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Who Is The Customer?

We’ve all seen websites that reflect the internal structure and politics of an organisation. It is a particularly common pattern among Government agencies. From their home pages you can see all the departments and what they do. The divisions with the most space on the home page can be assumed to be the ones with the most powerful and influential managers.

Is this the best way to build a website?

Generally speaking, sites that reflect organisational structure are not very effective because they don’t have any particular customer in mind, or the wrong customer altogether.

The identification and understanding of your customer is the key to building, maintaining and growing a successful online product.

But how do we decide who your customer is?

Looking at the wider market, many successful internet businesses were started by people who built something they themselves needed.

TradeMe, according to folklore, was started after founder Sam Morgan had a frustrating experience buying a heater for his chilly flat.

Mark Zuckerberg explained the origins of Facebook at a Y Combinator event in 2012: “I started building Facebook because I wanted to use it in college…we weren’t looking to start a company.”

Basecamp – a project management tool – was originally built by 37Signals to manage their own projects. In 2014 their strategy changed to focus entirely on building and supporting the product for external customers.

Others businesses were built after a market niche was identified. 

Xero, for example, was founded in 2006 by Rod Drury and Hamish Edwards after they identified a gap in the small business accounting market.
Twitter was also created to fill a gap in the market, rather than the needs of the founders.
In these examples it is clear what the product is and who it is intended for.

Who is the customer?

Products must be designed for a customer. That person will use the service and be the final arbiter of the success of the product.

But that customer is not ‘us’ or ‘me’. You are your fellow employees have a unique perspective and thus are outliers. You know too much about the inner working of the company and perhaps not enough about the people you need to serve.

Our preferences and inclinations are based on experiences within the organisation we work for and our particular market. The average customer is not at all like any individual employee, groups of employees, or even (most likely) your friends. The customer’s priorities are different to ours.

There will of course be some overlap between our customer’s preferences and our own. But we must not be fooled by these similarities. Consider the possibility that people you’ve met and didn’t like might be more representative of your customers!

We must not extrapolate our personal taste and shared experiences with colleagues and friends and assume they are indicative of the market at large or the market we want to address.

We must be objective in this task, yet there are few people who can mentally detach themselves sufficiently to cut through office politics and organisational dogma.

Finding You Customer

If you are an entrepreneur (or intrepreneur) the customer might be you. This is common where the founders or project team are a fair proxy for, or representative of, the customer. Where there is a significant amount of innovation the customer may not yet exist. What existing consumer can evaluate a product they don’t know they want or need?

Mostly this will not be the case and you’ll have to do some market research. There are dozens of ways to go about this, and the only thing I would suggest is to find an external company to work with who can challenge your assumptions.

A useful tool here is personas – written representations of customers – that can be used during the development of the site to help you stay focussed on the real market.

A question taste – but whose?

It is a generally a mistake to design products based on personal taste.

Your tastes are based on the past and stability.

In a declining market you can stick with what you and your customers are comfortable with (or what you believe they are comfortable with).

Being a taste-maker is very different to having personal taste.

Taste-makers are highly oriented towards the future and change.

An example of taste-making is the iPhone. No one wanted or asked for a touch screen phone. The first iPhone had many problems, yet it set the standard for a whole new type of product. Even more so, the iPad. Older examples are the fax and the photocopier. All created whole new markets.

Taste-making requires fresh knowledge, innovation and persistence.

Our role as taste-makers is to set aside our prejudices to create something that can engage someone who may not be at all like us. The customer of the future.

And just because you dislike something does not mean it is wrong for the customer.

What is ‘value’ to the customer?

A successful website will deliver value to the customer. What is valuable to you (e.g. an online org chart) might be of little value to your customers. To close, here are some measures of value:

  • ‘Good’ content
  • Is this about ‘me’ or my social group?
  • Is it relevant?
  • Does it make me think about other points of view?
  • There seem to be guiding principles at work.
  • Does it make sense?
  • Is it entertaining?
  • Does it move me to action?
  • Can it be shared?
  • Can I download it?
  • Can I respond to it?
  • Can I find more content like this?
  • Can I find out more about this content (links, video, audio, text, images)
  • Not wasting my time.
  • Accurate
  • Reliable
  • More than I expected
  • Trustworthy
  • Easy to use
  • A fast seamless experience – I know what to do next.
  • The purpose is clear
  • Perceived as good use of public money (government sites)

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