Redesigning Websites (and Writing) for the People

Lincoln_AbrahamMy colleagues and I have been looking at a lot of different B2B websites recently, mostly in the marketing and advertising industry. Why? Fathom is in the process of redesigning its website, and we’re getting inspiration from all sorts of places.

One thing we’re trying really hard to note is what not to do. In that spirit, the most revealing part of this journey to date has been understanding the full ramifications of user-centered design. You see, the temptation for all companies (Fathom included) is to talk to the world about themselves from only their perspective. The trouble with a predominantly company-first perspective is that …

1.) It doesn’t necessarily represent the customers’ perspective.

2.) It leaves companies prone to exaggeration, narcissism and chest-thumping.

Anyone see a problem here?

It’s called apathy. Customers just don’t care about what the business thinks of itself. In the B2B environment, they just want you solve their problems. Worse, talking too much about yourself (as a company) makes you look pushy … and not focused on customers. It’s alienating. It erodes trust. And trust is what B2B users fundamentally need in order to feel comfortable enough to do business with you.

These ideas are not original. In fact, they’ve been established for years and supported by qualitative user research—namely, “B2B Website Usability: Design Guidelines for Converting Business Users into Leads and Customers” (by Hoa Loranger, Chris Nodder and Jakob Nielsen). Below is a reprinted excerpt of this report’s empirical evidence that summarizes what B2B sites must do to have an edge on competitors:

  • Present information from the customer’s viewpoint.
  • Clearly state what the company does, and what it can do for its customers.
  • Address any doubt people might have about doing business with the company.
  • Be informational and straightforward.
  • Present the company as sincere, trustworthy, and an expert in the business.

Redesigning website language

This report’s implications for language usage are significant. From a writer’s perspective, let’s pick these guidelines apart starting with the first:

Present information from the customer’s viewpoint.

Translation:  Right there a writer should notice a customer’s viewpoint requires a customer’s language. Write in their terms, not yours. I don’t care how important you think your fancy terms are, if they’re not terms your customers are familiar with, you’re going to sound pompous. Not to mention, you might fail to show up for general-term searches that customers are using to find companies like yours.

Clearly state what the company does, and what it can do for its customers.

Translation: Be clear and objective. Use plain language in classic style. State company capabilities in everyday terms. (Note: Everyday doesn’t necessarily mean least common denominator, but it does mean most broadly understood.) Understand the difference between hazy and sharp.

Be informational and straightforward.

Translation: “Just the facts, m’am.” Leave the market-ese and jargon at home. Give people what they need to know in the terms they understand (see previous points).

Now you should have no doubts.

With this knowledge at hand, is your current B2B website adhering to user standards? How well would it pass a test of the 5 bullet points from the authoritative Norman Nielsen Group report? If it fails in any of these areas, you may not need to tackle a full redesign, but you will have some work to do.

Paul Richlovsky

About Paul Richlovsky

Paul brings a writing and teaching background to his decade-long marketing career. He advises clients on content strategy and editorial direction. He is an enthusiastic marketing automation practitioner and active member of the Cleveland Marketo User Group. He has written/edited multiple marketing guides, including those aimed at healthcare, higher education, financial services, B2C brands and manufacturing audiences. With a BA in English from the College of Wooster, he is also the author of a collection of poetry, "Under the Lunar Neon."He is particularly interested in usability, digital governance, ballroom dancing, bachata, racquet sports, and romping with his niece and nephews.

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