Monitoring the online customer experience, by Mark Hurst.
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The Web's Identity Crisis

Friday, January 21, 2000
by Mark Hurst

The online magazine just redesigned its home page. If you're not familiar with it, is one of the longest-running and best-designed content sites on the Web, in the same ranks as and Word has always been known for its attention to compelling visual design in its content.

Word's new home page is nearly identical to the home page of Yahoo -- a strange turn of events, considering that Word has always tried to distinguish itself with a visual experience that, while attractive, isn't always fast or easy. But that's not why I bring it up.

I bring it up because of the letter from the art director explaining the change. (Find it linked top and center on the home page, or go straight to the letter.)

The letter is so well-written that I'll let it speak for itself. Here are some excerpts:

Despite all the improvements in technology over the past 5 years, web users have consistently demanded simplicity and efficiency over all else. The majority of individuals online are looking for information, not a pretty look... [yet] Word regularly crashes users browsers for no apparent reason. I was fully aware of this problem as well, and similarly chose to ignore it... As the Art Director of Word, I have failed to carry out the duties of a competent designer.

Though I do admit that I am disappointed with the full-on corporate domination of Internet industry, and all its ensuing blandness, there seems to be no stopping it now. It will continue whether I like it or not. But honestly, at this point, I am glad to go with the flow. I am happy to say I am selling out...

My first question upon reading this was, is this for real? But checking inside the site, all of the articles linked from the home page have the trademark "look" -- creative, visual, interesting (albeit slow and troublesome for some browsers). It must be a joke (though the letter insists it's not), but it doesn't really matter to me.

What does matter to me is that the letter accurately depicts the conflict being fought every day, even this very minute, in trendy loft offices all over the dotcom industry. On one side are the old-school Web designers, the folks who built websites in the first three years with a dream of reinventing design, interface, community, even democracy. Their goals were things like "pushing the envelope." "Compelling content." "Immersive experiences."

On the other side of the conflict are the marketers who have mostly arrived online in the last two years and are determined to make the Net work as a business. Hear the marketers speak: "Easy." "Fast." "Like Yahoo." "Like Amazon." Conversion rates, customer retention, advertising and promotion. And, of course, the IPO. These are the marketers.

Who's winning the conflict? Most, including Word's art director, would point to the marketers. There's no room for creative online work, the argument would go, in a medium focused on efficiency and sameness. There is some data to support the argument; in the last couple of years many sites have indeed become faster and easier, and yes, even similar in their appearance. (Some changed as a result of my own work, so in a small way I share in the blame -- or credit? or both? -- for this seismic shift in the online experience.)

But there's a solution to the conflict. We have to change our outlook: it's inaccurate and fruitless to frame the argument as an either-or proposition. Yes, there are designers and marketers with different goals, but the customer's goals can unite both sides. It's the customer experience, not market interests or designers' egos, that should guide Web development.

This may indeed lead to some visually bland sites. At a banking site, for example, what customer wants to be slowed down by flashy graphics, no matter how "compelling"? Sites at which customers want to conduct bland transactions as quickly as possible will naturally become visually bland and fast and easy! And sites where customers want a more visual experience should and will become more visually compelling. Not everything should be exactly like Yahoo or Amazon. Only Yahoo should be Yahoo. Each site must discover (and continually re-discover) its own good experience.

The Web's inherent qualities, like low switching costs and free global distribution, make a unique opportunity for sites with a distinct customer experience to survive online. Where customers want designers to run free with their bits, designers will thrive -- even in the same loft space with marketers! Just let the customer experience lead you.

Part 2 of this column (February 3, 2000)

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