What job does your website do? Is it doing the job that you initially set out for it?

With all the excitement happening online, all the buzz, all the enticing opportunities, and all the fabulous tools standing ready at hand, it can be tempting to just dive in to building a site — design it and launch!

The barriers to entry seem so low — the how often seems to be in such easy reach — you just grab it and go, without ever considering the questions of what you want to launch. Or why.

Sometimes the plan goes awry … or the result just doesn’t fit the plan. Was it the right plan?

And that can be a huge mistake.

The why speaks to intention. The why leads to purpose. This helps you focus your goals. Your goals point to your key performance indicators, which are how you will be able to measure your success.

It all starts with the why.

Why is on First

Jeremiah Owyang wrote about “fondling the hammer,” which at first blush sounds rather more vulgar than what he actually means, as he explains it:

…Instead of honing in on the specific technology, you should approach developing your web strategy as you would building a house. Focus on who you’re inviting to come over to your property (websites) and what is it that they want (needs). Start there.

This is a start. But I would actually take a step back from even that, and focus on the question, “Why?”

Why these particular people? Why these particular needs? Why this property? For that matter, why do you want a house?

Why do you want a web presence?

Why Why?

Why? is a simple question. Can you answer it? Careful now, because the answer will send you on the rest of your journey. It’s not a question to dismiss. After all, if the resulting site doesn’t answer your why, then maybe you have just built the wrong site. (Or maybe your why was the wrong why.)

Let’s go back to the analogy of a house: The answer to the question, “Why do you want a new house?” leads to all kinds of consequences. If you want a house in which to raise a family, then you probably want a house with more bedrooms, at least two bathrooms, in a good neighborhood for kids without a lot of traffic, with good schools nearby. On the other hand, if you want a house where you can live comfortably with your cat and iguana and grow a garden, then maybe you don’t want the extra bedrooms and bathrooms but do want a yard with good sun. If you want a home in which to entertain your friends with dinner parties, then maybe the kitchen and dining area are more important than either lots of bedrooms or sunny gardens.

The who is secondary to the why.

The Why Leads to the Job to be Done

Harvard Business School’s Clayton Christensen talks about how a big fast food chain was having trouble figuring out why they could not improve their milk shake sales. A new researcher then learned that 40% of milk shake sales occurred in early morning. Why?

Most often, these early-morning customers were alone; they did not buy anything else; and they consumed their shakes in their cars.

…Most bought it to do a similar job: They faced a long, boring commute and needed something to make the drive more interesting. They weren’t yet hungry but knew that they would be by 10 a.m.; they wanted to consume something now that would stave off hunger until noon. And they faced constraints: They were in a hurry, they were wearing work clothes, and they had (at most) one free hand.

…The milk shake, it turned out, did the job better…. It took people twenty minutes to suck the viscous milk shake through the thin straw, addressing the boring-commute problem. They could consume it cleanly with one hand…. It didn’t matter much that it wasn’t a healthy food, because becoming healthy wasn’t essential to the job they were hiring the milk shake to do.

On the other hand, people buying shakes in the afternoon, the other peak sales period, were needing the shake to do a different job.

…[A]t other times of the day parents often bought milk shakes, in addition to complete meals, for their children. What job were the parents trying to do? They were exhausted from repeatedly having to say “no” to their kids. They hired milk shakes as an innocuous way to placate their children and feel like loving parents. The researcher observed that the milk shakes didn’t do this job very well, though. He saw parents waiting impatiently after they had finished their own meals while their children struggled to suck the thick shakes up through the thin straws.

Customers were hiring milk shakes for two very different jobs. [Emphasis mine.]

The job, not the customer, is the thing here. More important than the who is the why. Why is this person using the product — hiring the product? Simply identifying the who could mislead you, for it’s quite possible that the who is the same but the why is different at different times, in different contexts.

As it turned out in the fast food example above, the company kept their shakes thick in the morning but made them thinner, more liquid in the afternoon. They adjusted the product to better serve the jobs it was being hired to do at different times. Sales went up. They looked past the who to ask the why, and learned information that allowed them to adapt and improve. (For a fascinating 108-minute listen on this case and others, check out this IT Conversations podcast of Clayton Christensen’s presentation at the Open Source Business Conference in March 2004.)

The Why Matters

When you set out to build a new web presence, ask yourself why. Why do you want, or feel you need, a website? Why is it important to have? What job will it do for you? Then go on from there: Why do will people go to your website? What job will they want it to do? Will they want it to give them a quick hit of information whenever they want? Provide a place to talk back? Enable them to connect with like-minded folks? These are very different jobs. All very different whys.

The web design and development process can become very intense. You’re asked many questions, asked to make many decisions. Delving into the rapidly changing technologies and social media culture in which your web presence will live, you see all kinds of solutions out there from which to choose. New services, new widgets, new social media trends — the new “best thing ever” seems to pop up every day. And these things are cool. They can be very fun, very engaging, very interesting.

But no matter how well done, no matter how popular, if they don’t help the site do the job you need the site to do, that your customers/visitors/audience/constituents need the site to do, then all these cool things will not help you. On the contrary. They could end up costing time and energy, and distract from the important things — the things that answer the why.

Remember the why. Let why be your compass.

[originally published on pingv.com]