When the line between good manners, the truth and effective management become a bit blurred….

Pinocchio learned the hard way about telling the truth
Why are there some instances when we find it so hard not to lie?

I’m sitting in the doctors surgery waiting for my regular MOT & wondering idly if I’m going to catch a cold from all these folk coughing & sneezing. Many folk know each other, either neighbours or regulars to the surgery as is often the case amongst a certain age group. As each arrival sits down they ask ‘how are you doing today?’ politely & their acquaintance replies ‘oh not so bad thanks…’ & proceeds to discuss their recent ailments & mishaps on holidays. I can’t help but wonder what it is that makes us still ask how someone is doing if they are sat in a doctors surgery, & what makes the replies so positive when they clearly aren’t.

At one point a gentleman about to leave the surgery bumps into an acquaintance coming through the door. ‘How are you?’ the person entering asks with a smile.. ‘I’m at the doctors so how do you think?!’ is the curt retort. I wanted to cheer, but it seemed rude!

We do this all the time at home, work & play. There’s a certain etiquette & set of manners which seems to make masking the truth a more polite & acceptable way of behaving. I am a strong believer in good manners & I certainly have no objections to the door being held open for me by anyone, man or a woman, but there are times in the work place where honesty really would be a better policy.

Here are a few of my honesty bug bears which can hamper projects:

  • Being scared to give negative feedback – too often the success of a product is hampered because honest feedback wasn’t given early enough. This can be due to a number of reasons including someone’s position within an organisation (we have a kind of inbuilt warning system that prevents us criticising the boss!), not wanting to offend the creator, not feeling confident enough to speak out, but in almost all cases there is a way to provide feedback that is constructive and still polite even though it may appear negative. An example of this could be if you spot an issue with the layout of a webpage which could affect the usability of the site then it is important to raise this early as reworking it later can cost time and money, and it’s totally possible that nobody else has spotted it. If you raise it and it’s been considered and the end result is still the same then at least you understand the thought process behind it.
  • Identifying real reasons for wanting something (aka ‘the hidden agenda’) – this is all too often the case if organisational politics get in the way of working well as a team, and sadly it’s often the case if there are organisational restructures under way. This is often not really lying it’s just not telling the whole truth, and often it is totally understandable in the delicate employment climate we are living in. However, unfortunately, as a project manager it can be very difficult to ensure a quality end delivery if you don’t understand the whole picture. Often by bringing out into the open the real reasons for wanting something an approach can be found which will take this into account and is less likely to affect the end quality.
  • Talking about money (what’s my budget/what will it cost) – this is a particularly British curse. When I was travelling around Asia I discovered the  joys of bargaining and it was an accepted culture that both parties haggle and meet in the middle and everyone is happy with the outcome. However we are not good at haggling in the British culture, possibly because of a competitive spirit, and I suspect possibly because money is so often a taboo subject, but in all honesty I don’t know why. Never the less this often results in long drawn out conversations about what the cost will be for certain work where both parties are trying to ‘win’ – either by paying less than they wanted or charging more than they expected. Recently I had a very refreshing experience where I was liaising with someone who was really pushed for time to agree a cost. So in order to speed things up I was told a fixed budget and asked to come back with an approach which meant I could fit within it. I was then able to come up with the most efficient way to get them the most amount of work in that budget. It may have felt slightly awkward and not in normal every day etiquette to begin with but with both of us being up front and honest we were able to get the best out of the arrangement for both parties.

There are plenty more instances where it’s deemed acceptable not to tell the whole truth in a work situation and I suspect that a bit more honesty would actually be helpful. Have you any good examples or ‘bug bears’ where a bit more honesty rather than perceived good etiquette would have helped you to deliver something a wee bit easier? I’d love to hear about them.

When is a website broken and when is it the message that’s broken?

The other day I wrote a blog noting that one of the most common questions I’m asked is how much does it cost to build a website in which I tried to explain why this is also such a difficult question to answer, and why it may not be the question which organisations should be asking.

A marketing purchase decision funnel
Potential customers go through many stages before making a decision to use a service or buy a product, and being able to measure your effectiveness at each stage in reaching out to these customers will help you to serve them better.

Another concern which seems to come up quite alot is “I have a website but it is not doing me any good.” When I dig a bit further into what is meant by this it often turns out that though they have set up a website they are not seeing any increase in customers as a result.

Fixing this problem is as important as fixing a website that doesn’t load, or one that has issues with it’s appearance when it does load. If a website isn’t loading then the fact it’s broken is quite obvious, however when everything appears to be working fine technically but the site isn’t achieving what it was built to do then something else must be broken.

