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Your site is your brand. And how does it make you feel?

A few years ago, I was observing a user testing session for a hard-goods retailer. The session’s findings were helpful and in some cases, surprising. But soon the dominant conversation topic was not the site, but instead the moderator, and specifically her habit of following-up each failed task by asking the user a single, soft-spoken question:

“And how does that make you feel?

User can’t find the submit button.

“And how does that make you feel?

User clicks and receives hostile, circa 1999 error message.

“And how does that make you feel?”

And now the back button’s disabled.

“And how..?”

The site’s management team complained that the moderator was compensating for her apparent lack of experience with a heavy-handed approach to amatuer psychotherapy. And it was kind of annoying to hear that refrain for the umpteenth time, delivered in a voice suggesting that a poor online shopping experience demands careful guidance through the seven stages of grieving.

Still, there was a lesson there. Some websites do make their users feel bad. They ask you the same questions twice.They don’t remember where you’ve been or what you’ve told them. And they’re often really slow . Other websites make their users feel awesome. They’re so fast and responsive that they really seem like they’re listening.

The paradox is that whether a site allows someone to complete even the most black and white, plain vanilla tasks (update the Cart, find the shipping charge, click back a page) will elicit some very colorful responses (“This site sucks!” “This site &!#*#-=rocks!” Ok , the latter is harder to come by, but you get the idea.)

The site that make its users feel good is not necessarily the one that does the cool AJAX trick or tries to get you to smile by flashing its own stock photo grin. More often, it’s the site that first succeeds in black and white. Sites show respect for their users when they’re intuitive and well-organized, when they offer the user just the right tool at just the right time, at just the place the user reaches for it. We watch people use these sites and smile. And tell their friends about them.

That type of design is hard to achieve, and near impossible to paint on late in the game. But it's worth the early, iterative effort. Your site is your brand, and what people say about your brand is driven by how they feel after interacting with you.

This post was inspired by Seth Godin’s great thoughts on The Most Important Rule.

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