CEOs Are From Mars…

Written by: Alma Derricks

I’m pretty much a professional half-breed. You see, with both a television production background and an M.B.A., I have spent the past 20 years trying to bridge, heal, soothe, mend and otherwise repair the pervasive gap that divides “suits” and “creatives” in the business world. Along the way, I’ve played a number of roles including ringmaster, referee, coach, ambassador and even secret agent.

In an ideal world, both sides would meet in the middle and split the distance 50/50. In reality, many business managers are simply unable to reach across more than 20 or 30 percent of the distance.

What I’ve learned is that the antagonism, hostility and resentment often felt on both sides of the equation is the outgrowth of a basic failure to understand what makes the other side tick.

What we have here is a failure to communicate
I used to believe that hard-core businesspeople actually understood their Photoshop-toting colleagues but chose, proactively and aggressively, to dismiss their skills, capabilities and talents as inconsequential fluff. The truth is much worse: many businesspeople simply don’t have the slightest idea what separates “good creative” from “bad creative.”

I’ve had executives admit to me that they couldn’t tell the difference between two competing portfolios, designs or layouts if their lives depended on it. At the same time, it’s fair to say that many designers are equally oblivious to the underlying business issues that drive decision-making in their organizations.

But, here’s the catch: design teams are the ones most likely to lose out when business requirements clash head-on with design imperatives. Because executives must stay focused on bottom-line results, aesthetic elements that seem indirectly related to the company’s business goals are easily dismissed in the corner office.

The hard part is that these design imperatives are, many times, a large part of the bottom-line results. To bridge the gap that divides business and design teams, it’s important that IAs and designers:

  • understand and respect the fundamentally different world views that separate them from most business managers,
  • commit to meeting business managers halfway (or more) when it’s time to define and articulate project goals and expectations, and
  • commit to educating themselves more completely about business issues, ideas and trends.

The view from the corner office
Try to put yourself in the CEO’s natty suede loafers for a moment: As the keepers of the fiscal flame in an organization, most executives are, understandably, more focused on the more quantitative elements of a corporation’s daily life.

They’re tasked specifically with both generating revenue and saving costs. And, at the end of the day, will be measured and compensated (or penalized!) by results that are summarized at the end of each quarter on a spreadsheet. Qualitative factors including user experience, design, content strategy and customer experience are considered a means to reach end-of-year financial goals, not an end unto themselves.

In fact, compared to complex quantitative calculations and projections, design and content architecture issues seem relatively straightforward and simple. With no spreadsheet to consult, final decisions about design, customer experience and navigation elements might seem to be based on personal preferences, favorite colors and an armchair quarterback’s appreciation of what’s stylish and hip.

Most quantitatively-focused managers simply don’t comprehend the relationship between business strategy and customer experience, or how design and content architecture serve to facilitate and articulate strategic corporate goals in the marketplace. And, without a clearly articulated business rationale to support IA and design priorities, they never will.

Finding the middle ground
Most deadly of all is every businessperson’s deep-seated allegiance to their own creative point of view. As I learned in business school, you can never convince a “qualitatively challenged” M.B.A. that a) they can’t write, b) they have limited people skills, c) their PowerPoint slides are dull, or d) they have no creative aptitude.

Redefining user experience issues in terms of business impacts and “domino effects” empowers business managers to defend and explain initiatives to other senior managers further up the chain of command.

Make no mistake: when it comes to design and customer experience issues, most business managers have stretched themselves as far across the divide as they’re capable. In an ideal world, this would mean meeting their IA teams in the middle and basically splitting the distance 50/50. In reality, many business managers are simply unable to reach across more than 20 or 30 percent of the distance.

In this context, it becomes imperative for IAs and designers to take action to close the gap. And while this may mean that design teams have to take on more than their “fair share” of the burden, it’s important to not lose sight of the overall goal: delivering the best work possible.

By learning to frame creative issues in business terms and to draw meaningful connections between design efforts and the corporation’s bottom line, design teams and their projects are more likely to survive the corporate gauntlet.

The intersection of art and commerce
First, it’s important to take a close look at the organization from the inside out. Understand who’s writing the check for the project and what results they are being held accountable for. Ask:

  • How do project goals connect to the overall mission of the organization (if at all)?
  • Who stands to benefit from the project’s success?
  • What expectations—right or wrong—are associated with the project?
  • How long will it take the organization to see a return on their investment in the project?
  • How will the projects success and/or failure be measured at a corporate level?

