A self-service website can only be effective when people can complete the tasks they came to complete. The toll booths on a motorway I regularly use were removed recently. In their place is an automatic system called Eflow that captures your car registration. You then have a number of options for payment. I happen to have a device that allows me to use all the toll-motorways in my country without having to pay cash. I do have to slow down as I approach the booths so that the sensor can scan the barcode but that's all. With this new system you don't have to slow down nearly as much. Also, the traffic congestion that was caused by the booths has been eliminated. The only problem is that the system doesn't work very well. So far I have received four letters from Eflow. Letter number one told me I owed Eflow some money. I rang up Eflow and explained that I was a subscriber to another system that they were supposed to be collaborating with. They said they were very sorry. They took my details and said everything would be okay. Then letter two arrived. This was a sterner letter, warning me that I didn't have much time left to pay. I rang up again and got another round of apologies. Then letter three arrived. This time I had been levied with a significant fine. I rang up again and got another round of apologies. Then letter four arrived threatening that I would now be taken to court. I rang up again and got another round of apologies. What does this have to do with websites? Quite a lot. When self-service doesn't work there are consequences. If someone can't complete the task they came to your website to complete there are costs and consequences. If you manage a commercial website you risk losing your customer to a competitor. If the customer still wishes to buy from you then they will have to pick up the phone or walk into your shop/office. Badly designed and managed self-service is more expensive than manual service. Look at what this single failed transaction has cost Eflow. Look at what it has cost me. If your search engine is awful and people waste lots of time using it and never find what they're looking for, then why have a search engine? It would be a much better management decision to have no search engine than a bad one. If your web content is badly written and very few people can make sense of it, then it would have been a much better management decision not to have published that web content at all. Unfortunately, many websites are management-free zones. The purpose of a website is to help people complete tasks by themselves. If the website fails then the costs can be substantial. The whole logic of self-service websites is that their task-completion costs are lower than phone or face-to-face interactions. But the costs are only lower if the tasks are actually completed.

About the Author

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.