UX Magazine

Defining and Informing the Complex Field of User Experience (UX)
Article No. 703 July 26, 2011

Five Popular Web Strategies That Don't Work

At your next moment of change and opportunity, what kind of leader will you be?

This question arose again recently as we kicked off a major web project with a client. The goals of the project were typical enough: improve usability, differentiate the firm, and close the gap with competitors.

But that was the problem. These goals have become the stock objectives for most major web initiatives, pulled from the shelf and recycled for every website and product redesign. And it’s not hard to see why. They’re safe. They’re familiar to your colleagues. They provide easy benchmarks and sometimes easy wins.

Goals like these may lead to change, but they rarely lead to progress. They’re conventional thinking that will produce, at best, a conventional outcome.

Because recognition is the first step toward recovery, here are the five most common off-the-shelf web strategies that we see in our work:

Strategy #1: Parity

The parity play involves watching what your competitors do, and then either copying them or one-upping them. Parity is seductive because it’s easy and safe. And it can lead to incremental improvements. But it’s just as likely that you’re imitating an expensive tactic that didn’t work for your competitor. In either case, you can never lead your market by following the pack.

Takeaway: Don’t chase your competitors. Chase your customers.

Strategy #2: Novelty

Every business wants to be new and different, so many business leaders equate innovation with novelty. They think if they introduce something new—something that nobody else offers—they will differentiate themselves and capture attention. But what’s new isn’t necessarily valuable or better than the alternatives. In fact, few business breakthroughs are actually new:

  • Apple didn’t invent the graphical user interface, digital music player or smartphone. They vastly improved on existing products.
  • Google didn’t invent the search engine.
  • Nintendo didn’t invent the video game.

Takeaway: Newer isn’t better. Better is better.

Strategy #3: Usability

Most web initiatives cite improved usability as a business objective. While usability is a must for long-term success, it’s really just table stakes. If your websites and products aren’t useful as well as usable, then all the usability in the world won’t help you.

Takeaway: Be useful first. Then be usable.

Strategy #4: Technology

This remains the most common approach to web innovation. It involves making a list of feature ideas or technologies, and then designing your websites or products around them. Designing products based on feature lists leads to unsatisfactory experiences because those lists aren’t oriented to the perspective and needs of your customers. In fact, the majority of your customers don’t care about features and technology. They just want products that are useful to them.

Takeaway: Design your business around people, not technologies.

Strategy #5: Epiphany

The notion of an epiphany—that next big idea that will change everything for your organization and industry—is at once the most seductive and dangerous of web strategies. It’s seductive because it is glorified in the business press and in our cultural myths about how innovation happens. It’s dangerous because it is the business equivalent of the half-court shot. While epiphanies sometimes do happen, they’re too unreliable as a business strategy because they can’t be controlled.

Takeaway: Don’t bank on epiphanies. Processes that are repeatable and controllable are the most reliable sources of innovation.

The Solution: Aim to Be Remarkable

Remarkable sells. Remarkable gets and holds attention. Remarkable is memorable, unique and inspiring. Remarkable builds successful companies like Zappos and breakthrough products like the iPhone.

In fact, if you don't aim to be remarkable, you are unlikely to achieve even adequacy after the vicissitudes and compromises of any major web initiative. Obvious you say? Perhaps, but rarely practiced because it involves taking risks.

So, at your next moment of change and opportunity, what kind of leader will you be?

ABOUT THE AUTHOR(S)

User Profile

Scott McDonald is co-founder and managing director of Modus Associates, a digital innovation and design consultancy based in New York City. A frequent industry speaker and writer, he has advised global brands including Morgan Stanley & Co., Sony, Citibank and SIRIUS Satellite Radio, among others.

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Comments

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Scott, I have been in sales for - I hate to say it - over 40 years. When I opened a small business crafting persuasive website content, I went straight back to the basics of Sales 101 that I learned my first day with Scott Paper Company in 1978. The very first thing they taught us was how to craft a benefit/ feature statement and how not to confuse the value of the two - from the perspective of the customer. Though many things have changed over the years, basic human motivation has not changed one whit. When working with clients, I try to get them to answer one thing from the client's user perspective. All else revolves around it. Answer the WIIFM question; What's In It For Me? I could care less if some of this may seem familiar to me and to some of the readers. And from years of working with clients, some of them quite brilliant, I can tell you from experience that these things are not at all obvious nor arrived at intuitively. there is noting wrong with repeating an idea in words that may reach a reader while someone else's words did not. That is the art of persuasion. It is extraordinarily difficult to accomplish these important tasks in such a manner that causes readers to engage and thereby be motivated to action. It just looks easy when it is well done. In someone else's words, fascinate or go home.

