We’ve taken our little person to an amusement park several times in the last year. You’ve probably been to one of these at some stage in your life. There are lots of exotic animals to make sure that it’s properly educational. Then there are a lot of other brightly coloured options including (but not limited to): playgrounds, rides, special shows, giant sandpits, cuddly toy shops and an almost unbelievable number of shrines to the god sugar.
This year has been the first time where our little person was old enough to be able to walk about a bit . As a result, our itineraries have been unpredictable. “Look! There’s a real rhino over there” was comprehensively trumped by the discovery of a slide. Tigers and lions, it turns out, aren’t very exciting when they are a bit far away but penguins and brightly coloured birds are more compelling. And nothing can match a set of long plastic tunnels.
If you’d asked me before we went, then I might have taken some guesses at where we would end up. I’d have been mostly wrong. I would never have been able to predict where we spent time and I wouldn’t have been able to pick the point at which we got tired and decided that we needed to sit down or leave.
The website bit
I’ve been the product owner for several websites and what I have learned is that what I’ve described above is exactly what website users do.
That is to say that users wander around in a way that’s hard to predict. They walk past the lions, tigers and elephants that you think are the star attractions and spend ages staring at the cute long-eared rabbits instead. Sometimes they have a season ticket and pop in for ten minutes to check on a particular animal, sometimes they circle around a particular area, sometimes they say they’re coming for the educational value when it’s really the ice cream and sometimes they just leave for no clear reason.
Why does this matter?
I talk to a lot of people about changes that they’d like to see on a website. People often naturally map this out in a linear series of steps. These sometimes start along the lines of “the user comes to the homepage/this landing page, then they go here, and then – if they want to know this – they go here…”.
This approach assumes that once a user enters the website, they’re entering our classroom. Once they’re in, we can manage their learning experience and direct them appropriately by giving them an ordered series of explanations and exercises.
This isn’t how it works in reality. Users can turn up and leave at any point in the lesson. They may start a loud conversation with someone else, they may go away to another classroom, or they may decide to buy a giant tub of popcorn. The user is in charge, not us.
How do we work with this?
If you ever want to suggest a user journey to me on a website, the first question I will ask is what evidence you have that users either currently follow this path or that they will follow this path in future. This only happens when the journey meets a clear user need. Typically, analytics (including search terms) and user research with prototypes are good ways of demonstrating this.
Once we’re sure that our content meets a user need, we should move away from thinking “what path will my users follow to my content?” to asking “where are my users currently, and how can I make it easy for them to get from there to my content”? This is a difficult process because it means stepping back from a natural inclination to build a path for our users. Instead, we need to watch the paths users currently take and see how we can fit into and around these. An amusement park won’t put ice-cream stalls where it thinks people should buy ice-cream, it will move them around based on which locations result in the most purchases.
One last point. Once you stop thinking about your users following a single linear journey, then other possibilities open up. You can start thinking about other ways of helping users to make their own way to your content. This might include looking at the paths close by (cross site navigation), making sure that users are comfortable (bad toilets and bad search will lose users) and offering them alternative options to keep them from trying other amusement parks (for example, grouping similar rides or content together).
 I picked this draft out of an old folder: the little person is now older than when I wrote this.