Practical and functional websites rarely win prizes for design but they do win sales and make profits. Recently, I did a masterclass on web sales with about 50 Danish web managers. I gave them a list of issues and asked them to choose the most important ones for them. The top 5 issues for these managers were: Increase sales, Customer-focused, Usability, Completing the sale, Serving customers better.
Then I asked them to look at the list again, and this time choose the issues that were of least importance to them. These were: Credit card fraud, More use of Flash, Award-winning website, Wow factor, More animation.
The Danes (and other Scandinavians) are probably the most sophisticated web practitioners I have had the pleasure to deal with. When I deal with countries that are at the bottom of the curve when it comes to web adoption and ecommerce expertise, award-winning websites driven by Flash and wow factors tend to be top of the agenda.
"I no longer enter my agency's layouts in the contests by the art director's societies, for fear that one of them might be disgraced by an award," David Ogilvy wrote in his 1963 seminal book, Confessions of an Advertising Man. This legend of advertising stated that "I wage war on art-directoritis, the disease which reduces advertising campaigns to impotence."
Inspired by David Ogilvy's wisdom, I decided to visit Ogilvy.com. There I was presented by another quote from the great man: "You aren't advertising to a standing army, you are advertising to a moving parade." And right underneath that quote, Ogilvy.com is boasting about how it has just won 13 awards.
In fact, rarely have I come across a more vain, conceited homepage. In about 110 words, the name Ogilvy (or Ogilvy & Mather) is used over 20 times. Other phrases include "our work" and "what we do".
Nathan Shedroff recently gave a talk at User Interface 11, where he asked the audience to name areas of life where good design has made a real impact. (Nathan is the co-author of a book on experience design called Making Meaning.) Design innovations such as wireless, voting systems, nutrition fact sheets, starting a car, were mentioned.
Nathan mused that they could spend an hour mentioning really important design innovations and have a very long list. In his opinion, nothing on this list would have won a design award. Nathan showed an image of the iPod, that he described as a white block with rounded corners. Absolutely functional design. Just like the Google homepage.
The Danes understand that a website needs to be designed for the customer, not for the organization, and certainly not for the web team. The most dangerous thing that web professionals can do is assume that what they really care about is what their customers really care about.
The Web is a functional, practical place. A great website drives the customer to act. It uses clear, substantial language, rather than clever, meaningless words. To quote David Ogilvy again: "When Aeschines spoke, they said, 'How well he speaks.' But when Demosthenes spoke, they said, 'Let us march against Philip.' I'm with Demosthenes."
The shiny surface wins awards. Real substance wins customers.
Gerry McGovern, a content management author and consultant
, has spoken, written and consulted extensively on writing for the web and web content management issues since 1994.