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I admit to having been out of the sales and marketing field for over 20 years, but my point, at countless board meetings, was get the customer to design what they want, and then make it work; they often know their markets best.
Sorry if it's a bit simplistic.

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Thanks everyone for the great comments. A few of you mentioned that you found my article to be obvious in its points, and I must confess I agree. They are obvious: to you, me, and most of us in the UX field. What I've learned from my work, though, is they are often not obvious to others, including very smart decision-makers in corporate marketing and web departments who are responsible for redesigning their websites. That's what prompted this article; the experience of seeing the same mistakes being made over and over again for many years. I guess this means job security for UX practitioners! Thanks again.

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most certainly not obvious in corporate and business circles! Your points are excellent and a lovely summary of some of the things that matter in the Networked Age.

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Foregone and redundant... possibly mildly offensive. Anybody else got reminded of the joke about the shepherd and the consultant, reading this?

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The idea of general rtraseint is really interesting. It reminds me of the Microsoft designs the iPod package video. The success of Apple's clear, minimal, and simple design is validated by their ability to create a successful brand image. From a birds-eye-view, they don't harp on feature lists or benefits. The idea is about listening to music or talking on the phone. Sure, they'll list the features on their website, or in a detailed presentation, but to an uneducated buyer they just see coolness. What's most interesting is that they've reached a state where the community will do that for them; people write about how good the product is before anyone has any proof.

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This post seems like a really literal and cheap rip-off of Adaptive Path's book "Subject To Change".

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Bravo!!! I love your article! I am so impressed after reading it and I learned so much. Please write some more.

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Is this article for thick people or what? I cannot see the point in writing a series of obvious remarks.

digital innovation consultancy: does this equate with ripping stupid off?

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The takeaways are all insightful, but with the exception of #5 (because creating an epiphany can not really be a strategy), saying that these strategies don't work is misleading.

Technology is an enabler, and parity and novelty are objectives which most (if not all) companies can argue have their own inherent value depending on what measures the strategy being employed defines.

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Pretty much agreed. Your main focus should always be your customers, providing the best service you can to them. All those things like innovation, epiphany, usefulness... are basically side effects of pursuing that goal.

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Hmm #1 is contradicting #2 for me

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The article title states that these are "five popular web strategies," not that these strategies are prescriptive. So the fact that #1 and #2 are contradictory doesn't matter. Both get touted (not necessarily at the same time) by management that's looking at the competition rather than at the customer or market.

I would put all five of these items into a category called "Silver Bullets" because that's how they're often trotted out and used -- If only our product does X, then we'll put our competition out of business; if only our product had these 4 features our largest customer wants, then we'd kill in the marketplace; if only we replatform our product using this shiny new technology, we'll get a jump on the competition.

Nothing can replace the work done by seeing customers and the market with fresh eyes, with a sense of being completely open and without preconceptions.

Unfortunately, that approach takes time and effort, and the silver bullets seem much more tangible (and manageable) to some decision-makers.

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ive found if you want to inspire innovation dont use strategies at all. planning for innovation is like planning for fun. fun just HAPPENS. you can set an area where fun is more likely to happen, you can set aside time for fun, you can get people who like to HAVE fun, but you cannot regulate how the fun will occur. nor can you say "only have fun if you can show that your fun helps me somehow and no other kind of fun is allowed"
innovation is the same way, you can get nerds together who love to hack, give em toys pay them for their time and let them go and innovation will happen. will it be useful? dont know its not part of the plan because there is no plan. they are just having fun. a lot of good innovations come out of this and a lot of poor innovations come out. the most you can do is filter the results to what you want and what you dont.

this is a method google has employed to quite the success (they encourage their employees to spend 30% of their time on personal projects.) this is a method that has proven successful in universities too (how many major innovations started as a student's or professor's pet project)

put the right people together in the right situations and innovation is inevitable.

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Those who think #2 and #1 are contradictions are greatly oversimplifying and completely missing the point. Number one simply is paying attention to what your customers want, rather than what your competitors are doing. Number #2 leads into this, if it is something your customers want and you can build it better - despite not being original - then don't worry about originality and just go for it.

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Thanks for the post! I like your 4th point, design around people and not technology.

This is good advice because as a Front End Developer I often get too caught up in neat gui's and latest JavaScript techniques to display content in unique ways.

However, as an inspiring UX Strategist the focus should really be on the user and how they subliminally perceive design elements. In fact, most users aren't going to a site for it's design but for what it offers. A design should never take a way from the essence of the context.