Here are some questions you can ask to see if you know whether your website is working for you:

  • Do you have analytics on your website to tell how many potential customers are visiting your site and do you know how to interpret the numbers you are getting?
  • Does your website have goals or objectives as to what you are trying to achieve with it? (ie is it trying to sell something, is it generating leads/contacts or are you providing an information service) and can you measure the success of these specific goals?
  • Do you understand the steps your customers go through before making a decision to use your service, and are you able to measure your impact at each of these stages?

Potential customers go through many stages before making a decision to use a service or buy a product, and by being able to measure your effectiveness at each stage in reaching out to these customers it will help you to serve them better.

There are many challenges with marketing online in ensuring you are effective at each of these stages but two of the most common issues are: high volumes of traffic but no increase in customers purchasing or contacting you, suggesting the visitors are not getting something they need; or low volumes of traffic, suggesting some extra digital marketing is required possibly from some Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) improvements. Both of these can be resolved by analysing the traffic to your website to highlight where the potential issues are and often they can be improved by making some fairly simple changes. However the most important thing is to understand what your objectives of your website are so that you can make sure these are being met.

By understanding what stages your customers go through, and by understanding your goals for interacting with your customers at each of these stages, you can then put in place ways to meet both you and your customers needs. Then by measuring your success at each stage you can start to make improvements based on your findings: a recipe for continued success!

Whether you’re an expert at looking at web statistics or not, sometimes if you are running a business it  can be difficult to take a step back and look at your customers’ journey in finding you. Often it can be helpful to have some support giving a fresh perspective, particularly in identifying ways to fix any issues with a site not being as effective as it can.

Whatever your reason, if you’d like support to analyse whether your website is working for you, or to help you to meet your website’s goals better, then get in touch – I’d love to help you be as successful as you can.

Is the increase in ‘DIY’ templated sites a downward spiral for user experience?

I had a call from a client last night who had encountered an issue with their website. Like many small business, or clubs & organisations, they set up and look after their own WordPress site; the sites don’t need a lot of technical knowledge to run and come with good user instructions for setting them up. In many cases this approach can be a great way for start ups to get themselves online simply and effectively, the CMS style interface is normally fit for purpose and to begin with they do not need anything more sophisticated, but periodically they encounter an issue which requires a little bit more technical support and this is often when I get a call.

For small businesses who don’t have in house IT or digital support, using a dedicated agency or support company to run their website can be expensive and isn’t always practical or cost effective. A fully supported digital solution may be something that they may aspire to in the future but often I speak to people who are just looking for help setting something up that they can run themselves. Supporting businesses who are looking for advice on how to set up their website, and providing support packages for small websites who are looking for sporadic pieces of technical advice to resolve issues such as those my client experienced yesterday is something I get a lot of satisfaction in providing. In these instances I know that I am making life easier for those that I’m working with, saving time and money for them, and often I can add value to the user experience of their digital presence at the same time or can work with the organisation towards their more long term strategic goals for digital users.

However a recent flux of adverts on the TV for the ‘build your own website’ solutions that come with hosting providers, has left me wondering whether or not a surge in small business websites being set up by non digital experts may have a detrimental effect on the over all user experiences online. I have been lucky enough to work with many digital experts in my career to date, some are experts at writing for the web, some at user experience and/or design, some at coding, some at digital marketing, but rarely do you find someone who is an expert at them all. I have always maintained that my skill is in a general understanding of these fields but also, most importantly, the ability and knowledge of the need to bring together the experts as required and help to co-ordinate their work. So, if lots of websites are being created using generic tools by people who are not considering the overall digital experience of their user, then will the experience be degraded in the future? Or is it possible that this area will become self policing and there will be a greater understanding everywhere of the importance of communicating effectively online?

As someone who still periodically encounters garish sites set up in old style HTML with unfriendly colours, bad spelling & grammar, and poor image choices, I can only support tools that help novice website builders create sites that are easier to use and more pleasing to the eye. This has to be good for small business and organisations who cannot always afford to pay for a site to be developed from scratch. However in my experience getting guidance from an expert with areas such as labelling, site structure and cross linking will more than pay for itself in terms of customer retention and value in the long term.

What do you think: are you encountering poor web design on a more frequent basis or do you think the increase in the number of templated sites is improving the overall user experience online?


Are your users always right?

