September 30, 2004, 12:00 AM

The Right Staff

(Page 2 of 2)

Here is a typical example of how this kind of imbalance can lead to an unsatisfied web site visitor. A friend wanted to buy a digital camera. As an amateur, he wanted a camera that was easy to use, one that would help him take clear pictures. But most of the sites bombarded him with terms like CCDs, FireWire, PC card slots and uncompressed TIFF mode. The fact that he didn`t know what these terms meant embarrassed him. He was put off and confused. The companies had made the wrong assumption about their customers` knowledge. None of them answered the simple question of which camera was best for amateurs.

This is an example of why company-centered organizations can create major customer headaches. If a company-centered style dominates your e-commerce business, customers pay the price and eventually so can the company in lost business.

— Technology-centered organization: Companies that have a long history of technical achievement overcoming complexity often put veto power in the hands of their IT or software groups. This can lead to e-commerce sites that are functional, perhaps even gee-whiz, cool, but not useful, usable, or compelling. We have all seen these kinds of web sites-the ones overloaded with animation, audio, and streaming banners, the ones that force technical gizmos on customers.

An extreme example was the ill-fated Boo.com. Boo managers suffered from a technology infatuation and overwhelmed the other viewpoints in the organization. As a result, their shopping site had cool, animated personal shoppers that failed to work for many people. Not every customer`s machine had the requisite software, and customers had no patience to download the required plug-in just to visit the site. When techno-lust overruled customer interests, the company suffered.

But technology-centered organizations can come in other, less obvious forms as well. One client I worked with created deal-breaking problems for customers by not overcoming system technical limitations. Due to hyper-inflated concerns over software stability and an unwillingness by the company`s IT department to put creative power in the hands of merchandisers, a dynamic publishing system was never implemented. System changes of any sort required six-to-nine month lead times. In this case, a single technical problem was considered unsolvable, and further investment in the e-commerce site only perpetuated the flaw and reinforced a reluctance to revamp the site and undo the problem.

To overcome technological hurdles requires a customer-centered approach that prevents customer problems, and solves them when they do occur, instead of causing them. Your technical group cannot dominate your organization, or your customers will suffer.

— Designer-centered organization: When the marketing department is the 800-pound gorilla in an e-commerce organization, it can cause a dysfunction I refer to as the "design-centered organization," where the look and message of the site takes precedence over all else. I have seen this problem caused by an over-reliance on print and TV advertising as a convenient paradigm for e-commerce. That is, a company tries to make the site look more like an advertisement and less like an interactive store.

More often than not, the site has been developed by an outside agency, perhaps the company`s print and TV advertising agency. One agency designer was quoted in an industry magazine as saying, "What the client sometimes doesn`t understand is the less they talk to us, the better it is. We know what`s best." This may make for exciting design, but not necessarily for more e-commerce sales. Designer-centered organizations are fine for art web sites, but not for e-commerce sites whose livelihood depends on a large number of repeat visitors.

It isn`t always clear to an organization what needs to change to improve e-business performance. While a client of mine fought for bringing a more customer-centered approach to his e-businesses` development process, he kept facing roadblocks from management. Not until a senior executive from another e-commerce company was brought on board to run my client`s e-commerce business did his customer initiatives reach receptive ears. His previous management didn`t know what it didn`t know. This only reinforces the need for e-commerce management that has the background and a successful track record in e-business.

The new worldview

In company-centered organizations, e-commerce teams give more thought to what they have to sell and less to how customers will try to buy it. In technology-centered e-commerce, decisions are dominated by technical considerations, either by overemphasizing the importance of technology or by limiting the capabilities of the site, causing pain to customers. In designer-centered e-commerce, customers` needs are placed beneath the creative and expressive needs of the design team. Contrast these styles with customer-centered organizations, which emphasize customers and their goals above all.

Company-centered, technology-centered, and designer-centered organizations were understandable in the early days of the web when e-commerce managers were still finding their way. In the old worldview, few people really considered what customers wanted. Now, successful and easy-to-use sites like Nordstrom.com, Amazon.com,LandsEnd.com, and Gap.com are built from the ground up to meet the needs of their customers.

In the new worldview, you need to carefully construct a customer-centered organization. This will be reflected in your e-commerce site, and will help you achieve long-lasting success.

 

Doug van Duyne is senior director of customer experience products and design at Keynote Systems, provider of web performance measurement and management systems. He is co-author of The Design of Sites. He can be reached at doug.vanduyne@keynote.com.

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