It’s About the Customer

Recently, I tried a new application called MediaBridge from Digimarc. The basic concept is that if you have a quickcam or scanner attached to your PC, you can access extra content through a URL embedded within a newspaper or magazine page. Interesting concept as one could see this being used in Internet directories or for more information on a particular article. However, the focus here has been on advertising and advertising alone.

Wired is the first publication to test it out and there are ample benefits to the advertisers. First of all, they can track what publication has prompted someone to go to their site and second they can target readers of those pubs with different messages. Interesting concept but what’s the advantage to the customer?

Unfortunately, Digimarc’s approach is not that uncommon in our industry. Designers build sites that are beautiful eye candy requiring tons of plug-ins and then wonder why more people are not using them. The answer is quite simple: customers do not like to download plug-ins and a recent study showed that customers do not even care that much for graphics on a page.

In a reversal of what is happening in the print world, Internet consumers want text. So why do more and more sites insist on having such things as slow flash movies at their entrance? Quite simply because they do not pay attention to what their customer want. In a recent editorial on his Flash weblog Flazoom, Chris McGregor is calling on all Flash developers to focus on the customers.

At the same time, Jakob Nielsen, “the guru of web page usability”, is talking about using Customers as Designers. The message here is simple: Focus on your customers and they will focus on you.

This may sound like a rant on my part but it’s something that’s been brewing over time. Too many companies have taken their customers for granted (the “if you build it, they will come” phenomenon) and have then wondered why their projected growth was not happening. In a word: Not enough work on usability and too much focus on design.

The genesis

But in a way, this is not an unusual phenomenon. Back in the mid eighties, when desktop publishing tools became available, people at the forefront of that revolution felt the need to use most of the tools. As a result, many publications would come out with different fonts for headlines, story, sub-heads, etc… often making the newsletter or magazine almost unreadable. To a large extent, the apotheosis of this phenomenon was the rise of Wired as a publication, and their almost unreadable Mind Grenades. Yes, they were pretty to look at but they were low on content and high on graphical treatments.

Over the years, Wired has become more conservative in its layout but the damage didn’t stop in print. Taking what they had learned about badly communicating in print, Wired pushed the envelope further on the web by using a number of icons and less than obvious names for their sections. It was fine in the name of experimentation and the folks at hotwired eventually pulled back from their to create more understandable sections but many took it as the reason for creating over-bloated pages with bad navigation.

However, I have to admit that most of us back in those days were checking out Hotwired to see how far the medium could be pushed. It was exciting and since few of us had had many years of experience, we spent countless hours dissecting what was working and what wasn’t.

One step forward and one step back

Hotwired went back to a more traditional look (at least by their standards) in 1995-1996 and started organizing its content around sections that made a little more sense. In the meantime, plug-ins came out, Java came out and we all felt a need to implement the latest technologies on our sites. What we didn’t realize at the time was that while we were putting Java Tickers and 2.0 features on the sites, we were closing the door for a few more people who did not have the technology to look at our sites. With each iteration of a new browser, there was a mad race as to who would implement the latest and greatest extensions and we ended up with sites that were, for the most part, unusable by a lot of people.

This is when the split started between two schools of web page creation: the interface designers, who were arguing that the web was more like a software application and that the role of a web page was similar to that of software and should have a clean design that was transparent to the user (I remember arguing that we should never be happy when a user talked about our design because it meant he or she had noticed it) and the graphic designer group, who believed that the beauty of design was more important than its functionality.

On the interface side, people started looking at whether a site scaled back gracefully, all the way to the lynx text browser. As a result, somewhat more boring-looking pages were born but users were coming in, getting the information they wanted, and getting out.

On the designer side, people continued to look at ways to enhance the experience, adding all kinds of sounds and plug-ins to create more interactive sites. Those sites looked great but needed users to keep up with the latest technologies in order to use those features.

A middle group started looking at templatization and automatic browser identification (the smart way to do things but I didn’t realize it back then) and serving different pages based on what platform the consumer was using. Ultimately, that last group was right in that it can now go on and implement new presentation schemes offering the same content in different format.

Why this diatribe?

Ultimately, this issue is one of customer focus. Back in those days, we didn’t have many customers to cater to (the web was not as mainstream as it is now) so we were afforded the chance to make mistakes. However, now, there is little room for those mistakes and there is an established body or work (and a few corpses) to look at when making decision. Ultimately, however, it’s about the customers.

Another example

I used to love Kozmo for their quick delivery and their clean interface. Then they decided to redesign the site to create more space for them to sell other product. From the inside, I’m sure it made sense: try to sell more products to each customer coming in the door. The problem, though, is that this redesign slowed down their system to a crawl. When I was happy with Kozmo, I didn’t care much about UrbanFetch, Kozmo’s biggest competitor in New York. However, the long time it took to load a single page on Kozmo’s site convinced me to take a look at UrbanFetch. I did, their site reacted faster and I started ordering more from UrbanFetch than I do from Kozmo. Why is this relevant? Quite simply because I am now putting my dollars somewhere else because a redesign pushed Kozmo one step back. As a result, their attempt to sell me more resulted in my buying less from them. Not a good trend and I hope for them that I am more of the exception rather than the rule. But somehow, I doubt it.

Back to the end-user

I’d like to propose a somewhat radical idea: take everything your company is doing and explain, for each of those components, the benefits to your customers. For example, why is a cookie for your ad important? Answer: it allows us to better target customers, hence providing them with ads that may appeal to them and be related to what they are interested in. It’s a bit of a stretch but the customer derives value from being presented with something that is more along the lines of their interest.

So what about Digimarc?

In the case of Digimarc, who’s the end user? It’s the reader of a magazine. Why should that reader use such a technology? Because it enhances the magazine. Just keeping the technology as a way to bridge paper ads to web promotions doesn’t really enhance the customer experience but how about using it as a web to link to more info. For example, if you were a subscriber, you would get a version that allows you to delve deeper in a story. I would scan the page, it would send me to the publication’s web site, where I would find such things as links to the companies mentioned, links to other articles about the subject in this magazine’s archives, etc (furthermore, the publication can sell advertising on these online pages to advertisers that are already using the technology in the print edition)… This would add real value to the experience, truly creating a bridge between the print content and the online one. The concept is good but the implementation right now needs that kind of tweak. If you’re an advertiser using that technology, try to push the magazines to follow that concept through, hence unlocking extra value for you.


Of course, focusing on the customer is no guarantee of complete success but it goes a long way in taking you there. Technology is always intrusive, the question is how do we make it less so and therefore increase usage of that technology. Of course, there will always been a few people out there trying out everything new (I am one of those people) but those of us who do are already favorably predisposed toward technology. In other words, we are not the right kind of focus group. If you are a technologist or a techophiliac, you are not the right person to judge whether this will work with the mass public. Ask someone around you who doesn’t use technology as much as you do (parents, friends, people at the corner store) about how they feel about a particular concept and start aligning your thoughts with theirs. Look at what you’re doing critically (does this make sense to someone with average or low computer skills?) and focus on your customer. It’s a tough practice and it’s often a frustrating one, as you will find that what may have seemed obvious to you isn’t to other people. But the end result will be that your customers will love you for it and will keep coming back.

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