For example, many corporate websites are created, primarily, to reduce costs associated with customer service (e.g., call centers, product documentation, software upgrades). To that end, the extent to which call center volume decreases and use of web-based tools or FAQs increases provides management with some indication of the site’s effectiveness.

Then, consider your project and the organization from an “outside in” perspective. Ask:

  • Are internally-driven corporate goals aligned with real customer needs?
  • Which customer needs is the project meant to address?
  • How are your company’s competitors responding to these emerging needs?
  • How will the new project impact other stakeholders (e.g., vendors, partners)?
  • How is success defined in this larger context?
  • Are there any related examples in your industry (or in other industries) that you can reference and learn from?
  • Have similar initiatives worked for other companies?

In the case of the customer service-focused website described above, it would be important to understand whether or not users are likely to accept a new form of customer service. Would an online option solve a problem for them or cause additional complications?

Armed with these two critical perspectives, a design team can begin to craft arguments that are solution-oriented and in line with the corporation’s bottom line.

Returning to the online customer service solution one last time, a business-savvy design team would focus on those elements that have the greatest impact on a user’s customer service needs. In this case, superior content, information architecture and user interface design are critical to the customer’s ability to find information and, by extension, solve the immediate problem that brought them to the site in the first place. If a customer in need becomes confused by the site’s navigation or search capabilities, they will never return to the site. By extension, their opinion of a company offering such a sloppy and incomplete solution will surely diminish.

Defining these kinds of business issues and “domino effects” also empowers business managers to defend and explain initiatives to other senior managers further up the chain of command. By anticipating questions and providing managers with the language to describe each design choice and associated business solution, projects are more likely to be spared endless rounds of questioning and negotiation.

And don’t forget to embrace and support those rare business managers who actually understand and support of your design team’s issues. These managers can be terrific allies and can also serve as a resource while you’re crafting the business case for your project.

A mind is a terrible thing to waste
You certainly don’t need an M.B.A. to understand basic business principles. It’s simply a matter of engaging your curiosity and beginning to make business issues relevant to your particular situation. On an ongoing basis, make a personal commitment to increase your general understanding of business issues, ideas and trends.

You certainly don’t need an M.B.A. to understand basic business principles. It’s simply a matter of engaging your curiosity and beginning to make business issues relevant to your particular situation.

By taking the time to study various industries and macro business issues, it becomes clear that there are business basics that drive every company. By finding parallels and lessons in other industries, you can begin to make better sense of your organization’s issues and challenges.

Understanding, for example, that Southwest Airlines actually considers its primary competitors to be railroads and bus lines (versus other regional airlines) not only provides you with insight into their business strategy, but also offers a great lesson in thinking more broadly about the dynamics of your business.

Begin picking up a Wall Street Journal once a week or, very simply, browsing the business section of your local newspaper. For more in-depth stories, the Harvard Business Review, despite it’s lofty and journal-like appearance, is a wholly approachable and practical source for new ideas, case studies and best practices across a number of industries. In fact, I have often recommended an article called “The Ultimate Creativity Machine: How BMW Turns Art Into Profit” from the January 2001 issue. It describes the challenges faced by the head of BMW’s German design studio as he seeks to ride the line between aesthetic, engineering and business requirements. For yet another look at emerging business trends, monthly magazines Fast Company and Business 2.0 scour the world for the most innovative and radical new ideas, companies and executives.

Business classes and seminars offer an opportunity to connect with other students to share new ideas. They are also a valuable resource for expanding your network of professional resources. This face-to-face interaction is critical. Imagine trying to learn a new language without having someone else to talk to.

Can’t we all just get along?
Remember that corporations are living, breathing ecosystems that are given life by the people who populate them. By making a conscious effort to focus on the big picture and bridge the gaps that divide the organization, you are contributing to a company’s overall success and, along the way, making your day-to-day working life, ultimately, a little less stressful.

Alma Derricks is the founder and principal of REV, a unique business strategy consultancy that provides firms imaginative strategic guidance, new revenue-creation models and fresh insight into what motivates and inspires customers. She can be reached directly at .

The Evolving Homepage: The Growth of Three Booksellers

Written by: Victor Lombardi

Web design is expensive. Web designers earn upwards of $50,000 a year1, information architects earn even more.2 During the heyday of web design—the late 1990s—designing a large commercial website could cost as much as designing a medium-sized building. During this period, commercial websites were created and then often completely replaced with redesigned versions a short time later. Today the redesigning continues, albeit at a slower pace. What is the return on this design investment? A report on online ROI from Forrester finds that many commercial sites fail to even try to measure the effectiveness of design changes.3

What lessons have we learned about how design improves the interface between customers and companies?

