The Web is about self-service. To achieve success in self-service, you need to really understand how your visitors think and behave. If they are to serve themselves, they must feel comfortable and confident. That requires getting to know their needs in a comprehensive manner. It requires an ongoing conversation with them.

The phone rang in the office of a McDonalds manager. The manager picked up the phone. The first thing he was asked was why he was in the office. Why wasn't he out in the restaurant?

Success in self-service is dependent on an intimate knowledge of how people behave. In a plush restaurant, there are experienced waiters to escort you and advise you. In a self-service restaurant, the design needs to escort and advise you. That requires very careful design that has a crystal clear understanding of what people want and how they behave.

On a day-to-day basis, a Web team can get caught up in the pressure of keeping a Web site running. Getting out and talking to those visitors who read the Web site can seem like a luxury. It is not a luxury. It is a necessity if you want your Web site to work well.

If you are a Web manager, you need to get out on the floor on a weekly—or even daily—basis. You need to start watching how people use your Web site by initiating usability studies. You need to talk and listen to people at every opportunity. This will help you develop a “nose” or “gut instinct” for what people want.

This is not a like-to-have option. This is a must-have option. You simply cannot design and manage a successful Web site without understanding your visitors inside-out. This is the heart of self-service design: knowing people better than they know themselves.

Don't depend on Web site logs or surveys to get the information you need. I was told about a study that examined the attitude of a group of people toward Web privacy policies. When surveyed, almost 40% said they checked these policies when shopping online. However, when the shopping behavior of these people was tracked over a period of time, only 4% actually checked the policies.

You'll need to be able to read between the lines of what people are saying to you. You'll need to train and hone your gut instinct by repeated interaction with the people you serve.

It's very easy to see the people who come to a Web site as just a bunch of statistics. Web teams can become isolated. There can be too much emphasis placed on technology. This leads to Web sites that don't work as well as they can.

Google knows that understanding how people search is the foundation for success. It has more than 10 staff members whose fulltime job is reading and responding to emails from people searching their Web site. “Nearly everyone has access to user feedback,” states Monika Henzinger, Google's director of research. “We all know what the problem areas are, where users are complaining.”

Great self-service means making something so convenient that people don't even have to think. To achieve that sort of classic design, you need a thorough understanding of how people behave in a given situation. To design great Web sites, you need to know people better than they know themselves.

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image of Gerry McGovern
Gerry McGovern ( is a content management consultant and author. His latest book is The Stranger's Long Neck: How to Deliver What Your Customers Really Want Online, which teaches unique techniques for identifying and measuring the performance of customers' top tasks.