When we undertake usability testing we will usually ask users what they think they can do on a site. We would argue that on an effective web site users can answer this question reasonably accurately within a second or two. Unfortunately, in many cases users struggle to answer this simple question or get it 'wrong'.Recently, we did some work for a company that rents out holiday homes. On the home page was a picture of a rather nice Golden Retriever. Nice of course if you like dogs - and if it had been relevant to the holiday home offer. Unfortunately some of our testers got the wrong end of the stick and initially thought the site might be for a boarding kennels. Another of our testers clearly didn't like dogs - 'it's a slobbering dog' - and was clearly put off. The dog was simply the wrong image, there was no other context. If it had been shown being walked by people having a nice time by their holiday home it might have been fine, but on his own he was a 'bad dog'!
When we enquired why this image was on the home page we were informed that two of the directors had dogs and they liked to see them on the home page. Indeed, there seemed to be some competition between them to see whose dog was featured!
Many of the public sector sites we work on are particularly bad in this regard - except rather than dogs they often put their pet initiative - which is seldom of interest to users - on the home page! The problem is that the site owners know precisely what their department does, and because they don't have a user focus fail to realise that this may not be obvious to site users. Unfortunately it is hard for me to name names and still keep these organisations as clients.
But I can illustrate the point by looking at sites that are not our clients. Have a look at the Ofcom site. I am sure there are lots of different target audiences for this site but clearly the general public is one. Would you think, from the home page, you were in the right place to make a complaint about a TV or radio programme, or to complain about the service you have from your fixed line, mobile provider or ISP? There is a hint you might be in some of the text on the home page, 'Ofcom is the independent regulator and competition authority for the UK communications industries, with responsibilities across television, radio, telecommunications and wireless communications services' but this is so wordy that goal orientated users are unlikely to read it - also it's apparently in the 'News' section. There is a further hint in the left hand navigation with the link 'How to complain' but about what? The same goes for the 'Advice for Consumers' link - advice about what?
In both these examples the site owners are guilty of assuming users know what they do, they're not a Tesco or a Ford. Some people might know what they do but many more won't, so the goals users can achieve on the site need to be made explicitly clear with words and pictures so users can immediately understand what the site's about.