Herding cats

(Reading time: 2m, 40s)

My son was watching Ken Burns’ documentary on the Roosevelts the other day when I grabbed the remote and switched it to Nick Jr.

We watched a cartoon about a senior citizen cooking spaghetti for cats.

“She seems like a really good cook.”

“No talking dada please?”

“Oh, right. Sorry.”

After a while, I noticed no commercials had come on.

I wondered if Nick JR was chunking the commercials and only showing them between shows. Maybe they had figured out that little kids don’t do commercials. If a commercial were to come on in the middle of the show, Jasper would just run off to another room with a handful of plastic crocodiles to referee a mashindano. They’d have lost some eyeballs.

This reminded me of a back-and-forth I had with a client about links on their website.

I recommended that they link to other sites more often — especially sites with high authority — to boost credibility and provide more context for the reader. This led to a debate about whether they might “lose the reader” by giving people the chance to leave the site through one of those links. Some people worried that once someone clicked on a link, the visitor wouldn’t come back to the site.

Watching the cats discuss their meal, I wondered what could have lead people to debate a question like, “Should we add external links to the website?”

It’s easy to lose sight of what metrics matter and what the real goal of a website is — a lack of alignment around the purpose of the design.

I have never worked with a client that sells advertising on their website. If I did, then simply keeping people on the website might be a legitimate business goal. But this organization sold services and accepted donations; they did not sell ad space. Unless those links pointed visitors to a competitor who sold the same services, I couldn’t see cause for concern.

Still, some of the team seemed to think that the point was to get more people to read whatever was on the page. To me, if people only skimmed a single page but then went on to donate, for example, that would be better than if everyone spent half a day reading every word they could find and then left without donating.

Is the elderly woman the cats’ grandma? How did that happen?

I wondered if the other problem was that the visitor was too abstract. When we lose touch with the audience, it may become easier to think of the visitor as an object to be controlled. We think that if we don’t include a link on a page, they’ll somehow have fewer options — as if the website’s navigation isn’t right there on the page, along with whatever other tabs they have open in the browser, and the phone in their pocket, and the life that they can choose to return to at any moment.

The visitor isn’t a child who can become distracted by the slightest interruption. And, if the content is so uninteresting or the offering so weak that they might click a link and never return, then there are bigger problems to address.

Staying attuned to metrics that matter and regular exposure to real users is what keeps teams focused on more relevant questions.

The cats had finished their pasta, and a commercial came on. Jasper grabbed the remote and turned it back to The Roosevelts.

Thanks for reading,

Kyle

PS. I’d be curious to hear how you do that at your museum. How do you keep people aligned around what really matters and keep a three-dimensional view of the visitor in everyone’s mind? Let me know in a reply. I'd be happy to hear from you.