’t be fooled, this is a big switch for your website design. A truly human-centered website design won’t be achieved by using a new template, or switching your layout to something else. We’re not suggesting it’s time for you to invest in a massive redesign. Putting your customer top of mind for your website design is the most important first step, and everything else can trickle down from there. A fully human-centered or user-centered design could be something you can gradually work towards over a series of iterations and tweaks.

Top 7 Tips for User-Centered Design:

  1. Always improve. Don’t expect to hit all the marks in one big expensive redesign. Instead of a once-and-done, consider your website to be like a houseplant that needs regular care and attention. 
  2. Remember who is boss. (Hint: it’s nobody IN your business.) We all think we know what works but make sure that your internal processes are supporting your new approach.
  3. Don’t make assumptions. Use data to make your decisions.
  4. If you don’t know who your customer is, you can’t design your website for their needs (see #3). Customer research and profiles, usability tests, website analytics, feedback surveys will help you know your customer, which should all determine your designs. 
  5. Function trumps fashion. Of course you want it to look good, but make it as easy as possible for your customer to find what they’re looking for. 
  6. Be findable. Not just on the map! Include your contact details in plain sight – location, phone, email, hours of operation – don’t bury it behind a maze of click-throughs.
  7. Follow consistent standards. If you have an online shop, your customer expects to find it under “Shop” – not under “My Adorable Boutique” or some other cute wording. Don’t confuse your customers by making arbitrary design choices. There are better ways to make your unique shop stand out from all the others. 

There are a lot of other considerations in making your website more human-centered, but these are a great start!

Example of User-Centered Design: Airbnb and the Pandemic

In 2020 when the world began to change drastically, Airbnb was a 12-year-old company that was subject to the same decimating effects that the rest of the travel industry experienced. By May 2020, in just eight weeks of pandemic fallout, Airbnb lost 80 percent of its business. Instead of scaling back and layoffs, the company implemented a design-driven rebound that helped formalize an IPO and cement Airbnb as one of the most inventive companies to be born from Silicon Valley in the last decade.

While the news headlines focused on how Airbnb was trying to offset losses, their design teams knew their products needed to reflect all the changes going on around them. Part of their task was to rethink its website home screen and app landing pages to reflect a world where short-term stays are out and longer-term stays — including for medical professionals needing to quarantine themselves from their families — are in. This is one of the best examples of a user-centered design approach we’ve seen.

airbnb-website-layout-before-2020 AFTER-Airbnb-homepage-and-app-redesign
Drag the slider to see the before and after comparison. interviewed Airbnb Co-founder Brian Chesky about the redesign, who said, “We try to bring it back to being human. What do they need? What is their journey?”

Before COVID, people leveraged Airbnb to take vacations and see the world as a break from their lives at home. Now, as more office workers spend less time working in an actual office, Airbnb has become a tool for relocating life and work for longer periods of time—with all of the trappings of it (kids, pets, career demands) in tow. 

Take a look at the two images above. You can clearly see what a difference the redesign made, and how the focus changed significantly.

In addition, Airbnb also launched the “Frontline Stays” program, where COVID-19 responders could find temporary places to stay where they could self-isolate. They also introduced a new section around “online experiences”, for hosts offering classes on cooking and other things.

Clearly, Airbnb invested a lot of research, energy, expense, and man-hours into their relaunch. Many small businesses won’t have the budget to devote to such an enormous task. The key takeaways for us small business owners is how important it is to allow your website to evolve, and to focus on your customer as king. 

Because if your website isn’t serving your customer, then who exactly do you think is using it?

ADDED NOTE: While reading in preparation for this user-centered design article, I also came across this post: Designing for crisis: 5 learnings from developing trauma-informed products. I encourage anyone, designers and business owners alike, to read and consider the discussion around trauma-informed design. Their design teams spent a TON of time reflecting on building a community for healing, sharing, working together, and designing tools that can help people going through a difficult time. 


Are you ready to get to replace your Norman door website with a well-designed, user-centered asset? Reach out to us today!

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