What’s in your window: improving the view through your website

Window-within-window, Machu Picchu, Peru

View visitor needs through the lens of the business

I’ve been viewing the world through multiple windows lately.

During 10 days in Peru, I watched scenes composing and dissolving through the oblong windows of the train climbing to and descending from Machu Picchu, through the big blocky windows of the tour bus, then through the dustier versions on the smaller shuttles. These were followed by the vistas revealed by the openings in the ancient granite walls of Machu Picchu and other Sacred Valley wonders. I sometimes double-framed these views with my camera lens, drawn by what the window-through-window revealed.

The days before this trip, my focus had been on less compelling, virtual views—as I overhauled my business client’s window to the world—their national website.

That too was a journey across varied terrain and differing perceptions best met with a detailed plan; a receptive, can-do attitude; and attention to travellers’ needs.

For six or seven years, I managed a large and very successful intranet with many sub-sites, where our customers—our employees—were inside the company. And, like good websites on the internet, our customers depended on us to provide content—information—that was current, reliable and complete. The quicker they could find the information or answers they came looking for—and get on with their job—the better.

Out on the internet, however, stickiness is a factor. Yes, you want your website to give visitors the quickest route to whatever they’re seeking. But in business you also want to keep them on your site, enticing them to explore and leading them to take action such as ordering a product or signing up for your newsletter. And it was with this lens that I began evaluating Sunbelt Canada’s existing site this past March.

Deconstructing the changes to the Sunbelt Canada website

I had left all my choice reference materials behind when the corporation and I went our separate ways in 2009, including Steve Krug’s wonderful “Don’t make me think: a common sense approach to web usability.”  But the principles had been ingrained in me:

  • Everything should be as self-evident as possible;
  • The site makes it immediately clear it has information of value;
  • The user can get to those things and use them without it being more trouble than it’s worth.

In planning the site, it was important to go back to the basics: to identify the target audience(s), their needs, and how best to meet them, framed by the lens of the business, and the outcomes it wanted to achieve.

Intranet- or internet-facing, these elements would result in a foundation capable of holding up the rooms of our structure. And while these rooms would have multiple points of entry to assist visitors to “get in and get out,” those in our internet-built house would have more to keep the arrivals occupied, to reveal more and more of interest and value.  So I knew the “what” but needed to get up to form on the “how”, to find out what the masters in the trade were thinking and doing with respect to landing pages, search engine optimization, sales funneling  and “user experience”.

For months, I’d been bookmarking resource materials from individuals and companies. I started reviewing them, then other experts they referenced.  I also had to research how best to integrate the tools we were already using for our newsletter and blog — Mailchimp and WordPress. My folder of screen saves grew fatter and fatter as I captured more and more examples of wording and design.

I set the following as my objectives:

  • Make the site relevant for our target audience—people who want to buy, build or sell a business in Canada—by providing content that is information rich and highly functional, through an interface that is professional, clean, intuitive and inviting, setting the stage for a mirror site in French.
  • Attract more visits and ultimately, more customers.
What do you want to do?

Making it about them

To accomplish this I would   1) make the website about our target audience and their needs, creating categories and navigation based on key tasks and   2) provide more business proof points via accreditations, testimonials and other related materials to build credibility and trust so visitors would take action i.e. contact us or sign up for more information.  

My key tools were Excel spreadsheets and—wait for it—a pencil and eraser, scissors and scotch tape. Oh, and printouts of bits of content from my home computer.

I drew up spreadsheets to identify and track key tasks, and all content online.  But my web design was literally a cut and stick on to a 10″ by 13″ sheet of paper.  I would come as close as I could to creating each section online, then print and cut up the page, taping the text where I wanted it to go. I filled in what was missing—header elements, borders, etc. by pencil. Its wrapping wasn’t the prettiest but the mock up got my client’s approval and we were good to move forward.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. On the web, you ARE what you publish, says David Meerman Scott. For many weeks, I’d been knee deep in content, reviewing the materials on the existing site and all other content we’d produced over the last year or so. Most of the existing site content needed retooling—it was not optimized for the web and the wording streamed from the corporate site in the U.S. (i.e. main street and mid-market) was not what we used in Canada.

Also, if we were building the site to meet our target audience’s needs, the site was missing information that business owners and potential business owners should have about financing, valuation and building value. These were topics we had covered in other channels, such as our blog and our “At the broker’s table” newspaper series, so in the end, I was able to re-purpose quite a few of these texts for the site, either as main content or in a new “additional information” section I added to most pages.

More informationI also saw this “opening of more doors to the house” as a way of generating interest in and readership for these other channels, helping build that all-important relationship of trust that ultimately results in converting a visitor to a customer or client. Dan Norris does a great job explaining the process of “consuming and sharing your content, opting-in and ultimately, converting by buying something or sending through an enquiry” in his 8 features of great small business websites, part 1.

The existing website had few opportunities for sharing, opting in or converting, in contrast to the new site, where strategically placed calls to action now include:

strategically placed calls to action

Strategically placed calls to action

Unbounce’s 101 landing page optimization tips were of major help in determining these “calls to the action.”  And Wufoo’s form builder has become my online equivalent of duct tape, enabling me to turn out presentable forms with minimal cost and effort.

A bit more about the importance of integrating your social media—all should be driving visits to your website. Think of them as deployed markers or beacons, to lead people back to the base or business hub—your website.

I found the Web strategy secrets ebook  a great overview of the strategic and the tactical.

I also picked up pointers from Hubspot’s free ebook “Doing a Website Redesign for Marketing Results”. While I downloaded it separately, it’s also provided as part of a free Website Redesign Kit that includes a video.

Accepting the limitations (for now)

Although a receptive, can-do attitude got me where I needed to go most of the journey, there were some barriers I couldn’t scale this time around. While I had envisioned a more refined display and return of content, our need to stay within the framework of the existing corporate content management system limited our options. We couldn’t change the size or placement of the header or sidebar, use drop downs or mouse-overs, or filter the listings of offices and businesses for sale more directly.  I also expected more than we received from the company doing the work.

But my client is very happy with the website we’ve launched and our subscriber lists are growing at a healthy rate. With the analytics we’re now collecting, we can refine our content further to offer more of what our visitors want. So while our window to the world may have a few spots that need some polishing, the view that the new website provides is pretty satisfying.

By the way, if you liked my window-through-window photo and want to see more of the pictures I took of people and places in Peru, check out my Flickr albums : Floating IslandsPeru people, Machu Picchu and Scenes of the present and past.

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4 responses to “What’s in your window: improving the view through your website

  1. Great stuff, Karen. A Designer that can use analytics–the world (wide web) needs more of you!
    Best wishes,
    Doug Hoy

    • Thanks very much, Doug. A statement I read in a woodworking article a few years back about shaker furniture struck a chord with me. It went along the lines of “that which has the greatest use has the greatest beauty.” It really made me stop and think. Along with everyday life, the principle is very relevant to how websites and other interfaces are constructed. It drives me crazy when there are no benchmarks in places, as there weren’t in this instance. At least now, we have a start.

  2. This is great advice. I really only wanted to blog as an opportunity to share my writing and I didn’t want to spend too much time on all the technical aspects of my blog’s appearance, but I’m realizing I need to do a lot more to make my blog sticky.

  3. Thanks for the feedback, Paul. Be it a business or personal blog, “sharing” is what we all want. I like to think of it, as taking the reader through rooms, showing more and more of interest and value.
    But now that I’ve checked out your blog, I can see your posts are plenty sticky–thanks to the topics you write about and the flavouring you lace them with. I sampled one post and it tasted so good, I had to nibble more!

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