For the past twenty years Alex Kaplinsky has been a key and pioneering figure in all things interactive. His career started in 1993 when he founded and managed the Internet consulting firm Networkers. Since then he has served and played vital roles at a host of different organizations including USWeb, Liquid Thinking and Form Studios. Currently, he is founder and CTO of SolutionSet, a web marketing consultancy firm which aims to help companies find innovative solutions to business challenges.
Here are my 5 questions with Alex and his answers:
1) As industry reports continue to confirm that the effectiveness of online media is progressively improving while the effectiveness of terrestrial media is waning, more and more companies are choosing to reboot their online presence. As an industry leader in helping organizations improve, in your opinion, over the last twelve months where are businesses getting it right and what in general are common missteps?
The businesses that are getting it right are the ones that understand that at the end of the day it’s really about the end-user’s needs… that fundamentally users are no longer interested in the marketing messages companies want to “push” out. I think the prime examples of this would be Google or Amazon. At least regarding online businesses, companies that are more agile and provide utility to the user tend to fend better. The old school, traditional approach of pushing a marketing message with a lot of visuals and a lot of copy, opposed to designing your website for what the user really needs to do demonstrates a lack of concern for your customers.
So you see sites like Dropbox where the instructions to get started take up the entire screen, or the classic example of Google where you are greeted basically with just a search box… these businesses have oriented their focus on the user’s task in their flow of everyday life opposed to pushing things on them. This is clearly becoming the way you need to differentiate yourself rather than trying to make the user consume what you want them to consume. Good brands are now about utility, about simplicity, and being able to achieve what you want to do quickly and efficiently. Businesses getting it wrong get in the way of the user. Businesses getting it right understand reciprocity. They understand that by putting the user’s needs first they will be rewarded for their effort.
2) Another current aspect of online marketing getting a lot of attention is personalization. Innovations in content management systems make providing users a tailored experience easier and more affordable. Are we close to seeing Apple’s Siri type functionality as part of standard website usability?
Regardless of the technological interface, it’s always only going to be as good as garbage-in, garbage-out. So, for Apple to make Siri work they expend an immense amount of effort on continued improvement, amassing new data and sorting that data. It is a major effort so I’m not sure that we will see this type of functionality on a wide scale anytime soon regarding traditional websites. However, at the heart of your question is will we see company’s FAQ pages and/or knowledge pages improve? Yes, technology is going to continue to allow knowledgeable companies to give its customers better results.
You have a lot of great new tools to personalize websites. The interfaces for creating that logic are increasingly user friendly where the average webmaster can facilitate this experience opposed to before where that was well beyond their control. Before this could only be done by programmers and usually took heavy lifting. Content targeting is going to get a lot more sophisticated, especially as we continue to integrate Social and develop algorithms on the affinity of your social network. Users will learn to filter content like they filter songs on Pandora, and eventually you will have experiences that quickly tailor to one’s personality. We’re almost there now.
3) Do you subscribe to a set of evidence-based standards, blueprints, and/or formulas when you approach the initial stages of creating an online solution for a client? Or do you find it’s better to start from scratch and pull in best-practices along the way after initial brainstorming and discovery with the client?
It depends on the subject matter and the team you’re working with. So, if you’re talking about a completely new product, whatever that may be, for example video sharing ten years ago and nobody has ever done that before… there are no established accepted practices… then you brainstorm like crazy! Put everyone’s ideas on the table and try to sort them out, evaluating parallels at that point in time and evolve from there.
On the other hand an interactive marketing team redesigning a website, preferably with experience in the industry… I firmly believe they come to the table with their established standards and draw from these. Otherwise you’ll get too many ideas that are outside of the norm.
Let me give you a random example, a designer says, “I would really like to explore the paradigm of having a navigation bar on the bottom of the browser window, sort of like the Macintosh launch bar, for our website controlling the navigation because that would be a really cool thing to do.” However, the data shows that unconventional navigation is hard on the end-user. The more well-known things are, from a functional standpoint, the fewer problems you’re going to face. Take a standard common function like “forgot my password”… there are only two or three ways that people perform forget and recover passwords so you should have those in hand. There are many elements like this that are things you can quickly plug-in. So in an instance where it is called for I would instruct my team, “We’ve seen this before, let’s start with something very similar and adopt it rather than starting from scratch.” In these type of situations it is just a better use of time.
4) If a company is planning an overhaul of their website, either a reboot or redesign, what steps do you recommend they take before reaching out to an agency to improve their chances of a successful project (ex. audits, gap analysis, user surveys, etc.)? Put another way, what are commonalities you see from companies that are successful at recreating their Web presence versus companies that have failed during this process?
The things you’ve mentioned are a great start. The biggest thing is really the level of technical involvement that your team has… in understanding conceptually the systems that will best benefit the company and at least some technical understanding of those systems. The companies that get it wrong are the ones that do not clearly identify their integration points up front. For instance, midway though a project after functional design they realize they missed important steps because they didn’t do their homework. There are a lot of companies that focus (upfront) exclusively on visual design and don’t look at their technical systems… and therefore what happens is projects are ill-defined and not properly scoped leading to disappointment on both sides of the fence. So companies that get it right do several things that set them up for success:
1) They conduct thorough audits, as many as needed, to understand their systems and all the different data points they’ll need to accomplish their business goals.
2) They have a content strategy upfront. They know who in their organization will be responsible for writing, what they’ll be writing, and have validated that those people have the right experience and the right skill sets to get the job done (plus, the time to do it).
3) They have a realistic timeline and have set clear expectations with the project’s stakeholders.
The last one is important. A fair number of projects fail because they are bound by a timeline but also require the sign-off of an executive who has no availability. Trying to comply with time constraints you are forced to act upon visual designs that haven’t been officially approved, only to find out that the key stakeholder disapproves of the design and now your project is late and over-budget. So these things are commonalities of companies that get it right. The ones that get it wrong don’t plan, have no content strategy, and have unrealistic expectations.
5) You have two decades of Internet experience. When asked to speculate about one of the most profound ways the Internet will be different in the next ten years what’s your guess?
Responsive Design is a trend right now but in a few years it will be called something else. However, the concept of having to think about all of these different form fashions will persist for awhile. So that’s going to be the biggest thing from my perspective is, the fact that for the last fifteen to twenty years we have been worried about the desktop browser. We have thought a lot about the fold, browser compatibility, usability, etc. So I think that from a user experience paradigm, designing for specific devices as they continue to evolve will be the difference. Also the way we view content will change, so not just simply designing for scrolling but now designing for pinching, skimming, zooming and swiping as well. And that is just considering what we can do now. An example of things to come is the Samsung phone which uses the camera in the phone to track the user’s retina to influence the behavior of the browser. In short, the usability standards that have served our industry surprisingly well for almost two decades (given the fast pace of change with technology) are going to get rewritten. Similar to the increase in design complexity when cascading style sheets were introduced to HTML, new devices and new mediums will profoundly increase the complexity of usability design. Therefore, designing for the way we will consume content will be the most profound way the Internet will change over the next ten years.