Great Content Doesn’t Make it Hard on the Visitor

While doing research on the making on great content, I turned to an old favorite reference of mine, a lesser-known book by Seth Godin (you didn’t know there was such a thing as a “lesser-known” book by him, did you)? The book is called “The Big Red Fez, How to Make Any Website Better”. Published in 2001, today many of his ideas are still considered radical, and difficult to implement.  Here’s the thing about Seth, he’s not really a web guy, so he doesn’t care that it’s hard to do, if it makes it easier for the Visitor.  I’m going to discuss a few choice selections from a long list of content devices that make it hard on the Visitor. All of them are in common usage today. While all of these happen to be online issues, they have parallels in other media. Note that most of these are not really content, they are vehicles and devices for delivering content that make the Visitor’s experience difficult. Often we are so wrapped up in our message, we forget to spend time experiencing the delivery.

Seth Godin wants to do away with drop-down boxes in online forms.  “Why can’t I just type US in the country box”, he asks, and even better, “if I already told you that I live in Madison, Wisconsin, why don’t you fill the country in for me”? Now, as a web developer I can think of a few hundred reasons why both of these are bad, most of them leading to the fact that bad data might get into MY database. It can be really hard to clean up and filter typed data from the Visitor. Guessing a data point accurately from data they provide is even scarier. Oh, and I’d probably have to refresh the page to fill in the country.  But neither of these is impossible, and there are many more. Making them work just makes it hard on me, and easier on the Visitor.

Seth also has a problem with unnecessary questions on forms.  “Do you really need to know my gender to sign me up for the newsletter”? he asks. I have my own funny story here; years ago I spoke with the head of a well-known technology forum, and I asked him about his online form. I had looked at it right before we met, and noticed that, in order to simply contact the group and ask a question, I needed to tell them who my ad agency and my attorney were (both fields were required to submit the form). I asked him why this was necessary, and he looked me right in the eye and told me that the group’s major sponsors needed those data. I then asked if he know how many people bailed out before finishing the form, he said he didn’t know. I was really trying to influence this man to do something for me, so I refrained from asking how many submissions listed “HELL” as an agency and “SATAN” as general counsel, but I really, really wanted to know. My rule is, never ask for any information that THE VISITOR doesn’t think you need to know to do what the Visitor wants you to do.  If they are signing up for your newsletter, you really don’t need much more than an email address, do you?  The rest of the information you can get later. If you don’t know how, consider reading some of Seth’s better-known books on permission marketing. It still works.

Another guru named Vince Flanders ( coined the term “Mystery Meat Navigation”.  Translated literally, the Visitor clicks on a link and does not get the experience he/she expected; generic landing pages when the link promised a special deal on one item, a login page, pop-up windows that ask if you want to chat with our representative, etc.  The excuses for this are not creative: we don’t have time to code all of those landing pages, we don’t want our competitors to see this, we really need the leads, etc. Let’s leave the Visitor confused and frustrated, then go for the big sell.  Should work.

Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is a thing of beauty when done well.  Executed badly and pages loaded with keyword phrases no longer make sense or deliver a message, much less a compelling reason for action.

Website Analytics are very useful, but when we start creating pages for the sole purpose of giving the Visitor someplace to land that we can then count, we really need to step back and review where everything fits in delivering our story.

Responsive Web Design is a really wonderful principle that makes the web page adapt to the device that it is being viewed on, regardless of that device’s capabilities or the capabilities of the user-agent (read “browser”) that device uses to render web pages. Responsive design repudiates the contention that a separate site is required for mobile devices, tablets etc. Responsive sites can be beautiful, but I have seen some sites where content is mis-matched to a poorly understood framework, jammed in there in such a way that it no longer makes sense. Having a site that works across all devices doesn’t make sense if the story is lost on most of them.

Now, I know some of you are thinking “this is just usability stuff” and I say no, not really. Usability and interface design is much more than this. I’m simply saying that telling the right story is not enough, we cannot allow ourselves to lose sight of HOW our story is told to deliver “great” content.