The real reason good companies have bad websites.

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.

Written by Adam Harrell on June 3, 2009


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