Don’t pretend you know who I am…

Here’s an excerpt from an email I sent to a friend of mine who is involved in the redesign of a website at a large university library in the U.S.:

Another one of those “things that people think will make websites easier to navigate but almost never does” is the “let’s have a different doorway for different types of users.” In your case this might manifest itself as “Students,” “Faculty,” “Alumni” and “Visitors.” In my world it often comes up as “Canadians” and “Americans” or “From Prince Edward Island” and “Visitor to Prince Edward Island” or “Business” and “Consumer.”

The thinking goes that you can “custom target” each of these for the “particular needs” of each “user community.”

The problems with this are: (a) hardly anybody fits neatly into one “user community.” At Trent University, for example, I was, at various times, in each of these categories, sometimes all at the same time; (b) your assumptions about what is interesting or relevant to one group will probably leave out a lot. For example there’s probably a lot of interesting stuff that you would target at faculty that would also be useful and relevant to students and alumni, even if it doesn’t technically fall into the “information for students” category; (c) this stratification means that you have 1/3 (or 1/4, or 1/5) of the energy needed to properly organize each section and this usually means that this organization doesn’t get done properly. In other words you end up relying too much on the initial doorway categories, and just dump in a whole mess of stuff afterwards and finally (d) some people get turned off by having to make an initial “this is who I am” distinction. I will leave any e-commerce site that asks me, before I even look at their catalog, whether I am American or Canada; partly this is irrational, but partly it’s a suspicion that the other guys (i.e. whatever I don’t choose) is going to get better pricing.

In the end you are far better to place your energy in coming up with a well-organized site that works for anyone than to try and figure out who your users are and custom-fit your website around them.
As their site builds out, I’ll keep you up to date on their progress.

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