“Nobody surfs the web anymore. The waves are too damn big.”
He’s right. And the thing is that we’ve mostly created the waves ourselves with the deliberate intention of stopping surfing.
People don’t surf the web. They go to a few regular sites. They gather feeds together using RSS. They ping straight off to links gathered via social media (and then jump straight back to Facebook again). But they don’t surf, hopping from link to link, site to site, in the way that we used to.
Why is that?
First, because of the intoxicating power that search engines deliver to get instant answers. Type in a question – bang. Instant result!
But secondly, and I think more importantly, because the people who build sites have adopted a view of users that looks more like a railroad than a highway. We think that we can – and should – put the users on tracks to the holy destination of conversion, and anything that lets them drift away from that ultimate destination is to be avoided like the plague. They might wander off a little – but only so far as we’ll let them, before we start putting in roadblocks and placing big fat signposts down to get them back on the road.
We’ve made the waves too high to surf. We’ve trained users, like performing monkeys, to press a button and get a reward. And that’s a little sad.
You can see it in our persona work. Look at the average persona template. There’s a nice dinky bit of narrative, and then we’re straight into the goals. The user must have goals. Why else would they be online, right? Why else might they be on our site?
We talk about user journeys, but those user journeys are like train travel – the driver, us, is in control. They user is just buying a ticket (and, in most cases, isn’t even aware of it). We talk about funnels, shovelling in people at the top and getting conversions at the bottom. Grist to the mill.
As content people, with years of experience in creating stuff that people want to read, watch, and engage with, we need to be wary of talk like this. We need to remember that users – people – are human beings and not performing animals that you can prod and poke and reward into doing what you want. That personas don’t become so dictatorial that the “goals” in them (always an abstraction, and too often aligned directly to the company’s goals) don’t limit real people who come to our sites. We need to remember that sometimes, people need to surf, to feel a part of things and not just fodder for the conversion mill.
And we need to remember that the best companies, the best brands, have enough confidence in what they do that they allow a little space for their customers to be themselves. Some space to surf.