“When a tree falls in a lonely forest, and no animal is near by to hear it, does it make a sound?”
As any graduate of Wikipedia University knows, some form of this question has been kicking around in Western Philosophy’s attic for at least 300 years. While I don’t subscribe to this line of logic-spinning—the attempt to make the unknowable knowable by couching it in paradoxes—I have to admit the question has an undeniable relevance to digital messaging strategy and Web design.
You need only install Google Analytics to realize the awful truth. Proof of your site’s existence will be constantly challenged by the statistical evidence: Your URL is only as audible as your site traffic allows.
Naturally, the premise behind any Web site is the assumption your brand has a clearly defined prospective audience. Nevertheless, your “volume” is largely determined by the steps you take to drive traffic. Whether through social networking infiltration, distributed content or banners—you must pave the way to your URL with content that reaches digital venues your audience frequents.
And yet, you may still find your Web site’s fall is heard by only a paltry few.
Branching out from tradition.
To tip the odds in your favor, realize that driving people to a home page is only meaningful if, once they arrive, they can find what they want instantaneously. That’s because, in the post-iPhone era, your most compelling sales pitch is due to be interrupted by incoming cat pix, retweets, timelines, tumblrs, pins, IMs or an e-mail from Mom at any moment.
In such an environment, greeting your digital audience with a confusing array of interchangeable options has a FrozFruit’s chance in Mauna Loa of achieving engagement. By contrast, a home page capable of leading visitors along well-defined user paths has far better odds of catching and holding attention.
With their focus on impulse buying, branded e-tail sites offer a simple example of user paths in action. J.Crew.com, as of 4-20-13, reflects this kind of thinking in several ways. At the simplest level, users can self-identify by choosing an option in the upper left corner: “For Women, For Men, For Girls, For Boys.”
More options, by clothing genre, reveal themselves in the main navigation, an elegant series of rollovers that call up a single, targeted image. Each of these options addresses a different kind of shopper with the full realization that the person looking for wedding-wear today may well be shopping for vacation-wear in a few weeks.
In this instance, user path clarity is enhanced by a design free of anxious, space-filling mania. Because users see one image at a time they can actually feel the impact of the image. Hence, the site speaks to specific users within the larger audience of J. Crew fans. Interior pages show similar restraint, allowing the product to speak for itself.
And that’s an essential feature of a successful user path: enabling targeted users to define the brand in their own terms. Light years away from the…
“Buy now and save up to 50% until May 31, while supplies last”
…mind set, J. Crew lets users drive themselves to the products they choose and, along the way, create their own sales pitch for the items they want most.
Rooted in manipulation.
On the surface, the difference between this site and, say, J.C. Penny.com may not be so apparent. After all, the latter offers some of the same self-defining options. Yet the two sites couldn’t be more different.
First, with its unstoppable slideshow marquee, J.C. Penny forces users to traipse through a wide swath of its offerings whether they want to or not. The only path, inevitably, is J.C. Penny’s and the copy—directive, manipulative, aggressive—wants to dictate how users should feel about the products on display.
YOU DESERVE TO RELAX IN STYLE
…screams a one-size-fits-all headline, itself only a hair’s breadth away from
YOU ARE GETTING VERY SLEEPY
As in the nightmare scenarios called up by George Orwell or Aldus Huxley—not to mention the billboards in the film adaptation of Phillip K. Dick’s Minority Report—sales talk like this aims to dissolve each visitor’s identity in a dark pool of conformity.
So as you map out your information architecture, rewrite your user experience guidelines and lay down the law about fonts, pixel-widths, stock art style and word count, remember: The most compelling reason people frequent your site is the feeling they can use it their way.