How to cause a silly effect

Some things companies do on their websites fly in the face of reason, as evidenced in 10 of the most mystifying ‘why oh why’ moments noted by David Bowen.

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I’ve always had a fondness for common sense, which means I get distressed when people do things online that are just silly. Some of them are the result of sheep-like behaviour – ‘I do it because other people do it’. Others just don’t seem to make any sense. Here is my selection of daftness.

1 A ‘one window’ policy

All links trigger a page in the same window, regardless of what they are. This is most obviously silly where the new page is a PDF, because you lose all navigation except the back button. But it is even sillier where the new site is on a different template – visitors can click away happily within it, and have no way of getting back to the original site. If you are the owner of the original site, you have lost yourself a visitor. Common sense would tell you to use the same window as the default (you don’t want a mass of new windows cluttering a screen), but to trigger a new window where it will make sense. Yes, I know that window behaviour varies by browser and that visitors can override it – but it so your job to think about the greatest usability for the greatest number. Cause: dogmatism.

2 Labels that reflect internal thinking

My favourite is Creating Shared Value, which is what Nestlé calls its sustainability section. I can imagine the folk in Vevey feel great loyalty to their carefully developed ‘brand’ – but have they wondered if the rest of us will have a clue what it means? Cause: inward thinking

3 Pointless animation

An old one this, and mercifully getting rarer, but we still have a few choice examples in the FT Bowen Craggs Index. China Shenhua Energy Company has a slow-loading Flash home page and internal navigation links that fly around for no good reason. Cause: letting the techies get their own way.

4 Flash without an alternative

This is both old and new. Old because it is bad for accessibility and for people with slow computers and connections. New because it is getting much worse thanks to Apple’s refusal to let Flash work on its iPhones and iPads. Try America Movil on your iPhone, and you get nothing. But many sites now have Flash elements – they should either have static alternatives or, for accessibility, explanations of what you are missing. Causes: thoughtlessness and Steve Jobs.

5 Latest press releases on the home page…

… particularly ones that reproduce the full headline. Journalists are most unlikely to browse the home page looking for stories and, even if they do, they will be put off by the clunky headlines with which releases tend to be burdened. Better to pick out a few choice stories, and give them headlines to drag people into the site – whether they are journalists or not. Cause: everyone else does it.

6 Sophisticated share charts

Financial professionals have their own powerful chart generators, and how many small shareholders need to know about ‘momentum’ and ‘stochastics’? Worse, they tend to be Java-driven and quite slow to load. Cause: agencies keen to show off.

7 Hiding the billboard

Look at Coca-Cola’s corporate home page. Now scroll down it – there is a big high-speed counter saying how many of’ ‘our beverages’ ‘people are enjoying today’. I’m sceptical that home pages should ever scroll. But if you are putting billboard-style material on them, at least them make it visible to those of us who do not have gigantic computer screens. Here, the home page is being used as a billboard. Would you put a billboard message round the back of it? Cause: the conviction that everyone has a huge screen or is prepared to go searching for your advertising.

8 Search engines that do not work

This is such a widespread problem I will not point a finger at anyone in particular. Issues include results summaries that are gobbledygook, old results coming above new ones, failure to cover the whole site and just plain bad results. This is silly because it pushes people to Google, and therefore possibly to your rivals. Cause: running away from fighting your IT people.

9 Frantic tweeting

Twitter has very specific advantages in online communications, Journalists tend to follow tweets, so Twitter is a terrific way of putting out information and the occasional comment. Brilliant if you have a disaster at 2am on a Sunday, too. But do journalists want to know about your son’s birthday party or what airport you are sitting in? I don’t think so. Cause: other people doing it.

10 What about the workers?

Few companies bother to use their websites to find non-managerial staff. It’s all about graduates and mid-career professionals. But Internet access is close to universal now – why not talk directly to potential shopfloor workers or clerical staff? Cause: being stuck in the past.
Please let me know if you disagree with me or have your own ideas:

First published 06 October, 2010
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