Category Archives: Site design

Will customers ever learn? (your site)

A few years ago, I ran a website that sold software.

Now and then we released patches to our software, as you do, and I remember having the oddest conversation with our server guy.

Now the thing about releasing software patches is that you want people to download them. They make your product work better, they even fix things in your product that don’t work without the patch.

With this patch we wanted to capture the customer’s product number so we’d know who had downloaded the patch and who hadn’t. Then we could email anyone who hadn’t downloaded the patch and pretty much throw it at them.

It was a major patch and, I think, a fairly vital repair to our product.

You’d think we would want to make downloading these patches as easy as possible.

Well I thought so.

Not so much my server guy. The conversation went something like this:

Me: Can we just capture their product number give them a link to download?

Server Guy: They’ll have to log into the portal.

Me: But we don’t need them to log into the portal, we just want to capture their product number.

SG: They’ll have to log into the portal.

Me: That would make it harder for them. Most of them have the software on a different computer than the one they use for emails and the web.

SG: They’ll have to log into the portal.

You get where this conversation was going, don’t you?

Eventually, I managed to convince Server Guy to just capture the product number but those are two gruelling hours of my life I’ll never get back.

So why was Server Guy being so stubborn?

Well I did get to the bottom of that. It was to do with keeping the code-base clean and not having to build new fields in the database. Also I think he was worried about security.

All worthy reasons, but it was the next one that floored me.

“They just need to learn how the system [web page] works.”

Seriously? Online customers, who can easily buy their software from another website, should learn the way our site works, to download a patch to our software, to fix an error we caused.


Now that got me thinking, because it’s neither the first nor the last time that I’ve been told that customers should just learn our websites.

In my mind, anyone who has worked in the digital world for more than 10 minutes should know that expecting your site visitor to “learn how the system works” is a recipe for site death. Customers who can’t figure out how to use your website will leave. They won’t stick around to work it out – not unless they have no choice in the matter.

Even then, they’ll find a way to sever the ties and not use your site again.

When a site visitor can’t figure out how to use your site, one of two things happens. Either they feel stupid or they think your site is stupid. If a website makes you feel stupid, you’re not likely to use it again. If you think a website is stupid, you’re even less likely to use it.

So there was me, wondering how on earth Server Guy could be thinking it was a good idea to make our site visitors jump through hoops just to keep his code-base clean.

“Don’t worry about it”, I told myself. “You’ve fixed it now, get on with some work.” So I sat down to draft my monthly report to the website’s governing board.

In MS Word.

Word 7 that is. You know, the version where they introduced the “ribbon” and took away all my short-cut keys.

Yes, that one. Where you have to relearn all the habits you’d built up over 15 years of using MS Word before they brought in the ribbon.

Ohhhhh I see. That’s how it works:

Dev: “I’ve got a great idea about how we can improve the interface.”

UX person: “But won’t changing the interface make everyone have to relearn the application?”

Dev: “That’s OK, they can just learn how the new system works.”

And, since it was MS Word, the word processing program most companies’ have as standard, I really did have no choice but to learn how it works.


Makes you think though.

We can get so caught up in our new design or functionality or nav structure that we forget about the people we want to use it.

Just because your ‘improvement’ makes sense to you, that doesn’t guarantee it won’t be another person’s Word 7.

PS apologies to Microsoft, I’m quite happy on Word now, it just took me a while to get used to it. I still miss my short-cut keys though 😦

Dog with leash in its mouth

Obedience training for your website

Why do we design websites to confuse our users?

Help me out here, because there’s something I just don’t understand.

When you look at a book, you see a front cover, usually with the title, the author’s name and some artwork capturing the ‘essence’ of the book. Open the book and you see a page with publication details, a cover page, often a table of contents and then the meat of the book itself – the story.

Every book follows the same pattern.

This is true for newspapers too – top stories on the front page, national news, international news, features, the sports section – you know what to expect and you have a fair idea of where to expect it.

Magazines, TV, radio, movies, the theatre – they all follow agreed patterns.

So why are websites all so different? Why do we feel like we have to make our site ‘unique’? Are we so scared that our content won’t capture our audience that we have to make the way we present it ‘interesting’?

Have you ever heard of anyone having to user test a book?

Have you even seen someone throw down a newspaper because it was ‘hard to navigate’?

I used to worry that my websites were a bit ‘boring’ because I tended to use the same basic layout:

  • logo at the top right – doubling as the ‘home’ link
  • global navigation across the top of the page
  • local navigation to the left
  • content in the middle etc.

I’ve lost count of how many times my designers tell me that we have to make the site more ‘dynamic’. And no they weren’t talking about automatically updated content.

Come on people, give our audience a break! Let them get used to consistent designs and layouts. Stop making them work so hard to understand the design and let them spend more time digesting your content.

Consistency may be dull and boring for the designers but it makes the lives of our end users (you know, the people who justify our existence) a lot easier.

I’m not saying every website should look the same, but couldn’t we at least agree on a few main principles?

If you’d like some help with your site design or your site content in general, have a chat with F-Two consulting. We can help you teach your website how to talk your customers’ language.

