User-centered design and your website

Why do you have a website?

Most business owners know they need to have a website. They might not necessarily know why, but they know it’s their best bet for any possible visibility online. User-centered design is the only way to make sure that website works.

Many marketers will tell you that content is king. We disagree: your customer is king.

That means that your website is NOT designed for:

  • Your business – this is actually secondary!
  • Yourself – just because you like your website and can use it, doesn’t mean your customers can.

When you realize that your customer is king, you realize that your website needs to be designed for THEM – not for YOU.

Read that again. 

When your website is for your customers, it will serve your business better.

This includes making sure you provide a good user experience, also known as UX. 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 all that usable. This is a design flaw, and it happens all over the place, not only in website design. Sometimes you notice right away that it’s a problem. Other times we’ve become so accustomed to it that we don’t even recognize it anymore.

This design flaw even has a name. Well actually it has a few names, and with websites we often refer to it ourselves as a Sleeping Beauty. But the flaw itself is seen throughout the design industry, in products of all kinds. It’s called the Norman Door.

The Norman Door

Consider the door. It should be immediately apparent how to interact with a door. At the very least, you should be able to approach it and know exactly how to open it. But sometimes you can’t tell if you need to push or pull. Suddenly, what should be obvious is anything but. That’s like a ‘Norman door’ – hard to use.

Exhibit A: This photo of a clean, pretty glass door. Take a good look at this door. I can already hear the designers cooing over such a pretty door. Imagine you walk up to this door. How do you think it opens? Would you 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 YOUR fault that the door failed. 

In fact, self-blame is a common sign of bad design.

With the pretty glass door above, there are several confusing aspects that would make you hesitate:

  1. There are vertical bars installed on BOTH sides of the doors. Usually bars are for pulling, not pushing.
  2. The glass doors are highly transparent which might add some visual confusion.
  3. There’s no automatic door opener. How will a wheelchair user or someone with a cane navigate this door?

Why make a website like a Norman door?

How many of us have Norman doors for websites? It can happen even with good intentions. Sometimes, it’s accidental. Maybe you wanted a simple site, but it turned out confusing. Or the design didn’t work well.

Designers usually set out to build a beautiful website that they think reflects the website owner. They build pretty websites with a sense of style, pretty colours, and hopefully good copy. Then everyone sits back and pats themselves on the back for a job well done. And wait for users to magically arrive. 

If we don’t consider our user, we will have a Norman door.

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? First we remember to be gentle. This is not a blame exercise. As we learn, we can do better.

Your website is always worth a revisit. Take a step back. Shake off all you think you know, and try to come at it with fresh eyes – and a different perspective.

Can you fix a Norman Door?

Good news: it’s fixable! To help users with a ‘Norman door’ website, add hints like clearer buttons or easy-to-find info. This can be like adding bandaids. Or, think about a total makeover focusing on users. Sounds like a big job? Sure is – which is why we don’t recommend trying to DIY a website redesign.

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 a clue in the form of a sign that says “PULL” on one side, “PUSH” on the other. That would’ve helped in our pretty door example earlier. It doesn’t improve the function of the door in the slightest, but at least it gives a visual cue. Of course, whether we recognize that cue is another issue! 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 other bandaid solutions, this doesn’t solve the root problem (the door’s bad design), but at least more people can use the door.

What is User-Centered Design?

User-centered design is human-centered design:

  • Make it as easy as possible for your human visitors to do what they’re trying to do. 
  • Remove obstacles between them and the information or product that they need.
  • Make content BY humans FOR humans.

You may have heard this before: Nobody cares about your product or services. They need to know how you can solve THEIR problem.

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

You don’t want to put another Norman door into the internet world on purpose. 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?

Short answer? Yes. If your website serves your user, then it will serve your business better. All websites are an investment, and the last thing we want to do is pay money for something that isn’t working.

To build a relationship, let alone trust, with your customer or client you must get their attention in the first place. The internet is loaded with distractions, and your website needs to be as clear and simple as possible. 

Everything changes. Technology changes. Your business changes and evolves over time. Even your customers will change over time. An older retired person uses a website differently than a Gen Z user, or even Gen X?  

Every business should consider what its online user needs from the website, and from you. This won’t be the same for every business. For example, you might want visitors to subscribe to your podcast, or book an appointment for a consult.

Whether you have an “evergreen” website – one that mostly stays consistent, like a lawyer firm or other professional service. Or you sell an online course, offer short or long-term coaching, or you run a really cool podcast. Or maybe you have a dynamic e-commerce store. Whatever your answer, your website needs to respectfully guide your user.

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. All these options involve little effort for you as a business owner when you have an experienced web designer as your partner.

These might include:

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

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

There’s nothing inherently wrong with those options. At bare minimum you must have a responsive website – that’s been constant since the phrase was coined over a decade ago in 2010 (light years ago in web design!).

The other option is to put time, thought and consideration into a redesign. That means changing your website goal to be a user-centered design.

How to Make the Switch?

Designing a website for your user requires a mindset change for many of us. Instead of a website that you think is beautiful, we create a place that solves your customer’s problems. The goal becomes providing the optimal experience for your user.

Basic tips

Worried that this is going to be a big change? We won’t sugarcoat it: Yes, this is a big project. A truly human-centered website design won’t be achieved by using a new template, or simply switching your layout around a little. Putting your customer top of mind for your website design is the most important first step, and everything else can trickle down from there. 

Top 7 Tips for User-Centered Design:

  1. Always Improve: Websites need care, like plants need water. You can’t just set it up and leave it hanging. Keep making it better.
  2. Be Inclusive: It’s too easy to get caught up in what works for us, and to forget that not everyone is just like us. This is even more important online.
  3. No Guesswork: Use facts, not guesses. Use data to decide what’s best for your website.
  4. Know Your Customer: You can’t make a website for someone you don’t know. Learn about your customers—what they like, what they need.
  5. Function Over Fashion: It’s good if your site looks nice, but it’s more important that people can find what they need easily.
  6. Easy to Find: Don’t hide your contact info! Make it easy for people to see your address, phone number, email, and when you’re open.
  7. Keep It Simple: Don’t confuse people. If you have a shop, call it ‘Shop.’ You can be cute or clever elsewhere, but online users need and expect things to be easy to understand. Showcase your uniqueness in other ways.

Example of User-Centered Design: Airbnb and the Pandemic

In 2020, when everything changed because of the pandemic, Airbnb—a company that helps people find places to stay—had a big problem. Just like other travel companies, they lost a lot of business—80% in just two months! But instead of giving up, they did something smart. They changed their website and app to fit how things were changing. Before, people used Airbnb for short trips. But now, they needed places to stay for longer, like doctors who couldn’t go home. Airbnb redesigned everything to help these new kinds of users. This shows how important it is to think about the people using your website or app. 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?”

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

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.

If your website isn’t designed for your customer, then who 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 suggest everyone—whether you’re a designer or a business owner—take time to read about trauma-informed design. Airbnb’s design teams put a lot of effort into creating a space for healing and support. They worked hard to make tools that could help people who are going through tough times. We can learn from their approach and think about how we can do better for people who might be going through hard times when they use our websites or products.


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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