Your Website: Not a Place, Not a Page, but a Platform

Vintage illustration of Hotel Fontenelle, Omaha, Nebraska. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

By Spencer Critchley. Everyone knows they need a website, but in my experience, surprisingly few know exactly why.

"What should our website do? How will we know if it's succeeding?" The uncertainty means they have a hard time telling their web developer what they need, and that means they’re often dissatisfied with what they get.

Here's where I think the confusion lies. What websites can do has grown enormously over the years, but our mental models haven't changed to keep up. In particular, many website owners are still stuck inside these two:

  1. The website as a “place” that people “visit.”
  2. The website as a collection of pages.

Neither of these models begins to capture the potential of modern websites. As a result they make it impossible to think clearly about the topic. But once you escape them (and that only needs to take a few minutes), it all gets much better.

A Website Is Not a Place

We frequently talk about “visitors” who are “checking out” a site, that is, a place that people would want to come have a look at, as if it were a public notice board, or maybe a tourist attraction.

But no one has visited a website to check it out since the early 1990’s. Back then a site was a novelty, like the first tall building in a small town. Today, just visiting websites is about as likely as just visiting random buildings in a big city. There are far too many for that to make sense. Instead, we go to a particular address because we want to do a particular thing.

It’s similar with a nonprofit’s website. People are not coming to it to have a look at your home page, or read the biographies of your board members (break it to them gently). If they come, it’s because they want to do something.

A Website Is Not a Collection of Pages

It’s hard for people born since the early 1990’s to imagine, but back when the web browser was born it was amazing simply to see what looked like a book page on your computer screen — and click to go to a page in another “book.” It was a huge leap forward from tracking down references in libraries: What could easily have taken weeks or months could now happen instantly.

This dazzling accomplishment seemed like the whole point of the web. Now, though, displaying linked web pages is a fraction of what a website can do.

A Website Is a Platform


Illustration of platforms supporting various kind of machinery and technology


The two sources of confusion — thinking of a website as a place and as a collection of pages — come together in the term “home page.” Remember: not a place, not a page.

Here’s what a website really is: a platform for doing things.

“Platform” is a jargon word, so it needs explaining. Tech people use it all the time, and everyone else goes along, but often without really knowing what it means.

Here’s what it does mean: A platform is something that makes other things possible.

It’s like a physical platform that you might stand on or put a building on. Whatever you want to do on the platform is up to you; the platform just makes it possible. That’s why tech people call a computer a platform. By itself, a computer doesn’t do anything except take up space. But it makes it possible to run software that does any number of things.

A website is a platform, too. Displaying linked pages is just the first thing websites were used for. But they can make endless other things possible. So a website isn’t just one thing — not a place, not a page. A website is a platform that makes it possible to do lots of things.

A Platform for Digital Experiences

This understanding of websites is behind a shift in the terminology web developers use these days. They talk less about websites than about “digital experiences” — that is, doing things. (A website might be just one vehicle for such experiences, but we’ll talk more about that later.)

No doubt we’ll all continue to use the old terminology for a long time, the way TV people still talk about “playing the tape” even though TV studios have long since stopped using tape.

But it’ll help you, too, to think about your website in terms of digital experiences. In particular, think about the people you need to reach: supporters, volunteers, members of the media, and the rest of your constituents.

Ask yourself what they want to do. That will tell you what your website is for, and therefore how it should be designed.

What Do Your Site Users Want to Do?

Many of my clients work at nonprofit organizations. The first thing they hope website users want to do is donate. Unfortunately, that’s pretty unlikely.

That’s because no one actually wants to donate. What they want is something else, and donating happens to enable it.

People take any action for one of two reasons: to fulfill a desire or to relieve a discomfort.

This is true for donations and it’s true for any action taken by any constituent or customer of any organization. Everything comes down to a version of the desire/discomfort binary: opportunity or threat, love or hate, hope or fear.

In itself, a donation is not a desire, and neither is it a discomfort. It’s just a financial concept: money you give with no expectation of material return.

Of material return.

In fact, there has to be some kind of return, in the form of either a fulfilled desired or a relieved discomfort.

Stop thinking about asking people for donations. Start thinking about offering to fulfill their desires or relieve their discomforts.

All marketing runs on this principle.

Why They Do What They Do

In behavioral psychology, the desire/discomfort duo is often described in terms of “affect.” Affect is the feeling, positive or negative, that we experience in response to a situation.

That feeling causes us to seek either more or less of whatever produces the feeling.

It’s a response rooted in our evolutionary history. A sunny hillside with open views all around? More, please. A dense thicket and scary rustling sounds? Less, please!

Affect originates with what behavioral psychologists call System 1 thinking. System 1 is instinctive, fast, and unconscious. The evolution of System 1 thinking helped ensure that our species could survive in dangerous environments with little strength and few weapons.

There’s a System 2 as well: reason, the careful, slower collection of evidence and the logical consideration of what to do with it. System 2 is behind not only our survival as a species, but domination of the world, because it enables technology, science, and civilization.

System 1 and System 2 are thoroughly explained by the Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman in his book “Thinking Fast and Slow.” It's a must-read for anyone who wants to understand how our minds work, especially in making decisions.

As powerful as System 2 is, it’s easily overwhelmed by System 1, which is designed to take over our minds at any moment in the service of primal, survival-based imperatives.

This is why we so often find ourselves doing things that seem to be out of our control, to the point of “losing our minds” to one emotion or another.

This is also why successful marketers always appeal to System 1. Coke doesn’t try to make a reasoned case for carbonated water with sugar and flavors. It sells enjoyment, an affect that stimulates System 1.

This is why it doesn’t work very well to ask someone to donate. “Making a donation” is not a System 1 affect. It’s a System 2 concept. If we ask someone to donate, there’s nothing driving them to do anything other than think about it with System 2.

So here’s an important lesson for thinking about the design of a nonprofit's  website. There’s a default checklist item for adding a donation button. But in itself, a donation button won’t add much value.

What will add value is thinking through what would lead people to want to click the button, by making the donation not the end, but the means: a way of fulfilling a desire or relieving a discomfort.

And that means it’s time to talk about the funnel and the pathway.

The funnel is the series of stages a person passes through from becoming aware and organization exists to becoming a customer or constituent. The pathway is the particular route an individual follows in doing that.

More to come.


What we’ve learned

  • A website isn’t a place or a collection of pages, it’s a platform.
  • A platform makes it possible to do lots of different things.
  • To understand what your website is for, understand what your constituents want to do.
  • What they want to do is driven by feelings of desire or discomfort, not by reason. We experience desire or discomfort with our fast, instinctive, unconscious System 1 minds, not our slow, analytical System 2 minds.
  • That’s why effective marketing appeals first to System 1.