Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Websites are software - a lesson for marketing companies

Why are so many websites produced by marketing companies so poorly received by users? Come on, let's face it. There are times when every agency has thought to itself, "Why did we get such unimpressive stats on that project? Why didn't users revel in our exciting new web project just as much as we slaved away producing it?"

The answer is bloody simple. Marketing companies generally don't get that websites are software. They treat websites as perfect renditions of a brand or campaign thought, probably with an awkwardly crow-barred-in attempt at social media engagement. And they expect all those lovely little Mohammed's crawling around on the Internet to come to their fantastic new mountain. And they're heartbroken when they don't. (Or alternatively, since the agency has probably already been paid, maybe they don't give a stuff.)

Software isn't like that. Software provides a service. If it isn't clear on what that service is, or if it provides that service poorly, or if no-one wants that service, then the software isn't worth making in the first place. Also, software is generally pretty interactive, and pretty customisable. It's my software, not yours. I use it to do my stuff, and I like it best when it let's me do my stuff my way, without distraction. The emphasis for software is massively massively massively on user experience. It's not generally about passively looking at someone else's creative or informational ramblings, and occasionally being privileged enough to click my way through a navigation system to find something more or less appealing.

Software self-consciously adapts its feature set according to tech capabilities and emerging user requirements. Photoshop added more vector tools when they could, and didn't drop them when they found people liked them. Functionality is crucial, and goes way beyond the front end 'skin' of your website. No amount of dressing up an empty cardboard box will make it into a bijou residence. You need to work out what your business can deliver and what your users are demanding from you, and then make a front end for that.

Apps are a great case in point. They're so self-consciously software - and most of them are web-enabled. So they're a bit like websites too. Hooray! Now ask yourself how many apps there are that just let the user browse around a fixed set of unchanging designed screens. Good apps help people do things they want to do - whether those things are utterly trivial or completely critical. And they have development cycles, and they invite user feedback, and they have ongoing programs to maintain them, develop them and evolve them.

And yet marketing companies and their clients still roll out barely functional websites with painful deadlines and big bang launches, pretty much totally abandoning them shortly after. Well done. You've just clogged up the Internet with more abandonware.

All of the websites on the World Wide Web are software. All of them: even the marketing sites that barely anyone ever visits. It's just that they're crap software.


  1. The industry is in a sad state and it's not just marketing agencies who are to blame. The people who commission and pay for this stuff must also share the guilt. Many have lost the plot in their rush to have something flashy (and in many cases of no value) to wave under their bosses nose on their iPads.

    The "U" in user centred design stands for "user" - an unfortunate, lazy, sanitised and emotionally detached industry word for the real thing - the "person" they have forgotten how to communicate with.

    Very few agencies and marketing teams are doing people centred design right now. There's too much work in the gold rush and it's easy fuck up and jump onto the next big thing without any trace of accountability.

    I wonder if it will be the next bubble bursting that will remind everyone that saying "no" is always an option.

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