Living systems get constant feedback from their external environment. To truly succeed, web teams need constant feedback from their customers.
You're a manager in a restaurant. It's raining. A customer walks in and almost slips on the mat in front of the door. You're very busy at this stage, but you make a mental note: "I must change that mat." About 15 minutes later another customer comes in. She, too, almost slips on the mat. You rush up to her, apologize profusely and then change the mat.
People are slipping on our websites right now but, because we don't see them slip, we don't change the mat. I'm one of the biggest offenders. Over the years I have left content and applications on my websites that had problems that I was vaguely aware of, but they just didn't seem important enough to warrant any action. Even when I became clearly aware of the issue I didn't react with enough urgency.
Why was that? Why was I so complacent? I would like to think that if I was running a restaurant I would have apologized to the customer and changed the mat. Why don't I do that when it comes down to managing a website? I think a core part of the problem is the lack of real feedback.
I'm not actually seeing the customer slip. I don't actually see real people use my websites.
Customers are hugely impatient on the Web. When they slip, their first impulse is to hit the Back button. Jared Spool wrote an excellent article in 2009 called the "The $300 Million Button." In it he explained how the removal of a registration button from a particular step in a purchase process resulted in a dramatic improvement in sales.
The Web team had created the registration button so as to make it easier and faster for regular customers to buy. But people absolutely hate registration. New customers felt they would be spammed if they registered. One potential customer summed up their feelings as follows: "I'm not here to enter into a relationship. I just want to buy something."
The regular customers didn't feel much happier. "45% of all customers had multiple registrations in the system, some as many as 10," Jared wrote. "We also analyzed how many people requested passwords, to find out it reached about 160,000 per day."
The Web is so important today. And yet many of the web teams I deal with are way down the management hierarchy. Intranet teams, in particular, tend to get negligible resources. That needs to change because the reality is that the Web is central to the present and future success of most organizations.
One of the ways we make that change happen is that we start developing much better feedback mechanisms for our websites. At a most basic level, we must find ways to regularly (weekly at minimum) observe our customers carry out top tasks on our websites. That's how Jared Spool discovered there was a problem: by watching customers trying to buy.
According to Wikipedia, "Living things are systems that tend to respond to changes in their environment." Let us embrace our customer environment. Let us observe and evolve. The rewards are very substantial.