Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

17 January 2016

How Marketers Ruin Websites


[Politics does intrude, even into diversions. For my take on the Dems’ last presidential debate, click here. While we await the results in Iowa and New Hampshire, to see how badly the GOP is split, we can enjoy a diversion. This post is one of my occasional essays on the computer industry. For an early humorous one, which is still sadly apt, click here.]

The Internet and World Wide Web have been around for a generation now. President Clinton, on Al Gore’s advice, opened the Internet for general commercial use in 1996, just about twenty years ago.

With that longevity, you would hope that certain best practices would have become universal. Just look at the industry leaders: Amazon, Google, and, for on-line brokerages, TD Ameritrade. Everyone—or at least their customers—recognizes how easy to use their Websites are. You would think that others would follow their leadership. But not so much.

Take Apple, for instance. It has the best consumer-oriented operating systems in the business, for both computers and mobile devices. But its Website sucks, big time. If you want useful information about an Apple product or service, you won’t find it there, or at least you won’t find it easily. You’ll find much more useful information much more easily on Amazon’s product reviews, by searching Google for answers to specific questions or (in extremis) by perusing user forums, including Apple’s own.

Then take the annuity-investment company TIAA-CREF. For the professors and teachers (like me) who use it for retirement, it’s a godsend. It’s had almost a century of reliable, honest, professional investment performance. But its Website, like Apple’s, sucks big time. Trying to find anything on it is like pawing over the messy desk of a scatterbrain with Alzheimer’s. TIAA-CREF’s Website’s organization has elevated “non-intuitive” to interplanetary scale.

Morningstar is another example of a firm whose marketers are ruining its Website. Its Website has enormously useful tools and reports for detailed analysis of stock, bond, ETF and mutual fund investments. In fact, Morningstar invented the business of giving independent investment analysis, free from obvious conflicts of interest, to consumers outside the securities industry. But it also has introduced “push” video ads for independent advertisers. These start to run as soon as a Web page is loaded. Some cannot be stopped until the ad has run.

The user, who has paid a constantly escalating, automatically renewable annual subscription fee, has to kill the page or search for it among dozens of open browser tabs in order to halt the video stream, or has to mute the audio. When two or more Morningstar push-ad tabs are open, an audio cacophony results.

To add insult to injury, most of the independent ads are self-parodies of meaningless marketing hype. They make David Brooks’ description of Harriet Miers’ legal writing—“the relentless march of vapid abstractions”—seem an understatement.

These ads are the antithesis of everything substantive that Morningstar’s Website offers. It’s hard to believe that the small revenue supplement that Morningstar gets from “pushing” these ads literally in customer’s faces justifies so enraging them. Pushing such vapid and inane ads also undercuts Morningstar’s business model of independent and sophisticated investment analysis.

Apple, TIAA-CREF and Morningstar are in three entirely different businesses: electronics with software, finance and independent investment analysis. But their Websites all suffer from the same basic defect. They seem to have been designed primarily by marketers and salespeople (or, in TIAA-CREF’s case, brokers, who amount to the same thing).

The basic problem, it seems, is conceptual. Some companies seem to have put Websites under “marketing” or “advertising” in the company organization chart and left them there to rot.

Above all, a Website is an information-providing device. So is traditional advertising. But this facile comparison hides enormous differences. Unlike traditional advertising, Websites are infinitely expandable, with near-zero marginal cost. They are also interactive, permitting reverse flows of information and many-to-many communication.

The paradigms of traditional advertising are the thirty-second radio spot, the one-minute TV ad, and the quarter page, mostly graphic newspaper or magazine ad. They, too, provide information, but not nearly with the same purpose or depth as a Website. They just catch the eye or ear and provoke initial interest. No one is going to buy a car, computer, smart phone or retirement investment without further inquiry.

Websites respond to that further inquiry, and much more. They can turn that initial interest into a purchase. But in order to do so, especially for complex products and services, they have to provide more useful information and less hype.

With complex products and services, a still larger function of the Website is providing post-sale information. Customers aren’t going to appreciate the product or service unless they can use it fully and get the most out of it. If they don’t appreciate it fully, they won’t come back, and they won’t recommend the product or service to others.

Helping customers appreciate a product or service fully requires clear, focused explanations of how best to use it under various circumstances. Those explanations need constant improvement, refinement and expansion as the product or service and its users’ experience evolve.

Most of all, they require good organization. Without good organization, customers can’t find what they’re looking for; so the information might as well not be there.

Mixing initial-interest hype with detailed specifications and how-to explanations doesn’t make Websites better or produce more sales. It just makes readers angry.

That’s what happens to me almost every time I look at Apple’s Website. I shout to myself, “I already own this product, you dolt! I clicked on this link to get more specific, useful information, not more marketing hype!” Even the so-called technical specs on Apple’s website are deficient: they don’t provide enough numerical information, or they tout it proudly without any hint of its significance, or even a comparison with other Apple products.

