the zip local podcast episode 4
In this episode, I interview Shari Thurow, a website architecture expert with so much experience that she’s testified on user experience (UX) and website architecture in court, on behalf of certain large companies we cannot mention in public. On top of her career as a legal expert, Shari works as a usability expert for Fortune 500 companies around the U.S. In this conversation, Shari and I discuss how a site’s architecture and ux design can help – or hurt – its attempts to lure local customers.
Megan: Hello and welcome to the fourth episode of “The Zip”. In this podcast, I Megan
Hannay of “ZipSprout” interview badass marketers and storytellers on all the things local. From local link building to P.R., branding, and website U.X. I ask each guest about their brains, best practices, and favorite philosophies over Wednesday morning coffee. Maybe in this case Wednesday afternoon coffee.
Today I’m speaking with Shari Thrurow, hi Shari.
Shari: Hello from Illinois!
Megan: After attending the University of Illinois in Information Science, Shari founded Omni Interactive, which is a search engine optimization and website usability agency that’s based out of Illinois, but that serves Fortune 500 clients across the country. Shari is a former board member and now serves on the advisory board of the Information Architecture Institute, which I somehow imagine to be the most organized institution of all time because you guys are an institute of organizing information.
Shari: Absolutely, we have a good group of people to be associated with.
Megan: And I imagine you never unnecessary red tape because people would just be like nope that doesn’t need to be here. We’ll architect it out.
Megan: So, to start it off Shari, can you tell me a bit about how you got started in
information architecture and user experience. What was your first U.X. related job?
Shari: Ironically, it is the first website I ever built.
Shari: And it was a school bus company, which happens to be a local company. At the time, we were trying to get cross and control arms put on all of our school buses. I’m sure a lot of parents have seen this. It’s where the little arm goes out so the students always pass far away from the school bus.
Shari: And I was in charge of part of the design and absolutely the marketing of that cross and control arm company, and it was a smashing success. So, out of the gate I was an information architect in web development.
Megan: That’s awesome, and so how did you, when you started, you know maybe you were kind of probably unfamiliar with the process, did you feel like it was somewhat gut like how you organized the information on this site so people understood how the arm would best serve the community? Or how did you think about that the first time around?
Shari: Well I was very lucky because I worked in the corporate office, and I was in charge of developing all of the online marketing materials and helping put together all the offline – you know the print brochures, the handouts, any time there was a folder – and so I had to be organized in the office anyway, and had the best bosses in the world, and I can say that. I’ve actually worked for some of the best bosses in the world and the fact that I was already a trained architect was amazing. I never imagined that my information science classes would help me with a school bus website. But it did.
Megan: So I guess that maybe leads into a question that some people might be wondering, if they’re newer to you. What exactly is information architecture and user experience? How does that serve someone who might be a marketer, or local marketer even, for their website? Why do they need it?
Shari: Well I can – let’s start with user experience. That’s what U.X. is and U.X. is tricky, because there is no formal college or university degree in only user experience.
Shari: So, any Tom, Dick, or Harry can call themselves a U.X. pro and a person wouldn’t know the difference. So this is what I recommend that people do: go into Google, or any of your preferred search engines, and type in the keyword phrase “user experience honeycomb”. You should be able to see a version of Peter Morville’s user experience honeycomb, and if you get the domain name semanticstudios.com that’s the right one. And there are seven parts of it, seven parts of user experience, and a user experience professional should fully comprehend every single one of those seven facets of user experience. Especially usability and especially findability. And information architecture is very simple; it’s organizing, labeling, and connecting content so it’s easy to use and easy to find.
Megan: Got it, so it’s pretty much a necessity for any website but I would say especially there might be some ways, that we’ll talk about later in the podcast, how people who are running websites to serve local markets might need to particularly think about the architecture of their website and how they’re organizing information. So, Shari, how would you say that a U.X. or an information architect’s person, a good quality one maybe not just the average Tom, Dick, or Harry, but a quality U.X. person’s brain works? What do you see that other people don’t see?
