Appeasing the hippo

In the days when I used to do such things I once went for a full time job.  I boned up on their web site and was shocked to realise how lowly it was on the Google page listings.  The reasons weren’t hard to find.  It had a Flash based navigation.  The content was frame based.  There was no meta descriptions to speak of…the list went on.

And don’t get me started on what all this meant for the user experience…


Unfortunately, my new boss had just redesigned and re-launched the site and was quite proud of his concertina menus and wasn’t in the mood to go to the board and tell them he’d got it wrong and needed another wedge of cash to get a decent presence on Google.  It was three years before I got my way and let Googlebot do the job properly.  When we did, the traffic tripled in three months.  Didn’t do me any good though.  In the fourth month, the boss made me ‘redundant’.  I can only guess he didn’t want some smartarse around saying “I told you so…”  The day I left, there was a new intern in the office whose job, it transpired, was to spam blog sites with links back to our website. Sigh…

I think every contractor has had the experience of coming into a project mid-way through a project, taking a look at the way it is headed and wincing.  The trouble is that the powers-that-be really don’t want to hear that the project that they have spent the last year herding through layers of increasingly incomprehending management is flawed.

The best you can get is a vague promise that the issues you raise “will be looked at in version 2.0” even when that sound you hear is something being punted off into the long grass.

Luckily though, more and more employers are getting it – although often these are the ones who have spent large sums on sites which have only been partially successful and their shortcomings becoming painfully obvious to all.  Nevertheless, there is more joy in heaven at one sinner who repenteth etc…

But how to stop the company making the mistake in the first place.  In the words of the old song – it ain’t easy.  If the project is already in the development phase and the BAs are BAing and the coders are coding, pointing out the car crash ahead is not going to get you anywhere except the exit door.

A fairly typical project these days is to provide more information on the web site in order to “relieve pressure on the call centre”.

I once worked on a project to provide a transactional process for a group of highly skilled professionals.  The marketing department was called in.  After all, the department had been communicating with this group for years.  They had done customer research and they were pretty good at it.  They had been producing literature and print ads and were considered to have made a decent fist of i so naturally it makes sense for that literature to go on the web and – hey let’s make it digital and have it as a downloadable pdf!

Errr…no.   At some point you need to explain that copy that works in print doesn’t always work online.  Paragraphs need to be fewer and shorter and there needs to be layered approach to the presentation of information.  Putting an FAQ list and a set of pdf brochures and how-tos on the internet does not a happy customer make.

Senior management also said they knew this group.  The customers were professionals and didn’t need to be talked down to.  They wanted choice.  They needed to be able to control and manage their affairs online.

All of which is true.  But it also emerged through some basic usability testing that this group were not particularly computer savvy and found the number of options open to them confusing.  And what’s more a disturbing number of them told the interviewer that when they got stuck they would phone the call centre!

Speaking to the call centre staff themselves turned out to be much more revealing.  They told us that they often had to hand-hold customers through a process and would the web development department kindly stop creating such complex systems!

Convincing senior management to trust some of the lowest pay grades in the company and a sample set of customers is always going to be a tough sell.  Telling the marketing department that their lovingly designed brochures are not suitable for a web audience is an invite a full blown attack of Not Invented Here.

So what to do? For the smart IA/UX the point is not to win an egg sucking contest.   These groups didn’t get where they are by being wrong all the time.  You need to show them that their basic instincts are sound but that your research tells you the messages need to be spun differently with a web audience and  present them with the evidence.

Ideally, you should convince them they were right all the time and that all that is needed is a different approach.  Better still if they come away believing the new approach is their idea.


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