Then there are the things that go wrong.

Things inevitably go wrong with complex products or services. They may be something wrong with the product or service, or the customer may be using it wrongly. But it doesn’t really matter which, does it? In either case, the firm will have a dissatisfied customer. In extreme cases, it will have a scathing on-line review or even a lawsuit.

So fixing things that go wrong ought to be a major focus of any good Website. No traditional advertisement ever did that. Therefore, we’re not in Kansas anymore, are we?

The first big firm to follow Judy into Oz was Amazon. I have written a whole essay about its path-breaking decision to let customers pan its products online. I won’t repeat that essay here, but two points are worth making. First, Amazon broke the two-millennium-old seller’s code of caveat emptor. Second and more important, it enlisted its own customers in fixing things that go wrong. The best online reviews not only tell future customers what’s wrong with a product; they also tell them how to fix it or work around it. Armed with that knowledge, a future customer is far less likely to feel buyer’s remorse.

A lot of Websites now have product reviews and user forums. But they are pale shadows of Amazon’s. Why? Because the flow of feedback on a good review or forum site is enormous. The problem for the customer and potential customer is searching and sorting through it.

Here Amazon shines. It allows the user to organize reviews by date or “grade.” It applies the wisdom of the crowd by having readers rate the reviews and letting users search them by user-graded helpfulness. It also has a search field that enables keyword searches.

In making reviews useful, it’s all about organization. Apple’s user forum falls short for two main reasons. First, the user who starts a thread by reporting a problem provides the title for the thread. So titles for similar threads are all over the map.

Two different users could report the same problem, months apart or on the same day, and their threads might have entirely different titles. Finding both of them requires a masterful search, blessed serendipity, or the kindness of a commenter who links each to the other. Second, the person who starts each thread is the one who reports whether a later answer solved the problem, usually without explanation. Sometimes, the usefulness of a “solution” is in the eye of the beholder, or in the specifics of a complex situation. Wouldn’t it be better, like Amazon, to have users vote and comment?

Organization is key in other ways, too. As we have seen, Websites have at least four purposes: (1) evoking initial interest; (2) “hooking” the potential customer with more solid information; (3) providing and storing post-sale information for users (including account information and profiles); and (4) fixing things that go wrong. Since the Website itself is as much a product or service as the one it reports, there is a fifth purpose also: (5) improving the Website. In a medium as interactive as the Internet, it’s astonishing how slowly most Websites have adopted simple measures to let their customers and readers help them improve.

How these five purposes are organized makes all the difference in Website usefulness. Ideally, each purpose should have a different main link and a different main page.

But the most important organizational points are to separate pre-sale from post-sale information, and to separate general post-sale information from specific data about a particular user’s experience, “My Account” and the user’s profile. Mixing data from either of these two pairs just makes post-sale readers mad.

By now many Websites have adopted the industry-standard “My Account” button. But what comes under it, and how it is organized, also makes a big difference. TIAA-CREF, for example, had a separate message center, distinct from account changes, which handled both specific account data, including uploaded documents, and general inquiries.

An old friend of mine once designed the first (or one of the first) commercial e-mail programs. When something went wrong, he would sit quietly in the corner, review the code line by line in his head, and find the problem. This same friend was also the youngest person I’ve ever known to get a Ph.D. in particle physics.

Not all Website designers are that smart or that capable. So it helps to take users into your confidence.

After a mere hour or two or use, it’s possible for a savvy user to distinguish Websites whose designers have advisory panels and good user feedback from the rest. Not only can you see the feedback invitations on the Websites; the good Websites are also much easier to use.

The many Website-feedback “surveys” now polluting the Web are virtually useless in comparison with a good user advisory panel whose advice is heeded. The most disgusted customers are not going to fill out the surveys, and no survey has one tenth of the information of a real complaint letter, or even this essay.

One last point of Internet lore is worth making. As social-media sites have discovered, the Web is (to borrow a phrase from law school) a seamless web. You get more from making your Website and products and services compatible with others’ than from trying to disprove John Donne’s “No man is an island.”

Even Apple, after the late Steve Jobs’ tantrum, discovered this truth with Adobe’s Flash technology. TIAA-CREF might do well to do the same with its numerous similar but inconsistent names for apparently almost identical investment funds. It might even make sure that each has a unique and clearly displayed symbol, so that users could look it up in Morningstar or Google Finance.

For the first time in human history, the Internet has made possible many-to-one (“reverse”) communication and many-to-many (“crowd”) communication in ways that are both quick and convenient. Some Websites, like Amazon’s and Google’s, have earmarks of design by programmers and other computer industry cognoscenti to take advantage of these features. Others, apparently designed by marketers to take the place of traditional advertising, are falling further and further behind.

Even the best Websites could benefit from well-chosen user advisory panels. The worst have a long, long way to go to realize the Internet’s potential. Moving the Website up from “marketing” or “advertising” closer to the CEO’s office might help many improve. For Websites today are not just advertising or adjuncts to the customer relationship; in many cases they are the customer relationship.

