E Is for Empathy

One of the biggest issues plaguing poorly executed attempts at communication on the web is simply a lack of empathy for the end user.

That’s not say that the owners of ineffective web properties are necessarily lacking in empathy, intentionally callous, or unappreciative of their visitors. It’s more likely the case that at some time during the process of planning and implementing a new or redesigned website the needs of user fell out of view.

Sometimes this happens because of well-meaning assumptions or ill-defined project objectives. Other times it’s due to budget shortfalls and compressed timelines. It can also be the result of obsessive organizational navel-gazing or internal politicking.

Whatever the cause, it may be rectified when we shift our care and attention to what users truly need. And with that, here’s my short (and by no means comprehensive or prioritized) list of characteristics that exemplify empathetic web-based communication:

  • Your website assists users in completing their intended task
  • The preceding bullet assumes you know with relative certainty what your users need—if you don’t, be sure to ask them…directly
  • Your website has a thoughtfully-conceived layout, and users have plenty of room to browse and read content
  • Users aren’t smacked in the face by garish or explicitly trend-driven design when they arrive on your website
  • Content is written in your users’ language (i.e. no jargon)
  • The content on your site is up-to-date and relevant
  • The content on your site has been structured with the unique challenges posed by reading on a screen in mind
  • The messaging on your site is audience-appropriate and has substance
  • You have reduced noise wherever possible
  • The information architecture and metadata structures of your website weren’t simply based on your org chart
  • Visual and text-based cues assist website users with wayfinding
  • If your website exceeds the size of a basic, static brochure site, you have labelled content with appropriate metadata, and provided users with a functional mechanism for in-site search
  • Your website code is well-structured, semantic, and adheres to best practices in web standards (thus making your content more modular and portable to other viewing contexts)
  • The size of your website has been optimized to produce fast page-load times, especially on mobile devices
  • Your website has been built with accessibility in mind
  • Technological bells and whistles work on your website as intended, providing as seamless an experience as possible for your user
  • Any bleeding edge HTML5/CSS3 functionality has been implemented in such a way that those using modern browsers can enjoy an enhanced visual/interactive experience, while those using older browsers will still be able to use and navigate your website without being noticeably hindered by obvious degradation
  • No black hat SEO or usability tactics can be found anywhere on your website

Based on this short list alone, it’s easy to see how crafting empathetic web experiences for end users will require a long-term investment, both in terms of man-hours and dollars.

However, taking time and care to craft the best possible user experience—one that will simultaneously help users do what they came to your site to do (with relative ease) while allowing you to meet the business objectives that your website was built to satisfy in the first place—pays dividends in the end.

Let's talk this out, shall we?