Guides, Not Straight Jackets

I can’t tell you how many people I’ve heard bemoan the limitations of draconian style and design guides for their corporate web site. It is a very common complaint and always happens to a certain extent. However, when the complaints are endemic it’s usually because the department that manages the site has determined their job is creating compliance rather than results.

The best web teams are those that focus on generating results above all else. Guides and standards can be very useful tools and I’ve helped to generate a bunch of them. However, they are a means to an end. Don’t let your guidelines become straight jackets that limit your ability to achieve fantastic results online.

Implications of Ecommerce Sales Slowing Down

The New York Times has had a couple of stories recently about ecommerce sales slowing down along with everything else. Here is a blog post from the Times on this. They are still growing but at a much slower pace.

There are some implications here for anyone who makes direct sales via their web site. The primary one is that the usability of your online store is more important now than ever. When times are good, it’s easy to ignore some loss of sales due to challenging interfaces. When numbers are no longer growing or even contracting, however, you can’t afford to lose anyone who wants to give you money.

Here are a few things to look for:

  • Review your web traffic reports and conversion rates. Identify any steps in your processes that tend to lose people.
  • Personally observe several people completing transactions on your site and note any areas where they get confused or slow down.
  • Have an expert mystery shop your store and identify where you can improve. (I can help you with this, by the way!)
  • Talk to your call center staff and see what issues they hear about from customers who call them.

Once you have identified some improvements, drop everything until they are done. Otherwise they are less likely to be implemented. I’ve seen instances where a single small change had a 6-figure impact on revenue.

Example of Cultural Localization in Print Media

An article in today’s NYT’s business section provides a great example of culturally localizing and delivering products with an existing global brand: Western Magazines Find a Receptive Audience in India.

Most of the new Western magazines being published in India are not really Western at all — they are written, photographed, edited and designed almost completely in India. Many are published under licensing agreements with the media company that owns the name. Even though they are all published in English, their content may be completely different from their American or British counterparts.

While the name may be familiar to an American reader, the flavor is distinctly Indian. Instead of Heloise’s syndicated household hints column, for example, Good Housekeeping runs “Ask Mrs. Singh.” This month, Mrs. Singh tackles how to keep your home fresh during the monsoons that sweep through India during the summer (rubber mats and fresh flowers help).

This very same approach should be considered with your online media as well. Are your existing products, services, marketing, content and design applicable to your desired international audiences? Are you offering articles about desert living to people currently being soaked by a monsoon? It is often tempting to just build a one-size fits all approach online but that rarely maximizes your results.

Emitting HTML

Any HTML markup generated by a web content management system should be customizable. This includes everything from the opening html tag to forms. If the system creates tags they should be customizable by the site publisher.

Why? This provides maximum flexibility to the site owner in deploying their desired template and overall design. Sounds like a no-brainer, huh?

You might be surprised how often this can be an issue, particularly with content management systems that are not very mature or have not been updated in a while. It creates many headaches in deploying web site designs and might even prevent the site owner from deploying the best possible design for their needs.

Add this to your list of key things to assess when reviewing web content management system.

Extrinsic and Intrinsic Value

Every web site embodies both extrinsic and intrinsic value to its visitors.

Extrinsic value is the value of achieving a particular goal or outcome. It might include buying something, finding information or connecting to a colleague.

Intrinsic value is the value given by the experience of achieving the extrinsic goal.

One implication? Among extrinsically equal options for a desired outcome, that with the highest intrinsic value will be chosen more often. This is where usability goes from a nice-to-have feature to a crucial competitive advantage.

Another implication? People will jump through painful hoops if the extrinsic value of the goal is high enough and not available elsewhere. However, if you’ve read Innovators Dilemma, you know that such a high extrinsic value is very hard to maintain over time. Paying attention to intrinsic value protects your overall value while you have the luxury of a big lead.

A final implication? Intrinsic value isn’t worth a hill of beans if your site has no extrinsic value to begin with.

