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Take your shoes off (before you try walking in your customer’s)

Take Your Own Shoes Off | Edgar Allan

We’ve all heard the phrase about walking a mile in your customers’ shoes — an old adage adapted for the business world about better understanding others by looking at things from their perspective. And a rather appropriate one in a time when you’d be hard-pressed to find any article about business on the internet that don’t contain the words customer first, customer centric, consumer-driven economy…and the like.

It’s true, but I recently came across a slightly edited version that resonates even more for me: “Before you walk in the customer’s shoes, take off your own shoes first.”

Basically, our brains can be somewhat … passive. See, it requires way more energy to think through something new and different and then figure out how we’re supposed to react, rather than to comfortably observe and rote-ly respond to something we recognize. Am I saying brains are a little lazy? Yes. Yes I am. Efficient would also be an accurate descriptor, but we’re going to go with lazy here to better illustrate the point: It requires deep concentration and serious brainpower to shift perspectives — and stay there — without falling back into just honoring our own comfortable ones.

Sometimes the best of us think we’re thinking from our audience’s point of view, we’re often really not.

That’s how you end up with website copy like “We drive media campaigns with intelligence and finesses to reach your targeted media objectives” and “The Drifter hotel is both inspired by and designed for confident outsiders.”

You do what? (No clue.)

Would I define myself as a confident outsider? (Very unlikely.)

Vague, fluffy messages or lingo-laden copy may sound good, but there’s no real there there. And it really only sounds good to us (us meaning marketers and clients) because we get it. We’re on the inside of the company and know all the jokes, and have spent the last several weeks digging into the brand. So, we’ve got all the context we’d ever need (i.e. our brains have all the familiar reference points) to make sense of the otherwise meaningless language. We see this sort of thing happen all the time in the digital space — websites that, one way or another, speak to the company itself more than the user — but moreover it plays out in all parts of the process of creating digital products, from copy to design to UX.

We get it — it’s hard to get out of your own head when your brain is completely tuned to an internal perspective inside a company. So, we put together a list of a few things that we should all keep in mind and try to avoid:

1. Stop Talking to Yourself

First things first: there are strata of brand and marketing language — internal and external. Internal branding is the foundation; it starts with a whole bunch of research about a business and ends with a strategy that defines the uniqueness of your company. It expresses who you are, who your customers are, how they feel, and outlines how to position your brand in the world. How does it do this? With words, of course. But these words are meant as a reference point for all the future ways you’ll connect with your customers. Mostly, this high-level dream-language is not intended for customer consumption. It’s not for them, so it doesn’t address what they need as much as what the internal team needs to understand to exemplify the brand.

Think of it as a wide brush that you use to cover an entire canvas (sweeps of background washes that convey a mood); your consumer-facing language is your detail brush (with which you make your happy little trees). It uses what you put down during the internal branding process — the audience personas you fleshed out, the feel and tone you decided on — and translates it into language that is written for your potential customers, aka pointed toward their wants and needs, sans industry jargon, and easily processed and understood by someone without any prior knowledge of your business. Point is, nobody calls themselves a “confident outsider.” (That’s an audience persona…not an actual person, and it’s most certainly brand language that leaked, unfiltered, onto the Drifter Hotel’s guest-facing site.)

2. Your Org Chart is Showing

Website navigation and information architecture are both more of an art than a science — there are few hard and fast rules for exactly how things should be accomplished, and they can vary big-time site to site depending on the type and amount of content, and the level of complexity. But the end goal is always to structure and label a site in a way that creates a good user experience — in other words, it makes sense for your site visitors based on the information they need and the digital paths they’re likely to take. (Sorry, Becky, but that means your department might not get its own spot on the primary nav…)

You see, website navigation — like a lot of other marketing items — can sometimes fall victim to organizational silos and individual egos, which creates structure that ends up looking more like the company’s org chart than a customer’s likely path. When this happens, the UX becomes a reflection of how the company thinks of itself rather than how the users are looking to answer their questions or solve their problems. For example, a subject matter expert within the company may want to have one vertical/section of the site where all the information related to their department goes, when in reality, the site would serve the user better if the information were organized related to tasks rather than content types. Better advice is to start with understanding your users, their online behaviors and their information needs (tools like FullStory or the Visitors' Flow reports in Google Analytics can help give you an idea of how visitors are moving around on your site) then designing accordingly. The above tools are also great for proving your point.

3. Nobody Goes to the Gallery to See the Frames

We’ve talked about this before, but it’s so important we’re bringing it up again! It’s a nod to responsive design, and a reminder to make sure that form follows function. Companies must keep absolute focus on customer needs, and design a site so the content (the thing they are actually there to see or use: the ideas, the knowledge) works for potentially a thousand different containers (what you use to present your content: the website, the app, the email, etc.).

The thing is, designing for multiple viewports (phones, tablets, laptops) is complicated. One issue that comes up all the time in designing sites is copy over photography. Copy over photography might look cool, but what people don’t realize (or apparently forget) is that when the site gets reconfigured for a different viewport, things move around, and inevitably someone will see a word over someone's face, or the copy will become illegible because it's over the light part of the ocean wave stock image. Think of it like this: Imagine asking an interior designer to make a dream living room; a space people see and just think, “Wow! What an incredible balance of furniture to negative space!” Now imagine the look on the designer’s face when you say, “Great! Now take all of these things and fit them in the bathroom!” Maybe having half a sofa in the powder room is enough, otherwise, that sofa is going to have to get reeeal tiny…

Essentially, it takes real planning, some solid perspective shifting, and maybe a little give and take, to make sure copy, UX and design don’t fall into the realm of understandable by insiders only. So, how will you walk in your audiences’ shoes today?

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