Shari: A U.X. person’s brain is far more objective than you might imagine because the goal of user experience is to truly understand your users! To truly understand your target audience, and it’s not just how they think, it’s what they do. People will say that they are going to do something, and then they do the exact opposite. A user experience person knows that, so they’re not forcing their personal opinion on any website. They’re genuinely trying to understand user behaviors and incorporating that into the website, so that the website reinforces and supports the user. And if the website reinforces and supports the user, then they’re more likely to be a lifetime customer. A current customer will stay a customer, or they’ll become a customer. Just really understanding user behavior is important. So what do I see that other people don’t see? So if we go to the user experience honeycomb, there are two facets that are really important, which is usability and findability. Findability is three things: browsing, searching, and asking. Because that’s exactly what people do when they try to locate or discover information. They will ask somebody, their colleagues, anybody in their social group, they might use a search engine, they definitely click from website to another and browse. So basically they do all three things! They don’t do one thing only, they do all three of them. And you have to understand those aspects, not just one. And that’s the problem with working with many S.E.O.s, S.E.O.s thank goodness they understand search, but they might not understand the others.
Megan: Right, so partially as a U.X. person it sounds like you have to be good at just observing people, kind of like a sociologist in a way, you’re just observing what people are doing in their natural habitat without trying to influence them, so that you can better create websites that serve their needs.
Shari: Exactly. And I can tell you, as a U.X. person, it’s funny to watch people. Not because people are funny, and I’ve even had people observe me, who are usability professionals or U.X. professionals, and I even laugh at myself. Because it’s –
Megan: Do you have an example of a time?
Shari: Absolutely. I clearly, because obviously I went to school and I’m an S.E.O. too, so I search a lot, so I consider myself expert searcher, when I go to website blah-blah-blah, I go to a website, I do not search. That is not the first thing I do. I browse. So even though I said, oh what I do is search, I do the exact opposite, I browse. I only use a site search engine if I know how to use that site search engine or if I become frustrated that I can’t find something by browsing.
Megan: Right, and I think a lot of people do that, because I think you might get to a site and be like “I know I’m looking for their running shoes, but I don’t know what they call their running shoes, so I better just browse around until I see a word that looks like running shoes because you know, if I search, I might just get something really weird.
Shari: Oh yeah, and it’s really funny to see videos of yourself or videos of what you do on the screen. It really is. And people never do what you expect them to. That is something I’ve learned over all these years is, nobody does what you think they’re going to do. That is what a U.X. person gets.
Megan: I feel like even if you have a big button in the middle that says “Click this button!”, they’ll still somehow find some other place to go. We all do that I think, especially because I think we multitask a lot, so you’re going from site to site, just want to get things done really quickly, and we don’t really read, we kind of just look for indicators of what we should do.
Shari: And that big button that says “Click me, click me”, a lot of times it’s obvious and it should be obvious, all call to actions on websites should be obvious, but people won’t click it because it might look too much like an ad, or it blends in too much, so it might be big but it blends in too much, and so people don’t notice it. I can see that on eye-tracking tests too.
Megan: Yeah. That’s a good point, so yeah, they’re avoiding it even though to the creator it looks like it’s supposed to, so –
Shari: It –
Megan: So I guess another question, it would be if there are, getting to the purpose of this podcast, which obviously I said earlier we’d talk about local marketing, from my perspective I see a couple kinds of local sites. When it comes to sites that are national, that maybe have locally focused pages, and then there might be sites for local businesses themselves, but when we’re talking about first those national sites, that you know maybe something like Enterprise rental car but then they have “rent cars in Miami”, “rent cars in Ohio”, what sort of missed opportunities do you see in their site architecture?
Shari: You know that’s such an easy question!
Megan: Oh good.
Shari: Because I see these mistakes all the time, what’s missing, is a good information architecture and a navigation system that supports browsing and asking.
Shari: And let me explain, site architecture has two parts, so if you talk to a person about site architecture, they usually mean technical architecture. So it means the design or the developments. Information architecture comes before that. And that includes the local section of a national website. And here’s the thing, a lot of people will put a drop-down menu on a national website and say select your location – well, I got news for you, not a lot of people see it. So you can’t assume that people are going to see it, they need to put links in a site map or a site index, they should not assume Google can follow, Google or any search engine can follow that drop down menu, and they miss opportunities for information to be put on the templates because people from different parts of the country have different questions, have different needs. A person from New Orleans does not have the same needs as a person from Chicago.
Shari: So, the other thing that I see hugely is the limited templates that the brands create – they create one template with no flexibility for the uniqueness of each location.
Megan: Hm, that makes a lot of sense.
Shari: And they should!
Megan: Right. So you’re even talking about beyond the structure of the site, just the structure of each of those location pages, the fact that maybe they shouldn’t all just be copies of each other with just slightly different information. That they should allow the local people in the company to dictate what goes on those pages.