The web has been with us for about a decade now. We’ve seen some obvious trends, such as greater use of multimedia, search engines, and increasingly sophisticated markup techniques. But these trends were facilitated by changes in technology. What lessons have we learned about how design improves the interface between customers and companies? Perhaps we can start by asking how websites have actually changed over time, and from that we can learn how websites should change in the future.

To start working toward an answer, I compared three eCommerce sites: Borders.com, BarnesandNoble.com, and Amazon.com. Much of the media’s coverage of these websites, especially coverage of Amazon.com, discusses the business models, corporate cultures, and finances of the companies. Since the medium of interaction with these companies is the website, it’s ironic that the media rarely critiques the site design and its effect on business performance.

Because it is the homepage that carries the most responsibility for guiding customers, I examined the homepages of all three sites from a number of years, using screenshots from the Web Archive4. Presumably these large retailers had a great deal to gain, and lose, with these substantial online ventures. By comparing design decisions over time among the three sites, I hoped to discover lessons from their extensive and expensive design experience.

The companies
Competition is fierce in the online bookselling market, currently erupting in offers of “free shipping.” All three companies have annual revenues in the billions of dollars.

Barnes and Noble, which runs a large chain of stores in the United States, claims the largest audience reach of any bricks-and-mortar company with Internet presence.5 Yet, both they and Borders were put on the defensive when Amazon’s growth rocketed. During December, 2001 BarnesandNoble.com attracted over 10 million unique visitors,6 compared to Amazon’s 40 million visitors.7

Borders is the second largest bricks-and-mortar book chain in the U.S. 8 In April 2001, after operating their own online bookstore for several years, Borders announced an agreement to use Amazon’s eCommerce platform to power a co-branded website.

Amazon claims to be the leading online shopping site, having expanded their selection to music, video, auctions, electronics, housewares, computers and more.9 By February of 2002, Amazon, which had pursued a get-big-quick strategy typical of internet companies in the late 1990s, announced its first profitable quarter.10

Criteria
I first studied these sites quantitatively looking for clear trends over time. I then critiqued them in a more qualitative way based on my own experience as both an in-house website designer and as an information architecture consultant.

There are many criteria that could be examined in such a study. I limited myself to those that would, I hoped, reveal as much as possible about the business intent of the design. I looked at criteria such as the type and size of layout, the type and amount of navigation, the amount of images and text, and functionality specific to the industry. Detailed results can be seen in the attached spreadsheet (PDF, 75k).

Analysis

Chart showing growth in length of homepages over time
Click to enlarge.
Note: Missing data due to imperfect records at the Web Archive.

All three sites use very long screens to display content on their homepages.
Using a browser window with a constant width, we can compare the vertical size of each site (all screen references assume an 800 by 600 pixel monitor). The Borders.com homepage grew from a vertical size of about 917 pixels in 1996 to over 3,000 pixels in 1999. Barnes and Noble’s homepage has hovered around 1,500 pixels for the last several years. Amazon’s homepage, which began at only 626 vertical pixels in 1995, stands at roughly 2,156 pixels today. In a web browser, that equals five scrolling screens of information.

Borders.com homepage above the fold, 1999
Borders.com above the fold (1999) Click to enlarge.
Barnes and Noble homepage above the fold, 1999
Barnes and Noble above the fold (1999) Click to enlarge.
Amazon homepage above the fold, 1999
Amazon above the fold (1999) Click to enlarge.

Note: Incomplete web pages are due to imperfect records at the Web Archive.

All three sites evolved to use three-column layouts.
In 1995 and 1996 respectively, Amazon and Borders.com used single-column layouts. By 1999, both of these sites as well as Barnes and Noble used three column layouts.

Amazon has consistently placed more links above the fold.
In 1999, the Borders site displayed only about eight links “above the fold” (the top portion of the screen that is viewable without scrolling). Both Barnes and Noble and Amazon had significantly more links above the fold in 1999, 30 and 48 respectively. Amazon averaged 43 links above the fold between 1999 and 2002 versus only 27 links for Barnes and Noble during the same period.

Through the years, the density of links on Borders.com was half of that on Barnes and Noble or Amazon.
The density of links has varied over time, but as of 2002 both Barnes and Noble and Amazon stood at about one link for every 15 vertical pixels of screen real estate. Historically, the highest link density at Borders.com was one link for every 28 vertical pixels.

