Iran is currently undergoing a revolution. If you want to read more about it check out Twitter. (Media is also undergoing a revolution. Draw the parallels, yadda yadda.) I'm not going to talk about how the web is changing everything. I just want to point out an observation about the Iranian situation. It isn't news to the Iranian people that their government hasn't been ideal, but they've been apathetic, and too tired, to rise up and do something about it. This is the tipping point.
In general, most sites aim to convert visitors into sales, subscriptions, registrations and requests for quotes, but there's one more conversion point that I think is often overlooked in web design and interactive strategy. That conversion point is sharing. Sharing is crucial to online success, not only to bloggers and other "social media" types, but really to most people doing business online. In fact, most bloggers over emphasize other conversion points such as subscriptions, and leave the potential for sharing largely untapped.
Some of the best examples of sharing options as conversion points are the major video sites Youtube and Vimeo. These sites have developed platforms based off of sharing, and their visual, easy to find, and easy to use options are a good model for building shareable content across the board. Of course, building shareable content and building for content to be shared are two different things. The echo chamber is full of people saying that they key to online success is making great content. Well, what is great content?
The hardest part of being a salesman is getting your foot in the door. The same goes for your brand. The hardest part is getting your customer's attention.
Sometimes you have to tell a story to get your foot in the door. Other times a potential customer will just welcome you into their world. It may be because they're nice, or perhaps you're good looking, or maybe they know your mom. Either way, you've made it pass the threshold. You got their attention.
Now, you might think the second scenario is easier because you're already inside and it required the least amount of effort. However, you're wrong. With the second scenario the pressure is on. They've already showed enough trust to hear what you've got to say. And if you say the wrong thing, you'll get kicked out. Straight back to the curb.
Ever wonder why many large companies have bad websites? The answer isn't: they have bad designers, or low budgets. The real reason is structural. There are cultural, procedural and bureaucratic issues that relegate them to mediocrity. In the parlance of political science, it's a structural issue that requires reform. But, reform requires a commitment most leaders are unable to make. It's much easier to maintain the status quo than to drive forward change.
It's the same reason failing companies languish with bad customer service. Corporate leadership refuses to confront the structural issues that underly their flaws. Instead they make excuses and institute incremental changes that do nothing more than paper over the underlying issue. It's short term fixes at the expense of long term reform.
So what are some of the most common structural issues and how can they be fixed?
1.) Interest Group Politics:
Every large company has numerous business units that compete for limited resources. The core concerns of these business units don't always align with the best interests of the company. Individual goals are often achieved at the detriment of the brand. If you're a manager for a particular business unit, your number one concern is hitting your own numbers. It's not the customer experience. It's keeping your job. This is why so many large companies end up with crowded, unfocused homepages. It's the reason there are 15 banners promoting 15 different business units crammed onto a single page. The corporate leadership conceded so the web team has to make it happen. The worst part is this undermines the customer's experience and sets up the web team for failure. It becomes impossible to design an elegant interface with clear calls to action and focused paths to resolution based on competing corporate priorities.
How to fix it:
Luckily fixing the problem isn't impossible, it merely requires the ability to say "no". The person responsible for the website should be accountable for it's performance as a whole. This person can act as a counterweight to the silo-ed interests of the individual business units. There is only so much real estate on a homepage. If a business unit isn't a top 5 priority then it shouldn't be on the homepage.
2.) Flawed Approval Cycles
Another common issue with enterprise websites is the approval process itself. I've previously addressed the golden rules of giving feedback, but unfortunately these rules aren't often followed by decision makers in the enterprise space. Instead stakeholder feedback tends to focus on exactly the wrong items. Managers look at a review as a chance to put their stamp on the creative. They give opinions, not analysis and the work goes through endless revisions. Often these changes are to it's detriment. Each review/approval is just as likely to make the work worse, as it is to improve it. More approvals don't lead to a better end result. It usually leads to watered down creative that is not only less impactful, but also less effective.
How to fix it:
Limit the number of people involved in the approval process, and limit the types of feedback that will be accepted. Communicate that not all feedback will be acted on. And institute a process for evaluating feedback that weighs the priorities of the brand, with the impact on customer experience. The person responsible for the feedback process needs to be able to differentiate personal preference from actionable feedback.
The Bottom Line
The reason good companies have bad websites is simple. There are structural flaws that make their homepage into a battle of competing interests at the expense of the overall customer experience, and the approval/feedback process is flawed in such a way that feedback becomes more detrimental than helpful. However, fixing these issues requires a commitment from management. It's not enough to just hire good designers, or UX talent. Companies have to reform their structural biases to make success possible. Talent by itself is not enough.
A quick note:
The inspiration for this post was an article in Fast Company on why the American Airlines website is such a disaster.
Our monthly book club is a fun way to stop, breath, and enjoy each other's company. We also get in some quality peer learning. Our book choice for the month of May was Hey Whipple, Squeeze This: A Guide To Creating Great Ads by Luke Sullivan. Sullivan draws on a depth of knowledge gathered over nearly two decades of experience in the industry and a dictionary full of wise words from advertising legends and contemporaries alike. A few of the chapters (television and radio) seem a little out of place in an interactive agency, but ultimately every chapter of the book had some valuable thoughts on the creative process.
From a business perspective, Hey Whipple is definitely worth reading; however, I'd like to touch upon the broader value of the book -- learning how to think creatively.