Shari: Exactly, and if they’re going to do that, what they’re basically doing is saying let’s build a page, let’s insert these key words, that is the quickest way to get pages filtered out of search engines, could lead to a spam penalty for bad duplicate content, not good duplicate content, but bad duplicate content and an algorithm change. SO, forget about it! These national companies really, really need to get an information architecture in place first. Then do design, then do development. Make sure that the templates allow for the flexibility of each location.
Megan: Right, that makes sense, so if they are doing the information architecture first, so you said obviously the drop down pick your location that might not be the best solution. What would you recommend as a solution for someone who has a lot of different pages for a lot of different locations? What is the best way to organize all of that? Even on ZipSprout we’re trying to figure that out, because once you get above fifteen or twenty cities, having them all listed in your footer or something kind of becomes a little overwhelming. So, what do you recommend?
Shari: Well not listing them in your footer is not a good idea. Well one of the things is if you’re a national company, have a site index, not a site map. A site index is listed alphabetically, if you want a good example of a site index, just type into Google or any of your favorite search engines, “center for disease control site index”. It’s beautifully formatted. It’s done very well, that’s a good template to follow. The other thing is, remember I talked about navigation. Navigation is different from architecture, but contextual navigation is a type of navigation. Sometimes you need to put contextual navigation on these location pages because context for a person in California is different than context for a person in Illinois. And I am glad you brought up the rental car example. There are multiple airports in Chicago, or near Chicago, so if it’s busy weekend or a busy time, like Christmas season or a holiday season, getting a rental car is not available. What do you do? You go to the closest one. So make sure in contextual navigation, your next closest area is available to users. Because that’s what they’re going to do. I know this, I’ve watched this. So, that’s really important.
Megan: So even on a page that would have “Oh this is the O’Hare location”, to have “oh but if you’re looking for the Midway location,” like right on the O’Hare page, click here because that makes sense.
Shari: Absolutely! Absolutely. There’s even an airport in Rockford, Illinois for people who live in the western suburbs and I happen to know this from having used Enterprise. They have different sales districts users don’t know about and it’s very frustrating for the users to say oh you need to get this location. Okay, but your website just told me to call this location.
Megan: They’re thinking about it from the structure of their business, not necessarily how a person might think no I just need to find an Enterprise location. I don’t care what department they are.
Shari: Exactly. And once you have that in place, what happens is people remember. Oh this is how did it before, and then once they recognize how they did it before and they get to the right place, they’re happier and they keep using your site over and over, then you get a lifetime customer.
Shari: So, it’s really important, it’s really important for the national companies to step outside their box and really watch users and listen to them, they’re giving you what they want, and they’re giving you ways, a lot of them will, give you ways to do it. Listen to them.
Megan: Yeah that’s great advice. So what about business that are purely, locally focused. You know, Joe’s hardware store that’s just located in downtown Chicago. What opportunities do you see in these types of sites? Just to add, these are people who maybe Joe or Joe’s nephew is running the website, you know they might not have as much money or have an agency, but what opportunities are they missing that might cost them no money, that they just need to know?
Shari: I love this, this is a great question too because it’s so easy. Local sites have three things. Number one is thin content, not link worthy content. It isn’t find worthy content. Another thing is little or no digital content aspects that people would want a link to. Like a customer service section, or a how-to blog. There’s all sorts of different content assets. It’s ironic because Joe’s Hardware store is a goldmine of local information and I do mean a gold mine. Because you see your customers, if you have a physical presence. You observe them all the time. You talk to them all the time. My goodness, that’s exactly what a good U.X. pro does. So, having that information and having it organized and labeled properly on your website, you can outperform the national brands, I’ve seen it happen. And it’s those people who harvest that gold mine of information. Here’s a really good tip about this that’s inexpensive: if you have, if you’re going to use WordPress, I happen to use Canvas more than any other template. It’s the most flexible, it’s the most easy to work with, it’s the most search engine friendly, and also lately, I’ve been using genesis. I believe canvas is $19. It’s really cheap, get it, you’re way ahead of the game because you already have a flexible template that you wouldn’t have form a national website.
Megan: So, when you say that Joe should be adding this content, you mean he should start blogging or writing on his website, “hammers, these are all the different types of hammers, and here’s what you might need hammers for”. Just kind of putting his knowledge on his site in ways that maybe he hadn’t thought to before?
Shari: That’s really funny because my father is a carpenter so there are different types of hammers!
Megan: I’m sure there are!
