Run your website like a dairy farm

Whenever I get into a discussion about web usability or UI, I always use the same analogy to describe how to succeed in making happy users. At this point, it’s stood up to a fair amount of scrutiny in conversation, but I’ve never put it onto paper. I firmly believe that all good ideas should be written down, so consider this the next time you’re building a user-heavy web application… The Science Channel has a series called “How It’s Made.” Any given episode will give you the background on how any number of consumer products are produced.  Tires, chainsaws, trumpets, bacon, and even British police helmets have all been covered.  It’s worth the half-hour. One segment covering modern dairy farms particularly struck (not what you were expecting, I’m sure). You won’t find this one listed in the link above, but I did track it down on YouTube. I’m pretty sure it came from a pilot episode, as the narrator and opening animation are different. You may want to watch it first, but it’s not necessary for this analogy to make sense. One huge caveat: I do not think my beloved web users are a big dumb animals. The analogy goes a fair bit deeper. Also the word “teat” is used a number of times in the video above, so do your best to keep your head out of the gutter. Take care of your users. Just as happy cows get “45k of feed” each day and wander as they please, you must take care of your users at every step in their experience on your site. Your navigation and overall usability are the top priorities here; don’t let them get lost, and make the available actions on each page as clear as possible. To ensure there’s no thumb-twiddling, keep load times down. Yahoo maintains the definitive list in this regard, and complements well with their YSlow add-on for Firebug. You can also use a speed tester to see how your site stacks up in the wild. You know you’re doing this right if users don’t complain. Like I’m always telling my staff, “Successful web design is not determined by the presence of compliments, but rather the absence of complaints.” Keep things clean.You may not have to worry about manure on a barnyard floor, but you better still be in there sprucing things up on a regular basis! For any information-based site, the worst offense of all is stale content. Keep delivering fresh information to keep your users entertained and engaged. Professional-level sites are often maintain by several developers, and must meet the needs of different (and sometimes conflicting) departments and business interests. Here you must also stay vigilant against website sprawl, which is the natural inclination of a website to grow and spread out in an ever-increasing number of directions. Does each board meeting really need its own minutes page? Can that hacked-up marketing tool find a formal home in your admin somewhere? Keep it tight, and if you don’t need it, lose it. If your boss says otherwise, try to keep it corralled along with similar pieces of politically necessary stuff, like the junk drawer in your kitchen. Where are those scissors…? Performance is also an ever present concern. Watch your logs for badly behaving pages, black holes (pages that constitute a large portion of exit traffic), and hack attempts. Browser updates and standards compliance will also keep you busy. I recommend you try to stay as close to standards as possible, but not at the expense of site functionality. If it works in the “big 4”–Firefox, Safari, Opera, and IE (listed last for a reason)–you’re good to go. Track your users. Like the cow’s ID tag, you should use session data for general behavior tracking, to identify just how your site is being used. If you add user logins to mix, you can track individual performance, for even more detail, and provide data, search results, and product suggestions customized to the user. Guide your users. The thing that struck me most about this dairy farm was the complete lack of farmhands. Everything was automated, including the milking process. This is very much like a user on a service based site, or online store. I’m sure the farmhands were there, off-camera, just as we provide help windows, email support, and phone numbers when a user hits a wall. However things run best when the user simply gets what they need, without any additional effort on their or your part. Give your users clear indicators of where they are and what they are doing. You can’t force your users down the line of the milking stall (think checkout procedures), but you can give them explicit boundaries to show them where they should be going. Again, your attention to usability will win the day on this one. What other analogies do you see at work here? Do you have any of your own analogies that you use when describing proper techniques to colleagues or the occasional lay person? I’d love to hear what you think!