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Your website can be more humane

Websites should be more humane. Websites should make an effort to show the people behind the business or organization and strive to reclaim some of the personal touches that are being lost to technical progress.

There are many benefits to shopping and searching for services online. I’d argue in some cases there are even benefits to the environment in the form of some reduced car trips, and it might have prevented a complete collapse of retail amid COVID-19.

But there are downsides, including:

  • Vacant storefronts that reduce community morale and value
  • Significant environmental costs to returns and, in the case of clothing, an outrageous increase in people buying 3-4 sizes of something only to keep a single item.
  • There’s also a subtle but critical loss of humanity.

Retailers and website owners may be at the mercy of market forces when it comes to free shipping, no-hassle returns, andin-store pickups that never get picked up. But they do not have to sacrifice humanity.

  • When you go to a local boutique store, you can ask people questions and solicit ideas.
  • When you go to a local restaurant, you have a high chance of meeting the owner or chef.
  • When you buy a bicycle from a retail bike shop, there’s a high probability of them throwing in a water bottle or bottle cage for free or half off.

These and other actions are acts of business savvy, personal touches, and ways to delight customers. Even big corporations, like Apple, have historically used these methods by writing off the costs of problems impacting customers through quick replacements and hassle-free fixes when people show up in-store. But those are becoming rarer as more transactions are conducted online with rigid programmatic “paths”.

What used to be two reasonable people discussing a problem where a store representative was empowered to fix problems for the customer’s benefit is lost when you have to navigate a phone tree or an automated chat only speak to someone not in your country about a problem they don’t fully understand, or worse, to no one at all.

Highlight the team and staff behind the organization

This might be the hardest thing to do for most website owners despite being technically simple: put more photos and names of people on your team on the site.

Apple used to show photos of red and blue-shirted retail store staffers on their site, but they’ve moved away from some of that. Still, this tactic can work for any size organization.

But there are challenges with small teams and people who suddenly fear having their photo online.

This is somewhat understandable, but is always surprising to me. It’s rare you find someone who legitimately has no online presence. The people who don’t want their photos online usually seek to avoid a picture not because of privacy concerns, but because they just don’t like looking at photos of themselves.

I have no good advice to navigate that except to say, “If someone walked in the front door, they would see you. So shouldn’t they be able to see you online, too?”

  • Include small profile photos of people across your website, from your contact page to standalone landing pages.
  • As a bonus, maintain individual pages of pages if you have a small team, or a selection of your team (like managers). Not only is this good for SEO when someone searches for a person’s name, but it also gives you a way to link their photo with a page dedicated to them. These are, truly, some of the most-visited pages on smaller websites, especially among service-based and nonprofit organizations.
  • If specific people are responsible for specific areas of a site, like answering messages that come from a contact form, put those people’s photos where they’re most likely to be representative.
  • Offer a professional photographer to ensure people feel good about their photos. This also eliminates the (weirdly) common situation where, when asking someone to send you a photo to put online, they send a photo of them in their car (seriously, people, stop taking selfies in your dang Civic.)
  • If you have a large site, do yourself a favor and maintain a spreadsheet of URLs where a person’s photo or name and email are listed. This way if and when they leave — either on good terms or bad — you have a quick way to identify places they need replacing.

Offer a personal confirmation or receipt, even if it’s automated, and sign your work

Lots of site owners and online retailers put a small thank-you card signed by a staff member inside a shipment. Most all of these end up in the trash, but then again, so does virtually every thank-you card. So consider your brand and make sure they’re biodegradable. But what about your site?

  • Retailers sometimes use the thank-you page as a way to hock more stuff. They probably have some data that suggests this works to their advantage, but it feels like if a person walking out of a store with a bag full of goods was stopped and someone said, “Wait! Did you forget to try on some shoes!?” The answer would, of course, be, “No, I’m done with this store and I’m going to leave now.” And it would be weirdly rude.
  • On the checkout page, direct people to their receipt and tell them you’ve also emailed a copy. But use the webpage to show a brief message or video. This could be randomized to show a single staff member or the owner.
  • Nonprofits should use a thank-you confirmation page to showcase what they do with donations after a donor contributes. This should echo what you already promised to do with donations before the person made a contribution.
  • Make sure the automated emails have a humane delay to them. Order receipts should absolutely come immediately upon purchase. This helps reduce issues in case of a page load error where a confirmation page fails, but an email receipt can confirm, “No no, we’ve got it. Everything’s fine.” But a personal “thanks for your order” email that comes within seconds isn’t realistic. In a store, yes, an owner might walk up before you leave and thank you. But emails have an expectation (or should have an expectation) of delay. So space those out to send a few hours after completion or a day or two later when the delivery arrives.

Intelligently offer chats and numbers that really help

I contacted a yoga studio recently that offered a chat box. It was about 8:30 on a Monday morning — early, but not unusually so for a studio that might have 6 or 7am classes. So I typed a message into the box with my question about a billing problem. The chat — which from outward appearance gave no indication if it was a bot or not — immediately tried to parse my question, failed, and offered to send an email instead. This was irritating. In-store, I’d never be confused whether I was talking to a human or not.

  • Be up-front with your chat bots. If they’re a bot, clearly identify them as such.
  • Prescribe hours the chat is likely to immediately send a text to a human at a computer on the other end.
  • I see it all the time: people have an expectation that a chat window is going to immediately send a message to someone who will be notified you’re waiting and that you’ll be responding within moments. So if you can’t do that, disable the chat box during non-business hours.
  • If someone is to be “on call” to answer questions, make sure the numbers that are listed around your site — like in the footer, contact pages, etc. — all direct to that person at all hours. Not a “main line” that’s advertised and some separate cell number that’s not listed anywhere or forwarded to.

Some of this comes down to expectations and humanity. Few people expect a hair salon or yoga studio to be open 24/7. So when you show up and the door is locked, you’re not surprised when it’s Sunday at 9pm. But online, Sunday at 9pm is a perfectly reasonable time to investigate a salon or studio or any other business you want to check out later. Make sure you’re setting the right expectation. If you’re offering a chat at 9pm on a Sunday, be prepared to chat. If you’re not, disable it and encourage people to email instead.

Do not — ever — tell someone, “Call us to learn more” or “Call us to book an appointment”. This is forced medium-switching and it’s infuriating to everyone. If a person is online at 9pm on a Sunday, they are in one medium at the time available to them. Calling is not going to work, and users know that. So either make the site work with reasonable functionality or be prepared to lose a lot of business.

Program in surprises

I’m convinced the best way to design websites for people is with a person or small team wholly dedicated to your operation. The rise of Etsy and Shopify and other templated services provides quick ways to get online, but the one-size-fits-all mantra is stifling to any business that cares about the details.

If you’re working with an individual developer or in-house team that truly understands your service or product, discover ways you can “program in delight”.

  • Instead of promoting coupon codes customers have to track or remember, just activate it automatically.
  • Offer a discount that’s available automatically by saying, “There’s a special right now. We’ve automatically applied it, saving you $X.”
  • Program in an add-on, or just put it in the box. If you do that regularly for in-store customers, or would if you have one, do so online, too.

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Photo of Justin Harter


Justin has been around the Internet long enough to remember when people started saying “content is king”.

He has worked for some of Indiana’s largest companies, state government, taught college-level courses, and about 1.1M people see his work every year.

You’ll probably see him around Indianapolis on a bicycle.

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