Shari: There are, and there are different uses for them. So number one, start keeping a log of questions people ask. If they ask these questions a lot you need to answer them on your website in a Q&A an FAQ, FAQ means frequently asked questions, customer support and bright, really good, frequently asked questions. And trust me, you already have the questions.
Megan: Because they’re already coming to you –
Shari: Every day. They’re coming to you every day. And the second thing is exactly what you said. If the questions that they’re asking is I need this, how do I get it? They’re telling you what they want. Think about an auto part store. I need oil for my car. What’s the best oil I should get? How do I know? Here’s a way to find a sales scam, because I know people ask that all the time, somebody told me this, is this true? They’re going to remember you because they’ve seen you in person, there’s a person who picks up the phone and they’re not getting the answering service. They know your name, they know your face, and they learn to grow and trust you. So yes, absolutely! And if you’re going to have a separate blog, this is really important, make sure that you work with find a U.X. pro that’s good with blogs. Because the default things in blogs need to be fixed, like the archiving system. They can fix that for you and you won’t have to change it for years and years and years. So local people, they’re gold mines of information, it’s just a matter of getting that organized and put on your website, and updating regularly. Think about it: what if somebody asks a new question – you can add it, if somebody wants a more detailed answer, you can have it in the FAQ with a link to the article that gives people the more detailed answer.
Megan: And for Joe this is information that he probably, for him, like you’ve been saying this whole time, oh these questions are easy – because you’re an expert. And so you know, Joe, being an expert in hardware, for him he might think, oh you know this isn’t important, my knowledge isn’t worthy of my website, but it really is, because he’s an expert and people really are searching for you know, what type of hammer do I use for this project. I mean, really high quality answers can really help you rank and help you increase visits. At least people visiting his site, local to the Chicago area, and hopefully visiting his store as well. Just a little follow up on the blog, you know that might be a much bigger thing than can be covered in a simple podcast, but do you have a couple quick tips on how to organize content that maybe is not naturally coming with WordPress?
Shari: I can tell you a couple of things. So I have some great quick tips. The first thing to know is that a blog should have different architecture and a different navigation system than your local website. So, it should be different. A lot of the time it’s by topic, and by date. Together, not separately, but together. And over time, your blog is going to get bigger. So when your blog gets bigger, that’s the time to bring in somebody to help you architect it so you don’t lose what you have. So that’s really important. Another thing to remember is you naturally, you the person, the website owner, speak in jargon and you don’t know you are. So my father, for example, is a carpenter, and I have a little nephew Brantley, who found a stud finder. Which is an item you hold up to a wall to find out where you can hammer in a picture. Well my little nephew got the stud finder, and he was scanning diapers and putting it in another pile and putting it in another pile, and when we asked Brantley what are you doing, he thought the stud finder was a scanner you use at a grocery store.
Megan: That’s so funny.
Shari: And when I tell people this story, they don’t know what a stud finder is!
Shari: So that’s what I mean, you don’t realize you think in jargon, but you do. And a blog is a great place, what is this? Explain what it is. You have a digital camera, take a picture. Show people what it is! So, that is something that would go great on a blog. Third thing to remember is: your blog and your corporate site have to be connected. So let’s say you’re a hardware store and you sell stud finders, and you show people how to use a stud finder, what are you going to link that blog page to? The stud finder section of your hardware store!
Shari: And on the category page, and maybe the product pages of your stud finders, you link to how to select the best stud finder or how to use this stud finder.
Megan: So it’s all linking together so that the most information can be found at any given time.
Megan: And just to add on to that, if let’s say we are talking about a national brand, say Ace hardware instead. Should they organize their blog by site location, or should they have different topics for every location? As you said, a rental car place they might have different needs for different locations. Does that apply to blogs too? That they should organize by location or should they just be more topically oriented just like a local business would?
Shari: Now that would be a job for an information architect, I can tell you that right now. That is something that has to absolutely be tested. You might find that organizing by location is a good idea, however you might want to have location as its own category and select the location and then the tailored location content can be in that area. So, but that is definitely something that should be tested, especially on a big brand. Because think about it, look at all those pages you have to connect contextually.
Megan: That’s a lot.
Shari: You need a U.X. and an information architect for that job!
Megan: Yeah and then actually that kind of dovetails into my next question which would be, a lot of times people think about a U.X. person or an information architect when they’re starting to build the website, or starting to plan for a company, but on an ongoing basis, who should we focus on information architecture? Should it be the S.E.O. because they want to make sure their pages rank? Or should it be the web designer because they want to make sure everything looks pretty and makes sense? Is it, you know, if someone from an Enterprise organization is listening to the podcast, who on their team should they get in touch with to make sure that these needs are constantly being reevaluated and that the site is being optimized?