Amazon communicates using images and links rather than text descriptions.
From 1999 through 2001, Amazon used more images and fewer text descriptions than Barnes and Noble. In 2002, both sites used about 560 words per page, yet the density of words was 33 percent lower on Amazon; Amazon distributes the words across the page as links rather than bunching them together in paragraphs. Over time, Barnes and Noble is becoming more like Amazon in this respect.

All sites eventually included navigation targeted at specific audiences.
Audience-based navigation—navigation labeled for a particular audience—appeared on Borders.com in 1998, on Barnes and Noble in 2000, and on Amazon as early as 1999.

Invitations to subscribe to an email newsletter were offered inconsistently.
Borders.com didn’t include this feature until 1998. Barnes and Noble included it only in 1998 and 2001. Only Amazon consistently included this feature from 1995 to 2002.

Online and offline design
So what lessons can we learn about how these sites changed over time? How has design contributed to Amazon’s high growth and significant lead over the others? In general, Amazon found a winning formula and applied it consistently over time. In my mind, the successful design elements emulated offline shopping experiences in many ways.

Personally, I was surprised at how long these homepages had grown. Combined with the three-column layout, each page contains a great deal of information. This is quite like the perceptual experience of browsing in a physical store. When you walk down an aisle in a bricks-and-mortar store you can visually scan the shelves quite quickly. On these websites, the long, scrolling pages are analogous to aisles (major groupings of items) and the columns are analogous to shelves (more specific groupings of items). With a similarly natural, efficient motion, a visitor can scroll down the page and visually scan the three columns of product listings.

Amazon homepage
Amazon homepage
(January, 2002)
Click to enlarge.
Barnes and Noble homepage
Barnes and Noble homepage
(January, 2002)
Click to enlarge.

Amazon’s higher number and density of links, and placement of those links above the fold, also reminds me of the aggressive product positioning in a physical store. It’s like walking into a food market and immediately being overwhelmed with rows and rows of colorful fresh fruit, stimulating our eyes and engaging our appetites.

The prominent use of images and sparse use of text on Amazon again harks back to physical objects with simple labeling.

The arrival of navigation intended for specific audiences seemed inevitable. Especially for the book market, a children’s section was developed surprisingly late on these sites given the disproportionately high revenues that come from children’s books in traditional shopping venues.

In general, many of the functions of these pages have become commodities: search engines, shopping carts, authentication and store locators. But Amazon’s extensive personalization sets this site apart functionally. Personalization mimics a personal shopper or a local store employee who knows you. While the online recommendations aren’t always right on, neither is a human assistant.

Rate of change
Many studies have found that our performance using a software application improves over time as we become familiar with its interface. Gerald Lohse and his associates translated this finding into the realm of eCommerce websites using statistical analysis.11 They also found that website visitors learn to use a site more efficiently over time and that this increases their purchase rate. In simpler terms, it means familiar sites are easier for people to use, so familiar sites are where visitors will make purchases.

It follows that sites that can be learned more quickly will more quickly become familiar, increasing the amount of purchases. So a faster learning rate equals a higher purchase rate.

Furthermore, Lohse found that familiarity with a particular website makes visitors less likely to switch to a competitive site because of the effort and time needed to become familiar with another site. He refers to this behavior as “cognitive lock-in.” Essentially, we are creatures of habit. He applied this analysis to several eCommerce websites by measuring the number of visits per person, length of sessions, and timing and frequency of purchases. He found the learning rate significantly faster at Amazon than at Barnes and Noble.

The rate of design change supports this finding. Amazon had no major redesigns from 1999 to 2002, only adapting their design gradually to changing needs. Barnes and Noble significantly altered their navigation in 2000 and 2001. Borders.com implemented major homepage changes in 1998 and 2000. Fewer redesigns make it easier for visitors to remain familiar with the site.

Conclusion
Many design elements on these websites are reminiscent of physical store layout, an approach to web design we should investigate further. Like physical stores, those designs should only change gradually to keep visitors buying. Continued analysis of other sites will hopefully help confirm or deny these findings.

It may be a fallacy to state, “Amazon is a successful business, therefore their website design is successful,” since many factors have contributed to their business success. And yet it’s hard to imagine them having such great success with a mediocre site. A similar eCommerce site launching today could do worse than examine and emulate the design elements that Amazon utilizes.

View all End Notes
Victor Lombardi writes, designs, and counsels, usually in New York City. His personal website is http://www.noisebetweenstations.com.