Your Enterprise Technology Website Is Hurting My Face
As consumers, we live in a utopian fantasia of UX.
As consumers, we live in a utopian fantasia of UX. Science and the hive mind conspire to give us meditative white spaces, gestural addictions, sweeping panoramas of news, social updates, high resolution photos. Dozens or maybe hundreds of almost imperceptible changes ripple across the surface of our favorite platforms each day, calibrating, testing, shaping. We scroll, click, roll our thumbs or simply hover a cursor and the interface gives forth media and colors and sound. Legions of monitoring tools poll and publish, armies of analysts and programmers turn data into an immersive journey that feels at once new and inevitable. Joy, connection, belonging, nostalgia: All these and more are yours.
This is not your enterprise software website. Your website is an abomination compared to the website of the previous paragraph. Your website is nauseated from its own navigation. Your website is a shell of sliders, each heralding a new and more irrelevant message. Your website has thirty calls to action on a single page. Your website has tickers and social icons and an ungodly miasma of homegrown icons, stock photos and shoddy graphics. Your website has tacked on sub-sections from which there is no certain return, and diminishing desire to. Your website is a labyrinth in which menu items mysteriously change, documentation is impossible to find, and dozens of pages sprawl out with no discernible organizational principle whatsoever. Your website is saccharine with buzzwords that actively negate meaning rather than supplying it. Your website is actually hurting my face.
It’s okay. You aren’t a consumer website. You are selling infrastructure, goddamnit! (Or APIs or developer tools or servers or software). You have a small team of designers, no budget, and no clue. You are trying to sell enterprise software, which means you live in the constant tension between the need to provide useful technical information and the dream of someday making a business-level connection, turning from bits into the sacred animal of strategy.
But you must not resign yourself to your own painful mediocrity, however earnestly and honestly you have come by it! We may not be beautiful, but we will not be ugly. Enterprise technology sites are plagued by complexity. Follow these six simple rules for a brighter future for all.
- ON THE HOMEPAGE, YOUR WEBSITE MUST SAY WHAT YOU DO. It both boggles and inflicts some degree of pain on the mind how far you must go in some sites to figure out what exactly a company does and what it produces. Your homepage — yes, the very first page — must say what you do and/or make in SIMPLE, DIRECT language that is intelligible to your audience. Not sure which audience to target? The people who use and implement your products are the most important, regardless of how badly you want to start making C-suite sales. If engineers and developers use your products, your homepage needs to tell them what you do. Simple test: Using only the homepage, what can someone in your target group tell you about your company? Have them look at the page for 15 seconds, then wait 2 minutes before they tell you. If they use the words “big data” in their recollection, it is all over for you, my friend.
- Forbid yourself visual gimmicks. Repeat after me: I may not use sliders, tickers, moving objects, or animations. Under any circumstances. Ever. You are almost certainly not competent to use these tools, and they only function to let you stuff more content onto the page, excuse your aimless pontifications on big data, and absolve you of responsibility for prioritizing content.
- Mercilessly eliminate buzzwords. Grab a treat, such as popcorn or hard candy. For these moments, I tend to go for chocolate. But hey. Huddle around a big monitor and systematically go through each and every page of your site, striking down with glee each instance of meaningless linguistic butchery. How to know it’s a buzzword? Do people you know that have absolutely no idea what is going on use this word all the time? It gets the ax.
- Resolve internal battles about what’s important. I can actually discern the organizational structure of your company by the layout of your website. Your website is like the Rorschach test of enterprise tech startups and the doctor has some bad news. Almost always, a root cause of complexity on a website is internal turf wars. The website won’t tell internal departments “no” to their unceasing, mewling desire to have themselves, their people, their content, their filthy UX-destroying hands on the site. Naturally, every group thinks that their thing needs to be prominently featured on the website. This leads to site sprawl, crowded navigation, lack of focus in the design team, content rot, and desperate usage of visual hacks to indulge everyone. It leads to sliders, and now the game is truly lost. There are different strategies to resolve these conflicts, depending on your situation. In general, having a strong statement about the primary purpose of the website, its business goals, and analytics which support those is essential. The website team must have the authority to say no to incoming website requests. Development priorities should be clearly posted and available to all. Management must be supportive of a simple site and explicitly acknowledge that tradeoffs come with that choice. You can’t have it all.
- Cut content. Unless it is performing a critical business or informational function, it must go. Do content reviews where you look at the parts of your site with the least traffic — do they really have to be there, or are they just zombie content that someone felt we needed but actually don’t. Define up front what the qualities of important content are: it helps users understand the software or product, it explains how and why the product should be used, it assists with a critical business function such as recruiting. Unimportant content that is often on technology startup websites includes pages that: wax poetic about the management and the startup’s history (no one cares), are dedicated solely to buzzword-filled press releases and news items, provide a resting place for aging outdated media, split a few simple use cases into a massive tree of vertical solutions, are organized based on “type” of content (i.e., “whitepapers”, “videos”, “data sheets”). Define the difference between COMMON use cases and EDGE CASES — you don’t have the time to worry about one person looking for a video from three years ago at some conference everyone’s forgotten. You don’t have to meet everyone’s needs, just the ones that count.
- Start with nav. Humans can only hold 5 to 7 items in short term memory. Your website has that many LAYERS of navigation. Yes, you have shoved every possible navigation item onto your site, with different colors, fonts, weights. Good job, your website is now a hazard to anyone with even mild anxiety. Write the names of all possible navigation items on cards. Throw them into a room with your team and don’t leave until you’ve picked 5 to 7 or until someone gets hurts, whichever comes first.
Fear, truly the root of all evils, lies deep at the heart of your website.
Your website is afraid — afraid to leave something off, afraid to be too technical, afraid to tell someone their content isn’t that important, afraid to abandon gimmicks in favor of cleanliness, afraid to speak honestly, afraid to admit your technology isn’t big data pixie dust.
But you must not fear.
Fear is the website killer.
Here is a picture of you facing your fear and reducing the harm caused to the populace by your website.