Shari: Well, the minute you went S.E.O. I went no, no, no, no, no, no. An S.E.O. is a terrible person to hire for information architecture, because no one bases their mental model off of Google or Bing keyword research tools. Nobody I have been testing, for over twenty years, nobody organizes information based on a keyword research tool, nobody organizes information and labels information based on page rank or software. We are human beings, we are not software. Software can help us understand things better, but you’re trying to understand human beings. You need to work with human beings. There are very few exceptions. There are maybe a handful of people who are both S.E.O.s and information architects. Just make sure you hire the right one. The best people for information architecture are people who naturally organize information well. I can usually spot that person if I’m training. It might be one of your sales people, it might be one of your marketing people, it might be somebody on your staff you didn’t realize. I find that very often. I think the best person is the person who is naturally like that, it is usually not a technical person. Because a technical person thinks like a technical person. Honestly if you’re a rental car company, does your web developer know how to organize and label content, the same way your target audience does.
Megan: Probably not because they’re thinking like a web developer. They’re thinking like a machine because that’s their job.
Shari: Exactly, so it’s a person, they’re probably going to be in sales or marketing department. But you have to be careful, because remember, the whole point of being a user experience professional is to understand the user. So, sales people tend to be more pushy – buy this, buy this, buy this. So it’s probably a marketing person. I think everybody should understand the user at a company. That’s the whole point! You want users to come to your website, use your website, become a lifetime customer, become the person you want them to be. Help them achieve their goals. So if everyone understands what that is then everybody on your team is going to make a good website.
Megan: Thank you, that’s very good insight. As a marketer, I’m like yeah yeah, I could do this. I know it takes a lot of thinking and kind of restructuring your brain too. So, final question, if you could take any U.X. or any marketer to lunch, who would you take? Whose brain would you want to pick?
Shari: Well I love Peter Morville because he did the user experience honeycomb and he is one of the founders of the user information architecture institute. So he’s my gut feeling, but a person whose brain I would love to pick, her name is Bev Corwin. She’s also one of the founders of the information architecture institute. She has extraordinary technical capabilities, and to have a female with technical capabilities as well as insight to users is just nothing short of amazing.
Megan: Yeah she’s a unicorn for sure.
Shari: She is an a class by herself, and I knew her personally, but any time I talk to her, any time I go out to lunch with her, I become a better information architect, I become a better programmer, I become a better everything.
Megan: Well maybe we should invite her to the podcast!
Shari: Yes, and another fun person to invite is Susan Wineshank because she is called the brain lady and I actually, she’s one of my professors/trainers, and she taught me can I eat it, will it eat me, and can I have sex with it.
Megan: I remember that one, can you explain that briefly for the audience?
Shari: Well, everybody has an old brain, a middle brain, and new brain. And everybody’s old brain works the same way; we all respond can I eat it, will it eat me, and can I have sex with it. And will it eat me is safety. Which think about it, everybody responds to safety. And if you accommodate the human brain, you’re going to have a better user experience. And doctor Susan Wineshank is hilarious and I have never forgotten that when she taught me that.
Megan: Very memorable, that is basically like how we work all the time. The basic reason we make decisions is to answer one of those questions.
Shari: And so, all of those people, Peter, Bev and Susan, it’s so hard to pick. That’s why I said those three names.
Megan: Maybe you can just do lunch with all three of them at once, that would be just an amazing lunch.
Shari: That would be, but also I think my brain might explode. Overload! Overload! Shari needs more memory. But yeah, I have learned from all three people and I continue to learn from all three people, and I hope they will always allow me to continue to learn from them.
Megan: I’ll look into all three of them. So, Shari thank you so much for your time today, I really appreciate it, and I’m sure the people listening. I’ve definitely learned a lot, and hopefully those listening have learned as well. I really appreciate it. For those listening, this is the Zip, the local marketing podcast. You can follow us at ZipSprout on Twitter and be sure to subscribe on iTunes or Soundcloud. And Shari are you on Twitter as well? If they want to follow you and keep up with you.
Shari: Absolutely, @ShariThurow
Megan: Awesome! And we will put the link to that in the blog post that goes along with this episode. Thank you everyone, and stay tuned next Wednesday for another episode!