Measuring 'Completeness' to Encourage Action

LinkedIn has been doing this for a while and I just noticed it on Slideshare as well: alerting users to the completeness of their profile.


This strikes me as a very subtle yet effective way to get your users to provide more information about themselves in their profile. Who doesn’t want to get to 100%? If there is underlying value to the user, it should really accelerate completion of user profiles by raising awareness and granting some Pavlovian eye candy as well.


If your site invites your members to submit profile type data, you could do worse things than to add a percent complete status bar to your interface.

Registration and Login Pages

Both registration and login pages are critical pieces of any interactive web site. A couple of posts popped up last week that provide good tips for each.

The Art of the Sign Up Page and Account Sign-in: 8 Design Mistakes.

The critical thing to keep in mind with pages like these is to pare them down to just the bare essentials of what is needed to get the user where they want to be. This can be really tough to do at times, organizations being what they are, but you will be rewarded for your efforts if you can hold the line.

An interesting caveat to the above: do not ignore the marketing opportunities that a login page for restricted content provides. You can show the value of what is behind the login and offer a next step to do what they need to do to gain access (which probably involves giving you money). You still have to make sure those messages don’t get in the way of those who already have access while being visible enough to attract the attention of those who are your potential customers/members.

New Year Resolutions for Web Executives

Below are a few ideas on new year’s resolutions for web executives:

Get Strategic
Meet with each of the senior executives in your organization or department and ask them about their primary goals for 2008. How will they know they have achieved them? How important are they to the company? What role should the Web have in supporting those goals?

Those few hours of meetings will help you, as the leader of the organization’s web team, develop a clear image of what the organization is trying to achieve this year and how you can align your team to provide the most value they can to those goals. You will also earn the respect and support of your senior team by proactively reaching out to them.

Get Innovative
Innovation is the simple act of doing something differently in order to create new value. This might include creating greater efficiency in your processes or developing new value for your web site visitors in the form of content and functionality.

Commit yourself this year to constantly assessing opportunities for innovation in your processes and ultimate product. What areas need to change in order to meet your goals for the year? Where can you be more efficient in your content publishing processes? Can you tweak an administrative interface to be easier for staff? Can you simplify the interfaces you present to your customers?

You get the idea. Innovation should be a daily activity for any web executive.

Challenge Your Team
Challenge your web team to achieve something this year they have never done before. Make sure the challenge is aligned with your overall goals but feel free to get creative otherwise.

For example: When I used to lead a large web team, we had an organizational goal of improving the accessibility of our web site. Since standards-based design practices get you most of the way to accessibility, I challenge the team to develop a new set of templates that had “code we could be proud of” when someone viewed the source of pages. That phrase resonated with two staffers, who I then tasked to lead the project. It was our rallying cry that year and helped to make sure we kept focused on that major change to the site.

By now you may have realized that you should be doing all three of the above ideas as part of being an effective web executive. Use the New Year as an opportunity to recommit yourself and your team to these activities.

Crediting Your Web Designer

I have been following a listserve discussion about crediting your web designer with a link at the bottom of your web site template. This link then shows up on every page of your site. This was far more common in the 90s but you still see it now and then.

My opinion: In almost all cases it is wildly inappropriate.

Your organization’s web site is there to support and build your own brand and drive your web site visitors toward the actions you wish them to take online. It is not there to guide traffic to your designer.

These links to the designer are also much more valuable these days because Google will use them as an indicator to enhance the designer’s placement in natural search results. Links like this appear to me as, at best, amateurish or, at worst, an opportune grab at some Google link equity.

If you do allow this (you shouldn’t), it should be part of a deal that recognizes the huge value of the links to your design firm. Get a discount, get some free services, something. Also, if you use or adapt a free template, including the original designer’s link on it is appropriate.

If you want to acknowledge the designer who created your site for you, a good way to do so is by creating an ‘about this site’ page that provides a link to the design firm on that single page. This gives acknowledgement for a good job done without pasting the link inappropriately across your entire site.