We had some good conversations at the IIA Congress on how to go about building a great website. Not claiming to be an expert I was happy to share my thoughts on what I think makes a difference.

For me it’s a question of where to start? What process should you put in place and what skills should you apply to the process. Take the phrase “the best thing since sliced bread” – invented in 1912 the sliced pan epitomises for me a simple invention that really delivered convenience to consumers. The process of invention is different from that of design or development. These are part of it but not where you start. An inventor sets out with a problem or a clear need in mind and innovates in order to meet that need. The sliced pan came out of a clear need – consumers wanted slices of bread without the hassle.

When it comes to websites, the great websites (Google, Yahoo!, Amazon, eBay, BBC, and in Ireland the likes of RTE, Daft, and love-it-hate-it-Ryanair.com) are the ones that that identify their customers needs AND then meet those needs most effectively or better than anyone else. So if you want to build a great website you must first really understand your customers/users.

Morgan and Matthew (the two experts I was privileged to share the afternoon with) very much focused on the “user-centered design” process. This comes back to what I’m saying here. Understand your user and design around their needs and expectations.  For design read innovate.

There are a number of ways to go about understanding your online customers. Begin by clearly identifying your target audience. Who are they? What age, gender, location, occupation, social class, education? This may seem like overkill but the more you can pin them down the less likely you are to try and be all things to all users.

Once you’ve profiled your users go and talk to them. You can meet them face to face – get a few of them in a room – or carry out surveys, online or offline. Bring them to the pub and buy them pints if it really comes to it. But don’t pretend that you know what your customers want if you haven’t asked them. YOU are not a typical customer. If you’re setting up the website you already have preconceptions about what you think would make it a great website.

So what are you going to ask your potential users once you’ve got their attention? Well what you’re trying to figure out is what do they need from you, and more specifically from your website? What can you give them that would really meet a need, overcome a frustration, or make their lives easier? What other websites do they use that nearly deliver on their requirements but maybe fall short in some way? What do they enjoy doing on the web? What websites do they really hate? And why? Get beneath their skin when it comes to your product/service and the web. Don’t lead them. Don’t give them suggestions. Ask questions. Listen. And write it all down or record it, because you’ll probably forget some of the nuggets.

Another great source of information on what customers like/dislike/expect/want from websites can be found by looking at your competitors websites or similar websites elsewhere. Ask yourself who is THEIR target audience. What specific need are they trying to meet. What’s enjoyable about their website? What works? What doesn’t? And if you don’t feel qualified to pass judgment yourself, search far and wide for comments about those sites. Whether it is blogs, boards or research papers you’ll find plenty of others who are commenting/bitching/praising websites and their owners.

So far, all of this is free. You could invest plenty in focus groups, market research, expert reviews, usability consultants and so on – and in some instances you certainly should. However, if this is going to be YOUR website to meet YOUR customer’s needs then YOU really need to be immersed in it. I could be wrong but I don’t believe any of the great websites came from consultants’ recommendations. Get help in where you need it, but only you are going to be close enough to your business and your customers to know what will be really deliver. If you have an idea and want an independent FREE opinion please drop me a line at hewsdotbiz [at] gmail [dot] com; I’m always interested.