Do you struggle with what box to put a website into? Is it a sales tool, a marketing tool, a point-of-sale, a social space where customers can interact? Should you be doing all those things well, or focusing on the ones you know? I meet with clients who are wrestling with these questions all the time.

“Your brain is just a big computer that makes and validates associations,” a professor of mine would often say. If you study anything about branding, you know it plays a crucial part in giving an organization its identity. Without a brand, an organization is just a collection of people who do something. The visual aspect of the brand is only the tip of the iceberg. Your brand is much more—it is the anchor to which the associations your customers make with your organization are tied. Companies who effectively manage their brands know they have to take every opportunity they can to influence what their audience thinks about their brand. These opportunities manifest themselves as touch-points.

A touchpoint is that valuable moment when customers or prospective customers lets you connect with them directly. How you use this time and the impression they take with them are connected to your brand. Every touchpoint creates what we like to call artifacts. Each artifact makes a promise and keeps or breaks the promises made before it, creating a new impression, and/or affirming or negating a preexisting impression. Your website is a huge touchpoint. Each time someone visits, it does all of that—day in and day out. And all of it will be tied your brand.

Function vs. Purpose

Every organization has something they want their website to do. Yet, in reality, there is just one core function your website must do well. It must say the things you want it to say about your brand. It must communicate these messages in a way that resonates with your customers so that they will form an association between your brand and those messages.

Visitors will give you an average of 15 seconds of their attention per website visit. This means that to get them to stick around and further interact with your brand, your message has to make a first impression—the right impression—in that short amount of time. That’s only one of the reasons why determining what the right message to disseminate on your website is not an easy task and will require work beyond typing words on a screen.

The first activity we engage in with every new client on each new project is what we call Discovery. During a discovery engagement we work with the client to strip away the functional requirements, the “must haves” of their new website, and we work to understand what they want their customer to know about them—what promises do they want to make? What impressions do they want to leave? Once we understand this, we have a litmus test to hold all the other “wants” and “must haves” up to. We simply have to ask: does this part support the brand or detract from the brand? Does it clarify who you are as an organization, or does it create confusion?

Once you start to view your website this way, it goes without saying you’ll start to look at your entire organization in an entirely new way as well. That’s the power of human centered design. It unlocks your potential to make people’s lives better… and grow your business.