The Dems’ Last Debate

Wow! Again I say, “wow!”

Substantive, spirited, yet polite and civil. The Dems’ last debate last night shows what a democracy could be, if only ours could get out from under the spell of big money.

As usual, Bernie understood what’s wrong and missed no opportunity to drive the point home. Vast majorities of the American people favor single-payer universal health care, instant background checks and assault-weapons bans, and reining Wall Street in with vigor. Yet none of these things has happened, even under the best president since JFK, maybe since FDR.

Bernie understands why that’s true: the money men have captured Congress and the Republican party. They don’t care about guns. They don’t care about our suffering and disappearing middle class. They don’t care how many of our courageous and patriotic young men and women die in unnecessary foreign wars. They don’t care how many of us die in random gun violence or purely domestic terrorism, having nothing to do with Islam.

All they care about is lower taxes and regulation, so they can make yet more money. They’re willing to endorse any crazy policy and take any foolish risk as long as those things happen. That’s why we’ve got to stop them, with the sheer weight of numbers, while we still can.

That’s why I’m for Bernie and why the vast majority of youth are, too. They understand that their future is at stake; they may have to emigrate to get decent jobs, decent health care or (especially if they are African-American or Hispanic) basic justice.

But let me be clear. The Dems’ last debate was an embarrassment of riches. I could support, help fund, and enthusiastically vote for any of the three candidates on the stage. There were differences among them, to be sure. But their differences with all the Republican candidates—in policy, humanity, and simple common sense—utterly overwhelmed the differences among the Dems on that stage.

Once Will Rogers quipped, “I’m not a member of any organized political party. I’m a Democrat.” Now the tables are turned. The GOP, not the Dems, is split and disorganized. Its candidates are turning on each other with a vengeance.

The reason is simple: they have no spine or principles. They pander to the mob and the demagogues on Fox and talk radio. Like the Taliban, they read from scripture, in their case so-called “Conservative” scripture. But what’s “conservative” about selling our country to the big banks, making yet another unnecessary war, letting random gun violence rage unchecked, and selling our national parks to the highest bidder?

No Republican from the fifties or sixties would have called any of this nonsense “conservative.” It was Teddy Roosevelt—a Republican from the nineteenth century—who broke up big, powerful corporations and established our national parks. Only Rush Limbaugh, the Hegemon of Hate, supports such senseless policies.

The GOP candidates are quintessential short-term thinkers. They all want to be president but don’t quite know why, except that it would look good on their resume. They change positions in response to polls and each other’s repartee.

In contrast, the Dems’ change positions based on facts and new information. Bernie changed his positions on gun-maker immunity and how to finance his ambitious social programs. Hillary changed her positions on Iraq and Russia. Both justified their changes with reason and facts; when things change and history evolves, rational positions change. The only people who keep fixed positions when circumstances change are the Taliban and the Pope—not Francis, but the last one.

We had a millennium—our second—governed by scripture. We don’t need a new one in the millennium just started. In the thousand years to come, the so-called “conservatism” of present-day Republicans could extinguish our species, if not by war and nuclear proliferation, then by climate change or relying on fossil fuels until the very day they run out.

Unbeknownst to most, the biggest winner on the stage tonight was the man with no chance of winning: Governor Martin O’Malley of Maryland. Not only was he cogent, articulate and gracious about being short-changed on time. He was also the only candidate to make climate change the centerpiece of his candidacy.

That was entirely appropriate. Uncharacteristically for most pols today, O’Malley thinks long term, both about policy and about his own career. Our species has just begun to feel the bad effects of climate change. We have not yet seen the exponential inflection point that all such positive-feedback phenomena have. But everyone who knows science or math knows it will come, just not precisely when.

When it comes, or draws closer, Martin O’Malley will be there. No one knew who he was until last summer. Now the vast majority of Democrats and many Americans know him and like him. When he runs in 2020 or 2024, he will have a surpassing advantage. He will be able to say “I told you so” as extreme weather continues its devastation, and as climate refugees from places like the Maldives and Bangladesh make today’s exodus from war-torn Syria look like child’s play.

I fervently hope I can live to see the day when I can vote for Martin O’Malley as president of the United States. He’s a good man, a polite and sympathetic pol, and a good predictor of where he’ll have to be when he can run for real. His record as mayor of Baltimore and governor of Maryland is exemplary. Like an outfielder leading the fly ball to make the catch, he leads the pack of candidates in either party in knowing what will be the main issue of our species when he has a real chance to win.

But for now, it’s Bernie or Hillary. Either one would be thousands of times better than the best of the GOP field, which has only a small chance of getting the GOP nomination. I’m for Bernie because I think we need his “political revolution” to save our nation and restore our democracy and greatness. But if the Dems collectively think otherwise, I’ll support Hillary enthusiastically, even as a lesser light, against the rapidly encroaching dark.

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