What Even Is a Website?

Everyone sees your website a little bit differently. How do your users see it? Stakeholders? The CEO? And what can you learn from adopting their perspective?

What Even Is a Website?

Websites. We all work on them. Visit them. Use them. Load them. Build them. Code them. Design and redesign them. Launch and relaunch them.

But what are they?

The dictionary definition of “website” isn’t especially useful when it comes to understanding how our stakeholders, audiences, and collaborators think about the web. Metaphors to the rescue!

There are plenty to choose from—the building arts get used a lot (e.g., build a website, information architecture). For my keynote address at the Des Moines edition of World Information Architecture Day, I picked seven metaphors I find particularly useful in my work as a content strategist.


1. A website is an ecosystem.

An ecosystem is the interaction of organisms and their environment. An ecosystem is also a lens that humans put on the natural world. We decide: This is the forest, these are the plains.

And so, the ecosystem metaphor reinforces the idea that your website is not just a place, but a complex interaction of audience and the digital environment you’ve built for them.

2. A website is an automaton.

It’s no coincidence that digital assistants and chatbots are popular design playgrounds these days—both are natural evolutions of the service automaton role websites have been filling since the web went 2.0.

“Automaton” is an old-timey word that means “a machine designed in imitation of a human.” Most sites can be described in terms of the human they imitate. Your site might be a librarian. A teacher. A coach. A parent. A salesperson. A stand-up comedian. A bank teller.

Taking this view can unshackle your thinking from tired digital tropes and patterns. When facing a difficult website design problem, imagine how the interaction would play out if the web had never existed.

3. A website is a conversation.

The majority of sites can be understood as a conversation between the site and the person using it. The site asks a user what they want to do, and the user answers by following links, entering information, or otherwise manipulating an interface element. Strip the words away from a great website design, and you’re left with beautiful nonsense.

Understanding this conversational grammar of interactivity clarifies the importance of writing clear microcopy, using a consistent voice, and choosing words your users will understand.

4. A website is a mirror.

Whether we want them to be or not, our websites are mirrors of what our organizations value. They reflect the topics we think are important, the tactics we think are ethical, and the commitments we’ve made to equity, inclusion, and accessibility. For many brands, there’s almost no distinction in the customer’s mind between the website and the organization that publishes it.

Sometimes this metaphor becomes too literal, as designers mirror the structure of the organization in the structure of the website. This “org chart navigation” reflects a lack of understanding about what users want and need out of your website.

5. A website is a barrier.

However beautiful or delightful your site may be, for most of your users, it’s just some damned thing in between them and what they want. Never in my life have I woken up and thought, “Boy, I’d sure love to visit and log on to the websites for my bank and clinic and credit card company today!” Visiting those sites is just a step I have to go through to accomplish what I want (like knowing my balance, setting an appointment, or paying my bill).

This one’s kind of a bummer, I know. But viewing your website the way your users do will ultimately help you create better experiences and happier customers.

6. A website is an undertaking.

Ever worked on a website project with a “launch” date? Launch! Like we’re sending off a rocket. The problem is that a launch is just a moment in time. What about everything that happens before the launch? After? What about the next launch? And the next?

A website is a grand undertaking that requires extensive planning and big-picture, long-term thinking. It took more than a rocket to put a man on the moon: We needed an Apollo program, and mission control, too!

(May I humbly suggest: Enterprise content strategy can be your space program, and a governance framework your mission control.)

7. A website is a responsibility.

For all of these reasons and more, a website is a responsibility. We want our ecosystems to be healthy. Our automatons to be helpful. Our conversations to be kind. We want mirrors that show our best selves, and barriers that are as unburdensome as possible. And we want every undertaking to be a smashing success.

You don’t have to ask permission to publish a website. In that respect, the web is open to everyone. But each website is effectively a private, owned space. I couldn’t pick up the trash in your yard even if I wanted to. Take care of your little corner of the web. Make it useful. Make it safe. Make it kind. Make it good.

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Scott Kubie is the lead content strategist here at Brain Traffic and the author of Writing for Designers from A Book Apart. Scott has focused on the content side of digital experiences since 2009, and was the first UX content strategist at Wolfram Research. He grew up in rural Nebraska, and studied electronic media and journalism at Drake University.

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