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I think you just read and copied what the Adaptive Path guys say in Subject to Change. Or did they just copy someone elses ideas?

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Wow...this is perhaps the most useless advice I've read in a long time.

#2 almost directly contradicts #1.

Usability and usefulness are independent, unrelated concepts.

The rest is vague, fluffy pseudo-philosophy. I was expecting #6 to be something like "Maintain a positive attitude when developing your site".

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@Engineer

Apple didn't invent the GUI:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PARC_(company)#The_GUI

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It seems to me that the real issue here isn't that these strategies don't work, it's that the goals aren't clearly defined and thus it becomes difficult to analyze the effectiveness of a particular strategy or tactic.

Innovation occurs when someone develops a better way to achieve a desired outcome, which could be possible with one or more of the above strategies. I don't disagree with much of the above per se, but in my mind the goals, or lack thereof, are the root cause of these problems.

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Don't point 1 and point 2 contradict each other?

Point 1 - don't copy competitors and attempt to one up them

Point 2 - don't create anything new, copy your competitors and attempt to one up them

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Thank you Scott. You put it so succinctly. Brilliant. I share some similar trains of thought about how to go about making "better" stuff at the P.s web-space. If you get a minute to take a peek, I'd be interested to know what you think.

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five years ago, my web development instructor pointed to the Apple website as the "Golden Standard" for web design. I accepted it back then along with all of the Flash bashing.

Today I see things differently. Apple is big at promoting the new technology (HTML5). however, their site is still using old visual techniques that are transparent so not HTML5.

They did blaze a trail with the iPhone and iPad, i tip my hat to them for that, but everything that glitters is not gold.

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This is great advice. I've been in a hundred meetings where the goal was parity and precious few where the goal was true innovation.

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Remarkable, outstanding ... that's the only way to go moving forward for businesses. That's the only way to get ahead of others. Being good does not do justice. Zappos is always over-delivering and that's what makes them remarkable.

You've provided great examples and takeaways. Thanks for the remarkable piece of work! :)

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Apple did invent the graphical user interface. They did not invent the concept of graphics, computers displaying them, "windows", or the mouse. But they did invent the gui.

Unfortunately, too many people, absolutely ignorant of the history of this work, and eager to bash Apple have been pretending like Apple just licensed the technology from Xerox.

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Wouldn't #2 be following #1? Don't one up the competition, but one up the competition?

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Anders,

Great post. You're right. It is difficult to plan for and control innovation. However, you can make it substantially more likely to occur if you understand your marketplace and what makes you unique, and if you truly understanding your users / customers and design products and services around them. In other words, if you do your homework and don't rely on the five strategies above.

That may sound obvious. Especially to those of us in the UX community. However, it isn't obvious to most of the organizations I've worked with over the last 12 years. That's job security. :-)

And yes, "remarkable" is a bit fuzzy. What I'm really saying is aim high. And don't be talked out of your ambition. That's how the iPhone happened. It could have suffered death by a thousand cuts like most ambitious ideas, but Apple stayed the course, and brought (strong-armed?) their various business partners (manufacturers, AT&T) along with them. That's rare. And remarkable.

Great stuff! Thanks again.

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Guy Kawasaki has a book on how to be remarkable, or enchanting :)

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It seems impossible to plan for being remarkable? Most, if not all, companies would like to be remarkable, and they try their best to be remarkable given the economical and social capital available to them. In fact it seems impossible to plan for innovation at all. History show that the greatest inventions have not been subject to planning. In fact, given history, it seems fair to say that the impact a given technology has on society in proportional with the _lack_ of planning behind it (Amongst others, Donal Schön shows this in his 1967 book 'Technology and Change').

Also, your notion of 'Remarkable' is so fussy that I do not think anyone is aware what you refer to, if they stop to think about it. Sure, we all agree that the iPhone is a lot of superlatives, but does it help to show an example instead of taking the effort and explaining what it means to be remarkable? If we simple aim to do what Apple does with the iPhone, arent we actually participating in 'the parity play', which you warn about?

The trouble is that if we actually try to explain what being remarkable is, we are forced to make use of synonymes and metafors. 'A product is remarkable when it .. blah blah'.. 'Its remarkable when its.. blah blah'.. and so on. Properly, the synonymes and metafors, which we would end up make use of in such an analysis of the concept of 'being remarkable', would be the very same ones which you dismiss as being invalid in your article.

Instead my advice is this: Fire the strategist and get some work done :)

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Nicely said. I will remember this and aim to be a remarkable leader!