The essence of a Web site is self-service.

There are three core things that self-service needs to get right: convenience, speed, and price. Convenience means task achievement with minimum effort. Speed means that you get in and out of a Web site as quickly as possible. Price means… people are cheap on the Web.

It's hard to design for self-service. It requires an absolute focus on simplicity and clarity of message. People read on the Web like they read motorway signs. They are moving with some speed.

There is precious little time to focus, so the message must be clear.

It's not enough that your Web site is a little more convenient. Your visitors are bringing a lifetime of habits with them. What they need to do at your Web site, they have done manually before.

They have received help from someone to complete this task. Now they are on their own. They don't like that.

The deeply ingrained habit inside them is saying, “This is too much hassle. Let's do it the way we always do it. Let's do it the way we know.” That is a compelling message. So to win this person over, it isn't sufficient that your Web site is a little more convenient. It has to be a lot more convenient.

If there were a convenience meter, I would say that most Web sites would struggle to achieve 40% on its scale. There is so much room for improvement. That's understandable.

The Web is only 10 years old. We have made lots of great progress. Let's keep getting better.

In a plush restaurant, you pay to wait. You don't pay to wait in McDonalds. You want it fast. Great Web sites are obsessed with speed. The Google homepage is 11 KB. Do you know the weight of your homepage?

It's not just about page weight. There are many other factors that influence how quickly a Web page will download. Achieving success is about testing, testing, testing. Success is also about perceived speed. If you have a six-step process and an equivalent Web site has a five-step process, people may perceive you as slower even if your pages download much faster.

The Web: land of free information; home of the bargain hunter. There is a particular psychology at work when we are in self-service mode. We're doing it for ourselves, so what's in it for us? We're saving this Web site money because it now has to hire fewer people. So we want some of those savings passed on. It's only fair.

Even if you are a government or university Web site, you still need to think about some sort of special offer. Do they get an extra week past the official deadline if they fill in their application online?

For example, the U.S. Internal Revenue Service Web site is currently promoting Free File. “Free File is online tax preparation and electronic filing through a partnership agreement between the IRS and the Free File Alliance, LLC,” the Web site states. “In other words, you can e-file...free.”

No matter what sort of Web site you have, if you want to maximize success you need to be convenient, fast, and cheap.

Adhere to these three principles, and everything else will fall into place.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
image of Gerry McGovern
Gerry McGovern (gerry@gerrymcgovern.com) 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.