A subject I enjoyed in high school was English. Unfortunately in my 11th year, my English class was directly after lunch break and I enjoyed being outside with my friends more than I did being in school. During one of those times that I actually attended the class there was an interesting discussion about journalism and an assignment to write a news story. We were instructed to answer the 5 W's in our story: Who, What, Where, When, & Why.

The other day I was reading a great book, Designing for the Social Web, by Joshua Porter and he kindly reminded me of the 5 W's as they relate to web application design. Now, I'm a little attention deficit when it comes to books (I generally read 4 or 5 at a time) so I'm also reading Blink by Malcom Gladwell, which introduces a concept called "thin-slicing", basically: making snap decisions based on information presented by our subconscious mind.

We're all familiar with the 5 W's: Who, What, Where, When & Why. Malcom Gladwell seems to believe people are making snap decisions everyday - to use products, services, and yes, even software. Are we giving our potential customers the information they need to make split second decisions about using our web apps?

Here's a list of useful questions to answer that will help web site visitors make better decisions.


1) Who is this for? - Communicate right up front who your target market is and try not to be too broad. A visitor should know right away if you are talking to them or someone else.

2) Who is using it? - Are there any well known examples of your target user? The guys at 37signals did a great job of this by having video testimonials of well known designers and companies using Basecamp. People tend to follow other people: give them some good examples of people to follow and they will.

3) Who created it? - Don't hide behind an obscure corporation. Tell potential users of your web app exactly who you are. If you're creating the application for a corporation, try convincing them to let you present a page with the key team members on it. People relate better to other people.


4) What is this? - Is it a web site? A mobile app? An iPhone app? Come right out and say what it is. Too often we get caught up talking in marketing jargon. Words like tool, system, solution. Rather than saying, "A solution to your email marketing needs", say something like, "We deliver opt-in emails to 2,000,000 customers." See the difference? One presents an idea of what it is, the other communicates exactly what it is.

5) What does this do? - Does it send millions of emails? Does it catalog contacts in your address book? Does it send invoices? Say it clearly.


7) When is the best time to use it? - Give examples of situations where your application will come in handy. What were the use case scenarios you thought up during development? Let potential customers know when your app will help them out.


8) Why use this at all? - This question can be answered in a number of ways, but it's important that your "why" is different than your competitors. You'll want to grab a slightly different angle.

9) Why is it better than other similar apps? - Or, worded differently, why would somebody choose your app over one of your competitors? Outline the similarities and differences so people can make educated decisions.


10) How do i use this? - It always helps to have a step by step description of using your product or service. Many popular web apps now are creating screencast videos of performing certain actions on their apps. This is a great idea, but make sure to outline the steps in text as well.

A Couple of Examples

Here are two examples of web sites that do a good job of explaining the 5 W's (and an H) in their interface and marketing on their web application.


Here's a screenshot of Twitter's home page, with the answers circled in pink:



Here's a screenshot of the Basecamp home page, with the answers circled in pink:


Wrapping Up

Do you have any more examples of web sites that use the 5 W's (and an H) in web application design? Link them below in the comments!