Banner-style home pages – beautiful design or annoying barriers 

Call me a luddite, but I have an issue with banner-style home pages.

You know the ones. The page is just a series of ad-style banners laid one on top of each other down the page. No? I’ll give you some examples:

Now I am not dissing these sites. They’re both really good sites, with lots of interesting information but … what is with the home pages?


If you read my rant about scrolling the other week, you might see where I’m going with this. Both these home pages rely on your curiosity and tenacity to find the bulk of their content.

Yes, I know, they’re designed for tablets, and we love to swipe on tablets (apprently) but to me they’re just annoying. They almost force me to skip the home page altogether and just hope the navigation has what I’m looking for. 

What they really are is a series of ads. Banners for the products or services the site owners want to spruik this week. Convenient if they happen to coincide with what you’re looking for, but annoying if they don’t.

“Unfair” you say? “They’re promoting their services”. Well you might be right. Let’s give it a try. Let’s see how easy it is to navigate these pages to find something that doesn’t stare you straight in the face (we’ll get to why I hate banners in a minute).

The acid test – can give me what I want?

Let’s start with Let’s say I want to plan a trip to NZ to go hiking (or tramping as they call it there). I want to find an accompanied trip, someone to carry my pack, with nice lodges to stay in each night. I think they call it ‘glamping’?

Here is the home page as you see it on an iPad Air 2 (yes I’m playing with my new toy).


OK, I can see a “selection of recommended experiences to complete your New Zealand holiday” at the bottom of the screen. Promising.

So I scroll


My options

  • Hobbiton set 
  • Geothermal wonders 
  • Waitomo glowworm caves
  • Queenstown – now coming from NZ I know there are spectacular tramps around Queenstown, but how would a tourist know that?
  • Train ride through Arthur’s pass
  • Whales, seals and dolphins in Kaikoura

All wonderful and rewarding things to do, but not what I’m looking for. Is there a link or button or any kind of hint that these options aren’t all there is? Nope.

More scrolling

Let’s scroll down. Scrolling, not out of enjoyment of the page, but because the page hasn’t given me what I want.


Flights to NZ. Useful, but I don’t have a reason to go there yet. (By the way, how cool do the new Air NZ planes look? The whole country is going All Black).

More scrolling


Here we are, right at the bottom, a hint that I might find something about tramping.

Right, once I click on “Things to do” I actually find a section called “Walking and Hiking”.  But how hard did I have to work for it?

Is any better?

I had a similar journey on, trying to apply for a bank account. I showed you the site because it’s prettier. (Biased? Maybe)

Why I don’t like banners

This is why I don’t like banner pages. They are hugely slanted towards pushing the agenda of the site owner, rather than providing the site visitor with access to the information they are looking for.

Of course there is another reason, experience. 

Back in the day, I managed a suite of sites for a well-known Australian software company. Website design was a little less mature back then and big banners with flash and animated gifs were all the rage. We had a really big banner, just under the top level navigation, and two smaller ones to the right of the screen. The smaller ones were often Flash.

I was curious about the likely success of these banners. They seemed a bit big on form and small on function. And I’d just been to a seminar on eye-tracking, at my first usability conference, which introduced me to the concept of ‘banner blindness’. 

Banner blindness is a term to describe how our eyes tend to recognise advertising and just slide past it. We quite literally look around things our brain tags as advertising, banners in particular, often before we conciously see the content:


There were some beautiful examples of how people not only don’t see the banner, but often miss items near the banner. In one instance the item missed was the site navigation.

With this in mind, I decided to run a little test with our banners. On our home page we had an area for text links – bulleted with cute little ‘action’ arrows.

For each banner on the page, I created a corresponding text link. Same offer, same call to action, same destination page. I tagged each of the links with an ID so I could see which link had been used to get from Home to the promoted page – banner or text.

Well the results surprised even me.

The average ratio of clicks on the text links to clicks on the banners was 500:1. In the case of one of the Flash banners, the ratio was closer to 1000:1.

Our home page got between 100,000 and 150,000 visits a month, so I felt I had a sufficient sample to come to a conclusion. Our customers didn’t see or didn’t like our banners.

Now to be fair, after I presented those statistics to our marketing department, the banners improved no end. They became more text based and less ‘pretty picture’. Flash was GONE.

Cicks on the banners improved, but they never matched the number of clicks on plain old text links.

Now yes, that site was pre-smart phone and pre-tablet, but I don’t think the human brain has changed that much. We read. When we’re looking for a product or service, we have a word or phrase in mind. I’m just not convinced that we suddenly want to look at things we identify as ads.

OK, so on a smart phone or tablet, a link ‘click area’ should be at least 1cm x 1cm. This is true, but do they have to take up the whole screen?

Wading through huge banners with small amounts of text is work. And who wants to have to work to find what they’re looking for.

Yes the and sites and others of their ilk (and there are heaps) look nice, but do they really give the site visitor what they’re looking for?

If you’d like some help with your site structure or your site content in general, have a chat with F-Two consulting. We can help you teach your website how to talk your customers’ language.