Last year I attended an event at an independent art gallery in London’s Hoxton area. In my previous life in Canada, I had been very involved in and committed to the arts community; it had been such a vital part of my identity and I was keen to rediscover and reconnect with that part of myself in London. This quirky little event sounded like a great opportunity and I’d seen it advertised all over the social media sphere.
It was a typically wet and cool winter evening and the sun had already set when we arrived on the little square where the gallery was located. The door was closed and some people were huddled on the sidewalk smoking. Instinctively Dan and I looked at one another and said with some trepidation, “Are we allowed to go in?” We both felt immediately uncomfortable and unsure all of a sudden whether the event was open to the public.
After making our way through the smoking, huddling hipsters into the building, our sense of awkwardness intensified. It was impossible to tell who worked there, there was no one at the door, there was no signage and we weren’t sure whether we were expected to pay to enter. It was one of those classic cases of feeling like you are the only one who doesn’t know the secret password in a room full of people. There was nothing and no one to tell us what we were meant to do or even when things were expected to kick off – if there was an event happening at all that night. Suddenly we weren’t sure if we’d gotten it all wrong.
We wandered around awkwardly for a few minutes, pretended to look at the few pieces of art on the wall and then skulked back out again. We left feeling utterly unwelcome among this particular crowd, who all seemed to have access to a secret stash of beer located in a private office. It wasn’t a good time and it made us feel nervous the next time we ventured out to an independent event.
What Does this Have to Do With the Web?
Well, nothing really. Except that I learned a lot from the experience that is applicable to the online space. I’ve had a lot of experience organizing events and conferences and was co-founder of the Ignite London; being on the other side of things as a visitor was eye opening and underscored the awful trepidation and insecurity people can feel when entering a new space. These lessons on how to host people in real–world situation are also important reminders for those of us who are responsible for building virtual spaces and experiences.
1. Be Welcoming: Who are you and what are you about? Whether someone is visiting your website for the first time or are attending your event, people want to connect with something and it’s very hard to do that if you don’t bother to introduce yourself and say hello.
2. Provide Sign Posts: Just because the user journey is obvious to you, doesn’t mean it’s obvious to new comers. Make sure you provide adequate information – both language-based and visual cues – to ensure that people can find their way and understand what it is they are expected to do.
3. Be Wary of Exclusivity: Some brands use exclusivity to their advantage. For example, a website may choose to have a members-only areas with preferred content available to a chosen few. Clever organizations are explicit about this and explain right away who gets ‘back stage’ access and why. It’s alienating and disheartening to find yourself in a situation where you feel excluded, especially if you can’t work out the reason for it. If your website uses exclusivity as a tool, make sure that you are clear and transparent about how it works so that new visitors don’t feel ignored, unwelcome or put off.
4. Give People a Reason to Stick Around: What are the top two or three actions you hope a user will take when visiting your site? What are the top two or three pages of content you want them to visit? Are you doing anything to guide them to these hot spots? If you aren’t sure, sit down with someone who is completely unfamiliar with your website and watch them interact with it for a few minutes. What are they drawn to? If it isn’t to your top two or three priority sections, you have some work to do.
5. Get to Know Your Audience: There may be a difference between the people who are currently showing up and those you strategically want to attract. Maybe you are trying to attract the plaid-clad hipster kids who will hang out and make your place look cool – in web terms this might be the person with the popular blog and a bunch of Twitter followers. Or maybe you want to attract people who will show up and bid on the silent auction items or donate money to your cause – in web terms, the person who might visit your website and hire you, buy something, make an online donation. These are generalizations and obviously the two groups aren’t mutually exclusive but user profiles are also necessarily fairly general. Know who you want to attract and communicate to that audience. Don’t market to me if I’m not who you’re after; It’s not nice to waste other people’s time.
6. It’s Important to be the Newbie Sometimes: When you are used to being the creator of the experience, it is easy to loose sight of how confusing it can be to someone who has shown up late to the party. Websites like Site Inspire are great because they feature a bunch of interesting new websites and although most of them are beautiful many are also infuriatingly difficult to use. Visit some of these sites and try to find your way around. Get frustrated as a way of reminding yourself what not to do on your own website.
Don’t Underestimate the Importance of Hospitality
People engage with online spaces differently than with real-world spaces, but inherently in both places they are primarily motivated by the same things:
- They are looking for a piece of information and want to find it.
- They are interested in something and want to know more.
- They want to do something – buy an item, make a donation, search a library catalogue – and they want to be enabled to complete their task.
Why are people visiting your website and what are you going to do to enable them to fulfil their motivation? There is a huge emphasis put on the importance of visitor services and hospitality in real world interactions. Shouldn’t many of the same principals also apply to the web?
Note: The Gallery Image above was taken by me at the Phoenix Art Museum, which provided great visitor services and were pretty much an example of how to get it all right.