On Usability and Anagnorisis

A few years back, I was working at a local web development firm in the marketing department. I was responsible for maintaining our client’s AdWords accounts and for a bit of SEO here and there. Invariably, when a client started to use AdWords a three step process would take place:

Step 1: They’d be highly excited about increasing traffic to their website. YAY the money train is a comin’!
Step 2: They’d watch with glee as their traffic numbers went up. HOORAY beer!
Step 3: They’d call me with a long face asking why it didn’t work.

There are only two possible reasons to explain why AdWords wasn’t providing a positive ROI for them.

1. Something’s wrong with the AdWords campaign.
2. Something’s wrong with the website.

That’s it.

Given the time frame in the above example, it’s obvious that the AdWords account was immature.  It hadn’t reached it’s final cost-per-click value yet on the majority of its terms, it needed more A/B ad testing and so on.  There were definitely things that could be improved.  But, in my experience, it’s also true that the website was under-performing too.

Why is that?

Why is it that a firm can build a website, be perfectly happy with it, and then once they start spending money on marketing are surprised to find out that the website under-performs? Or even better, why would a web development firm create a website that can’t do its job properly in the first place?

The reason, quite simply, is because it’s the first time you’ve built that particular website and it’s really hard to hit a home run on the first swing.

This can be an unsatisfactory thing for a client to hear when it’s coming from a web developer. We all want things to be simple. When we buy a blender, we expect it to blend. We don’t expect it to sort of blend but then we call the manufacturer and tell them how to make it blend better. That would be ridiculous.

But here’s a crucial distinction. Websites are not a one-size fits all commodity item.  Websites are a space in which things happen.  If an analogy must be made, it’s really a lot closer to opening a store than it is to building a blender.  And we’ve all seen enough stores go out of business to know that being successful at it takes work.

This isn’t the Honda you bought to toodle around town with. This is the NASCAR franchise you own where you can get better and win money.

Are any of these analogies working for you?

Great. You understand that a website isn’t a one-time thing, it’s a process.  And that process has to start at the beginning.  Only by answering the big questions can we drill down to the specifics to get meaningful answers.

Here are the two questions I’d ask my long-faced unhappy AdWords client.

What is your website supposed to do?

And then the revealing follow-up: What does it actually do?

The juxtaposition of the two answers allows them to see problems right away. It’s what the Greeks called “anagnorisis”. The moment of discovery.

It’s when you realize that your e-commerce site is all pretty pictures on the front page with nary a link to an item to buy.  It’s when you realize that your cottage rental website is too heavy on selling the area and not heavy enough on selling your rooms.  It’s when you realize that your dentistry website says all the right things from your print literature but doesn’t make it easy enough for people to contact you or set up an appointment.

It’s when you see how things could be better.

And like kicking a bad habit, the first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem.  With a problem now identified, we can start to make changes to improve the website.

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