Making sense of your online experience for more than twenty years

How to spend money and make sites worse

In winter 2008 I organised a comparative review of the homepages of the fifty biggest NZ companies not in state ownership. This revealed a few interesting things, including that in NZ good homepage usability is at present largely the preserve of B-to-C transactional sites. Currently NZ companies are not regarding the web as the primary, or even a major, means of investor or customer relations management. But that’s a separate story.

What I want to discuss today is what happened next. After a month or so I decided to check the sites and find out what changes had occurred, since we were getting ready to mount a bit of publicity on the back of this thing. My curiosity was roused by the discovery that five sites had had pretty major makeovers in the intervening weeks. Could we discern any trends, I wondered?

And the answer, friends, is yes we can.

The sites that had been worked on are the following:
http://www.affco.co.nz
http://www.bnz.co.nz
http://www.fisherpaykel.co.nz
http://www.guardianhealthcare.co.nz
http://www.works.co.nz

The sites themselves gave some background to this. The BNZ site was redesigned in order to introduce enhanced customer security, Works was redesigned because of a corporate rebranding exercise, and the others stated no reason. Obviously I don’t know what these exercises cost, but my guess is that at least three of these were fairly expensive.

And the bad news in summary? Two went up in ranking, and three went down.

Those that improved were:

AFFCO was rated at 44%, now 86%, that’s a climb from 47 to 2 out of 50.
Fisher & Paykel was rated at 52%, now 69%, that’s a climb from 44 to 21 out of 50.
Those that became worse were:

Works was rated at 73%, now 45%, that’s a drop from 12 to 47 out of 50.
BNZ was rated at 78%, now 69%, that’s a drop from 4 to 21 out of 50.
Guardian Health Care was rated at 67%, now 57%, that’s a drop from 27 to 37 out of 50.

To my mind, these results are actually fairly random, and that’s a trend in itself.

I would honestly have thought that a business that is going to expend some serious shareholder coin on revamping its website would give thought to the issue of making the homepage more usable to site visitors.
I don’t feel I have to justify or explain that – it’s a no-brainer, even if there’s an ulterior motive for the redesign, such as rebranding. And yet, whether or not their usability improved is pretty much a coin toss. If there is any trend, it’s towards declining usability.

Frankly, I find these results a little shaming. Is this how poorly our major corporates are ‘getting’ the web? Sadly, I think that’s true.

In fact, if I may be permitted an anecdote to support this contention, the case of MacquarieGoodman is even more damning. In a separate study of the NZX Top 50, I rated this homepage as second most usable of all the Top 50, on 85% [http://www.goodmanintl.com].

A week after the study was made public, they rebranded the company with a major ad agency-driven makeover. The homepage plummeted to a 56% rating, taking itself down to 49th out of the 50. You could smell the money they’d spent, wafting out of the monitor – and the net result was, you couldn’t tell from the homepage what their business was about, who the site was intended for, nor what content you might expect to find in it. It looks very glossy, but usability isn’t just a beauty contest – and this thing looks good in a bikini but can’t name the current president of the USA.

It’s really hard to credit, but so many businesses still think a good website has to look uber-glossy and utterly minimal, and consequently be completely opaque as to your actual meaning. This is a sign of terminal corporate self-regard, rather than an indication of a mature user-centred web presence.

Please work with me people. Repeat after me – in preparation for that next web strategy meeting with your managers: “What is the web? The web is a medium of communication… Stupid!”

Posted in: BIWA
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