Your Site is Washington. Your Users Are in a House of Cards

March 17, 2014 | Catharine Robertson


Katie T and I have done this twice before. For those of you who read Your Site is an Island. Your Users are LOST or Your Site is Westeros. Your Users Are Pawns in a Game of Thrones, you get it.

For those of you who didn’t, here’s the gist: What if, rather than imagine them as real people, we tried to imagine our site users as characters on a TV show? We have found that certain TV shows contain user personas instructive to—or at the least entertaining us during—our work as information architects. If a TV show is a website, then its characters are the site’s users.

This entry in our series focuses on Season 1 of House of Cards. (I’ve already watched all of Season 2, but I don’t want to spoil anything for you. Here’s a hint, though: Some people die.)

Got it? Here we go.

U.S. Representative Frank Underwood

Frank has but one rule: “Hunt or be hunted.” He used to be your site’s most loyal and profitable user/customer, but something went wrong. He felt betrayed—even though you were just behaving as any profitable business should—and now he’s turned into your biggest critic and most prolific troll. And that’s a shame for you, because he enjoys wide influence and deep social currency. Frank is in this payback for the long game; sometimes his machinations appear harmless, but they always ultimately result in something that serves him and hurts the site.

Claire Underwood

Claire is a powerful tastemaker. One word from her on her social networks, and you’ll get 100 new customers. You have to keep her happy, but you don’t always know how. Claire is always investigating her options but returns to you again and again, even though it seems like you might lose her loyalty with every sale. You never know quite what she’s thinking, which is tough for you, because you need her.

Zoe Barnes

Zoe is a one-time customer who gives away all your secured, paid content—your intellectual property—for free to other users who haven’t paid for access. The thing is, you can’t even pinpoint how she’s getting her own access to this. You shut down her account long ago; she shouldn’t even be able to get in, period. No one on your team can tell you about her points of entry or what content she has definitely taken, because there is simply no record, no trail of her. But you keep reading your once-secure content replicated on every blog and Buzzfeed post.

Tom Hammerschmidt, former chief editor of the Washington Herald

Tom is stuck in the past. He’s a competent, loyal user, but he writes you so many letters! Your customer service department spends a lot of time just responding to his treatises. Among the opinions he expresses: Tom will always believe that Web 2.0 is just a fad, the Internet of Things is just a fantasy scenario cooked up by MIT Media Lab nerds, Twitter and Facebook are for children, and that printing all of his emails is the best way to organize his thoughts before responding. Tom is a loyal anachronism.

U.S. Representative Peter Russo

Peter Russo is a user who follows every impulse, with little to no self-control. This is good for you, the site owner, because you can rely on him to predictably follow only his own appetites, clicking on every advertisement or call to action you throw his way. Peter Russo makes your site stats reliable.

Christina Gallagher, Russo’s girlfriend

Christina will put up with every pop-up ad, Foresee survey, and spam email you throw her way, even though it annoys her and makes her not want to buy anything from you. One day, though, she snaps. She unsubscribes from every newsletter, she marks your promotional emails as spam, forever damning you to the trash folder in her Gmail account.

Underwood staffer Doug Stamper

Stamper is the user who completes product reviews, fills out opinion surveys, and subscribes to all of your newsletters. In exchange, he wants access to every discount code, product promotion, and special offer he can get his hands on. He’s even starting to ask for special access codes no one else has, codes that will let him see a side of your company no one else has ever seen. You can always count on Stamper to make you look good through favorable reviews and the like, but it’ll cost you a lot of money and trust. Without him, you’d look much, much worse. You often question whether it’s worth it to give so much to this user, but ultimately know it is. You’d rather have him on your side than not.

Remy Danton, lobbyist & former Underwood staffer

Remy is a venture capitalist who wants to invest huge sums of money into your site in return for being able to call the shots. The money is so tempting, because it would let you do all of those improvements you’ve been dreaming of. But to be owned like that? There would have to be a really good return on it for you, beyond the money.

Vice President Jim Matthews

Vice President Matthews would rather be a big fish in a small pond than stay where he’s not appreciated. He has contributed much to your site, but he’s seeking more ROI for his input, and he takes his business elsewhere. Somewhere smaller, where he can see his name in very big lights, even if very few people see those lights.

White House Chief of Staff Linda Vasquez

Linda is a savvy, shrewd user always trying to bring you deals on new business and new products. You never asked for this relationship, but whatever it is you want, Linda Vasquez seems to know how to get it and pass it just under your nose. When she delivers on her end of a deal, it means a huge jump in revenues for you, but when she promises to deliver on a deal and then doesn’t, it can be disastrous. You know it’s dangerous to have so much faith tied up in one rainmaker like Linda, but you can’t help yourself. She offers access to the best deals—when they actually happen.

Freddy Armstrong, owner of Freddy’s BBQ

Freddy Armstrong is the best domain host you’ve ever had. His rates are so cheap that you always pay him more than he asks. And responsive? You can call Freddy at 11:00pm on a Friday to tell him you’re going to have a huge spike in traffic over the weekend, and he’ll just take it in stride. It’s just a part of doing business with you, he’ll say. The thing is: you’ll never tell any of your friends or competitors who your hosting company is, because you don’t want them to either ruin the service or drive up the prices. Freddy’s almost too good to be true, so you’re keeping him all to yourself. At least for now.

A site’s user can have more complex drivers and motives than a business might imagine. And if the business doesn’t design their site based on what its users need and how they behave, that business might find their site is built on a House of Cards.

Excuse us now, we’re going to go watch Season 2 straight through again, just because it’s so good!

About the Author

Catharine Robertson

I'm an Information Architect and Consultant with TBG, and I write and perform comedy in Baltimore.

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