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There are few things more difficult than setting aside your own knowledge and assumptions to look at things from someone else’s perspective. (If that were not the case, political "discussion" would be far more productive…but I digress.) It’s critical to the success of a website that it serve the needs of its audiences, but too often website information architecture (IA) is approached from an inside-out perspective (what we want to tell people), rather than from an outside-in perspective (what people want to find on our website).

It’s human nature to assume our own point-of-view is shared by most people, especially if they are smart (like us). But it’s a poor framework from which to design a usable website that engages site visitors. Who among us has not heard a business owner proclaim that he is the best representative of his website’s audience? If he likes it and gets it, he insists, his site visitors will like it and get it. However, people outside a company do not view the company’s information or message in the same way as people inside the company. They don’t know what company insiders know, and often they’re encountering the information for the first time.

Consulting web/IA designers may have an advantage over in-house designers in incorporating the outside-in perspective, because as outsiders, they carry fewer assumptions about a company’s message and information into the design/IA process. However, few designers are completely immune to making assumptions that don’t serve a particular audience’s needs.

So how do you ensure outside-in design and information architecture? Talk to people in the website’s audience: by formal interview, by online discussion, by engaging them in blog posts, by twittering, however you have to do it. Listen carefully. Be open to what they say about your website and messages, especially when it makes you uncomfortable. Compliments are nice to hear, but complaints will help you make your website better, if you take them seriously.

Find enough complaints from people outside the company, and you’ll find the keys to making a more usable, visitor-focused website.

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