The right turn theory

In this month’s newsletter, we asked if you were creating a Do It Wrong Quickly Web site—but you probably already have a Web site. The question is, “Are you improving it wrong quickly?” Or are you constantly planning large, costly redesigns as the only way forward? If you’ve been in the Web business any amount of time, you’ve probably been part of a top-to-bottom Web site redesign.

But what if you think about Web improvement the same way you consider home improvement? How often is it the right thing to knock down the entire house and build a new one in its place? Only if you really hate your house, you have a lot of money, and you can stand a huge disruption in your life. Most improvements should be small, like adding a new piece of furniture or repainting a room, but sometimes it makes sense to rip out a bathroom and put in a new one. Once in a while it makes sense to do something major, such as expand the house so your mom can move in with you. But it’s rare that you should tear your house down and start over.
Your Web site is no different from your house. Most Web sites have relatively happy customers, but like most houses, can always be improved. Unfortunately, our approach is usually to tear the site down and build a new one where it stands—which we call a “site redesign” or a “major re-launch.” We don’t repaint a few rooms, or even put in a new bathroom. We hire a new set of designers and information architects and do something dramatic to justify the cost.
But is that what your customers want?
Some companies have learned the hard way that their customers prefer more subtle evolution in their user experience. For example, eBay changed its yellow background in favor of the more typical white—and received so many complaints they felt compelled to change it back.
Now, did those customers really have some intrinsic problem with white backgrounds? Doubtful. White is the most common background of Web pages today. What eBay heard from its customers is that they like the eBay site and they don’t want anyone mucking around with it.
So, eBay did something very clever—gradually removing the yellow one shade at a time until eventually they had that white background they wanted. This evolutionary approach went unnoticed by customers.
Could eBay apply what it learned to other kinds of changes? Yes. When eBay discovered improvements they could make to the forms on their site based on user testing, they had a dilemma. If customers complained about something as innocuous as a color change, what would they say about modifying the forms that were used millions of times each month?
The folks at eBay decided to leave it up to their customers. They introduced a new form link on their page that showed each customer the improved version and allowed customers to adopt the new form for themselves. When eBay saw how many people chose the new ones, they developed the confidence to replace the old forms site-wide.
Why does this work? Think of it as the “right turn theory.” In countries where drivers keep to the right side of the road, studies show that far more accidents occur when drivers make left turns in front of oncoming traffic than when they make right turns. Big changes in your Web site are left turns. Yes, you get where you are going faster, but left turns are riskier. Instead, make three right turns. You get to the same place, but you’ve taken in a bit more scenery along the way and it’s much safer. So remember, two wrongs may not make a right, but three rights make a left.
Use a gradual approach when making changes. You can offer new experiences as “beta”—giving your customers the choice of what they want. Usability expert Jared Spool says, “The best teams not only design the changes, but design the process for introducing the change…to overcome the users’ natural resistance to change.”
Google is one of the biggest practitioners of “beta” experiences—it introduced its Gmail and many other ideas just that way. Google goes even further, by testing tiny changes with small groups. If you notice that your Google search screen looks different from the person next to you, it’s because Google is testing a new feature on a random subset of searchers.
You, too, can tweak your experience a little at a time, rather than gutting it and replacing it every few years. What happens when you don’t keep tweaking? One marketing director laments:

“So we’re in the situation now where we built our Web site in 2001 and 2002 and it was a great Web site at that point and it provided a really nice jumping off point for individual brands to layer on campaigns and support for their specific business objectives. Well, nobody invested in keeping that foundation solid and current—and online the landscape changes so quickly. We are now in 2007 and we need to spend a ton of money simply to rebuild the foundation. That’s a big lesson we are trying to impart to people. We are not going to do a Web design project and walk away from it. We need to turn this project into a program.”

Learn from this. Every time you make a change to your Web site, you need to measure its results and make it better. When most people think the project’s over, you need to know it’s just starting.

Mike Moran

Mike Moran is a Converseon, an AI powered consumer intelligence technology and consulting firm. He is also a senior strategist for SoloSegment, a marketing automation software solutions and services firm. Mike also served as a member of the Board of Directors of SEMPO. Mike spent 30 years at IBM, rising to Distinguished Engineer, an executive-level technical position. Mike held various roles in his IBM career, including eight years at IBM’s customer-facing website,, most recently as the Manager of Web Experience, where he led 65 information architects, web designers, webmasters, programmers, and technical architects around the world. Mike's newest book is Outside-In Marketing with world-renowned author James Mathewson. He is co-author of the best-selling Search Engine Marketing, Inc. (with fellow search marketing expert Bill Hunt), now in its Third Edition. Mike is also the author of the acclaimed internet marketing book, Do It Wrong Quickly: How the Web Changes the Old Marketing Rules, named one of best business books of 2007 by the Miami Herald. Mike founded and writes for Biznology® and writes regularly for other blogs. In addition to Mike’s broad technical background, he holds an Advanced Certificate in Market Management Practice from the Royal UK Charter Institute of Marketing and is a Visiting Lecturer at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. He also teaches at Rutgers Business School. He was a Senior Fellow at the Society for New Communications Research and is now a Senior Fellow of The Conference Board. A Certified Speaking Professional, Mike regularly makes speaking appearances. Mike’s previous appearances include keynote speaking appearances worldwide

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