Designing backwards - putting your users first

As a designer, you’re generally taught to start with the content. This is great advice for information-based websites but it doesn’t work for campaign sites. By doing this, you often end up with a site that’s worthy and informative but has no real way to drive traffic. That means no one will ever get to see any of the great information you have.

This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot and I’ve started to design the user experience backwards. The first thing I think about is not the website but the first point of contact we are likely to have with the user. For a campaign, this might be a shared link on Facebook, a tweet on Twitter or a blog post on a third-party site. This stuff is often an afterthought but it’s possibly the most important thing you’ll design throughout the whole project.

I once read that Apple designs its advertising before it's even started designing the products. This might sound crazy but it’s actually a great idea - making sure that the product is desirable before it gets bogged down in any hardcore engineering.

One campaign that recently caught my eye came from an individual rather than an organisation. Lucy Cooke made a short film called Meet the Sloths to bring attention to Chytridiomycosis - a fungal disease that could wipe out a third of amphibian species. What do sloths and amphibians have in common? Not very much. However, Lucy shot some footage at a sloth sanctuary while she was studying amphibians and realised she could reach far more people by posting a video of cute sloths than just talking about deadly disease.

The video had around 2 million views. Of the people who saw it, many will have clicked through to her blog where they will have found out a bit more about sloths but a whole lot more about Chytridiomycosis and its threat to amphibians.

Selling one thing with another is a whole other post, but what Lucy Cooke knows is the importance of engaging people with no more than a thumbnail image and a short line of text.

By thinking about the first point of contact, Lucy has targeted users interested in animals and served up the real issue not as a main course, but as a side dish.

This stuff isn’t anything new, it’s just being market-oriented. But it’s something designers and campaigners don’t do enough - they often rely on the issue to sell itself. By mocking up the blog post or the shared link on Facebook first, you “sense-check” your marketing campaign and are able to test whether people are likely to click though to you campaign site.

Think about the project you’re currently working on. Do you know where it will end up? Does it have a great story? Can you sell that story with a thumbnail and a single line of text? If you can’t, your campaign site may be doomed before the designer has even opened Photoshop.

You can watch Wes’ talk on Designing Backwards on the Oxford Geek Nights channel.

Posted on 13th December 2010, by Wes West, under Campaigning, Design

Tags: backwards, campaigns, design, user