Websites for a stressed-out world

don't panicLast month I was fortunate to travel to the UK to attend the annual Generate London conference for web designers. Of all the great talks, probably my favourite session was an unexpected one, entitled “Designing for Crisis”.

I really wasn’t sure what to expect based on that title. Even the description was confusing:

“It’s easy to design for the idealized user, someone who’s smart, calm, and informed. It’s less easy, and thus more important, to design for a more realistic user: still smart, but harried and uncertain. The best designs handle both with care. But how many designs can help a user who is completely in the dark and barely capable of rational thought? In this talk, Eric will draw on his personal and professional experience to explore examples of crisis-mitigating design successes and failures. In the process, he’ll illustrate ways that you can and should consider the needs of users teetering on the edge of panic. Helping them will make your designs more relevant and useful for all your users.”

Adding to my confusion, this “crisis” talk was being delivered by Eric Meyer, who’s famous in the web world for his work on CSS standards. So I was surprised when he didn’t mention CSS or code at all. Instead, Eric shared a very personal experience…

Who is this post for? It’s written for any business with a website, or starting one, whose visitors may be stressed and in a hurry for answers. It’s not so relevant for websites that people visit at their leisure (such as fashion retail).

Eric Meyer’s real life crisis

Eric relayed the story of his young daughter experiencing a debilitating fit and being taken in a rush to a specialist children’s hospital. Meanwhile, he and his wife needed to get themselves to the hospital and find out what on earth was going on.

On the big screen on stage he showed us the home page of that hospital (as it was at the time).

A pleasant looking website, it indicated that they were an award-winning hospital.

That they offered services x, y and z.

There was some nice value-add content too, such as “How to prepare your child for their first visit to hospital.”

And somewhere off to the right was a phone number and details of opening hours.

But for these traumatised parents, in the middle of a heartrending crisis (and most likely on a mobile device), none of that helped. What they wanted to know, then and there, in big obvious letters, were:

  • Where has our daughter been taken?
  • We’re her parents, she needs us. Don’t we need to be there to admit her?
  • How do we get there?
  • Where do we go when we arrive? Do we go to Emergency, or Reception?

He admitted that the simple idea of getting the number and phoning ahead didn’t even occur to him while his brain was scrambled by fear. And the number didn’t stand out, especially on the mobile.

It was an inspiring talk to end the first day of the conference, getting the whole (beautiful) room thinking (and talking) about what really should be the most important things highlighted on a website.

inside the generate london conference 2015
The beautiful Grand Hall in the Great Connaught Rooms, Covent Garden

My own real life ‘crisis’

As an aside, later that same night I found myself searching the internet on my mobile phone looking for the process for an Aussie to access UK public health services as I’d come down with something that felt a lot like tonsillitis (why do I always get sick when I travel?!)

Eventually, with some ‘local’ knowledge gleaned from a frantic call home, I found – hidden 4 clicks deep in a poorly-named PDF – that Australia has a reciprocal health agreement with the UK.  So I can visit a GP there and be covered, as we are at home.

As an extra, related aside, the following day (once the new medication allowed me to attend the conference without my cough drowning out the speakers) there was another interesting session about Content Strategy. One example was the hugely complex GOV.UK, whose current strategy is to reduce their 75,000 webpages down to a measly 3,000. Phew!

Everyday crises and the World Wide Web

Of course not all websites or businesses deal with life-and-death issues, and may not have clients in such a state of distress as Eric’s example.

But just think about less critical ‘crisis’ points that happen in everyday life. It seems everyone’s stress levels are elevated these days, and time itself is precious and critical. So an everyday crisis might be:

  • running late for an appointment;
  • needing to make or change a restaurant reservation;
  • electricity outages;
  • locating a shop in an unfamiliar part of town and finding the GPS has given you bad directions;
  • basically anything you’re trying to do online in a hurry before the shop closes, the train arrives, or the baby starts crying again.

People will often be on a mobile device at these times. The basic ‘critical’ actions need to be even more obvious on a mobile website.

A new Call to Action

In web design and marketing there is a strong focus on Calls to Action. In deciding on the best CTA, the question usually asked is:

“On this page, what action do we want the visitor to take?”

That’s what gets highlighted.

But in doing so, are we forgetting the basics of customer service?

“What information might the visitor want, especially when they are stressed or in a hurry?”

That needs highlighting too.

don't panic with these cta's

I’m currently designing a site for a physiotherapist – a lovely, caring, nurturing person. When we were discussing what needed to be the focus on the home page, her words were “If someone is experiencing pain, they just want relief as soon as possible. They want to know where I am and when they can get an appointment.”

Simple, eh?

PS. I didn’t get the chance to speak with Eric after the session, but I wanted to know “How did the story end? Was your daughter ok?” In writing this post, I checked Wikipedia and, very sadly, read this: “His daughter Rebecca Alison Meyer died on June 7th, 2014 on her 6th birthday, less than a year after her diagnosis of a brain tumor.”

It goes on to say that “The hex color #663399 was named “rebeccapurple” and added to the CSS color list in her memory.”


Rebeccapurple is such a lovely shade of purple (my favourite colour), I might have to find a way to make use of it soon!



Author: RobynRHD

I'm a small business web design specialist with interests in social media and other online marketing methods. As my blog intro states: "Steering small businesses in the right direction with what I hope is practical, realistic advice and useful tips, amidst the constantly changing noise and hype. I'd like to help you sort out what you really need and how to go about it." I'm a proud Aussie, living in Sydney, and an avid fan of Column 8 in the Sydney Morning Herald.

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