I have a fairly fundamental belief that your users and your customers needs should be at the heart of any website. If the people that the website has been built for don’t like the website and don’t find it easy to use then they won’t come back and use it again. Websites should support their customers in achieving their goals. This is a principle which was at the heart of the project I ran for Age UK but which has been key in the websites I have worked on across my career.

I am a huge advocate of User Testing and have really enjoyed working with some great usability companies who have time and again upheld my belief in the importance of this step in web design projects. You would think then that I would also believe that when it comes to feedback on design changes that users are always right, but this is not necessarily the case. The challenge is that people don’t like change, even if the change is for the better. This may sound a little contradictory to my statements above but I have time and again seen it when you carry out user testing with regular users of a site versus new users of a site:

  • When new users to a site are shown an old version of the site and a new version which has been designed with the user journey in mind, if the site has been designed well then the new site will usually be preferred. They have no preconceptions or user journey to unlearn.
  • When existing users to a site are shown an old version of the site and a new version of the site their previous experience will impact their decision. They may be expecting content to be in a certain place having ‘learnt’ that it is there, and they have to ‘relearn’ the new version. This can initially make a site seem less friendly.

Users don’t always know what it is that they don’t like about the new site and are not always as clear about why they are finding it difficult. This in itself suggests that the problem is not with the new site but in that they were used to something else. The phrase that sticks out in their feedback is often “it’s different” or “why has it changed?”.

We hate the Timeline Facebook Share image
We hate the Timeline – an image currently being shared on Facebook in objection to the recent changes to the user interface

For long established sites this creates a real challenge in progressing change without frustrating the existing users, and I believe the key here is communication. The most visible case of this at the moment is on Facebook where there seems to be a large number of users sharing the “We hate the Timeline” image from Occupy Wall St’s profile. I have asked friends who have shared this image why they don’t like the Timeline and they find it very difficult to tell you why. I am actually fairly neutral in this debate, and can see real value for organisations in the Timeline interface, however I shouldn’t be surprised to see it’s created such a huge backlash in the general user base. It is a big change and I believe it wasn’t well communicated what was happening, when it was happening or why. This has left the majority of the Facebook users confused & upset.

So are these users right or are they wrong? Well without wanting to sound like I’m sitting on the fence I don’t think they are right or wrong, I believe the key is in understanding: understanding the challenges in learning a new site for both new and existing users, and helping all users to understand any changes being made.

As digital experts managing web projects, and as designers, we need to work with experts and work with users to try and balance this difference of opinion, introduce change in a controlled way, and ensure that resistance to change doesn’t stifle innovation and long term improvements.

What do you think? Have you encountered resistance to change within your organisation or your user base and how have you overcome it? 

Is the Olympics effect on Social Media usage a spike or the start of a trend?

It’s difficult not to know the Olympics is being hosted by London this year. It’s on the TV, it’s on the radio, it’s in the news, and it’s the talk of offices and coffee shops all over the country… and most interestingly it is also the first Olympics year in which Social Media has been playing a huge part in those conversations.

There were fears before the Olympics that the infrastructure may not be able to cope with the influx of twitter use, photo texts, mobile TV, & Facebook status updates etc which were expected during the opening ceremony and the events in general. Most of these concerns seem unfounded but the fact that Twitter has repeatedly hit the news since the start of the Olympics, including for impacting the ability of broadcasters to get accurate information on the cycling road race and for the abusive messages sent to Tom Daley, does demonstrate that the use of this particular type of Social Media is now an integral part of the Olympics 2012.

I have friends who are lucky enough to have obtained tickets for Olympic events who are posting photos and results to Facebook, I am following numerous Twitter feeds of athletes, reporters and broadcasting organisations & am enjoying participating in sharing results and supporting and discussing the various events. For someone such as myself who has not managed to get tickets, and who really wanted them, it has helped to make me feel involved and helped to bring to the event to life. Interestingly I am also seeing increasing involvement from less sporty friends and colleagues who would not normally be interested in the Olympics but who are finding themselves drawn in to the excitement and able to follow the sports better due to the increased information available at our fingertips.

I am sure there will be numerous stats available around usage of various media during the Olympics, and I very much hope that the many companies using social media as a marketing tool linked to the Olympics are measuring it’s success. It will be really interesting to look into these and see how the usage is split across the various media, and whether conversations and engagement were up as well as broadcasting of messages. However I think even at this early stage we can say it’s been a big impact.

For me though, the big question we can’t answer yet is: Is any increase in the use of Social Media resulting from the Olympics likely to be the start of a more general increase in usage – or is this just a large spike and the normal trends will resume in a few weeks time. What do you think?