Stan Fairbank

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Archive for the ‘User Experience’ Category:

Project Launch: Ethan Chorin

This week TFA launched a revised website for a new client: Ethan Chorin.

Mr. Chorin is a writer and consultant on Libyan and Middle Eastern affairs with an impressive track record in the foreign service and a formidable academic background. He also has an important new book out on the subject of he Libyan revolution that has garnered him considerable attention and kept him busy on the lecture circuit.

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With all of the above to consider, it took some care to brainstorm the basic concept. This was a project where I was looking for great examples of web marketing in a triad of industries — government, education and international affairs — that are traditionally indifferent to trends in UX/UI design. As you slog through dozens of sites from prominent professors, pundits and thinkers looking for a contemporary standard you find the occasional interesting treatment adrift in a sea of awful.

In the end it was a start-from-scratch proposition. The first job for a client with a track record in the world of international affairs is to convey dignity and seriousness of purpose — goals often at odds with trends in contemporary design. I think the end product found a balance between a classic appearance and clean, readable layout that renders well on the web. Upgrade to a responsive mobile device-friendly layout is also in the works.

Berkshire-Hathaway’s Brilliant Website

This week I was looking for design inspiration for websites dealing with clients in the financial sector. After looking over dozens of examples of equity fund, online trading and real estate investment group sites, I encountered some good wireframe and design ideas that fit well with the model of my client.

Wanting to be thorough, I decided to finish the exercise with an overview of the top ten investment groups in America. I immediately struck pay dirt with this approach, visiting the website in the #1 position, Berkshire Hathaway Inc. – the largest investment group in the U.S. View this screenshot of their website with reverence and awe, for it stands alone as a monument to clean design and precision-targeted user experience.

After viewing the graphic of their home page or visiting their site, you may think I’m being sarcastic. But I swear I’m not. OK maybe a little, but not much. Because despite the fact that I make my living producing and designing websites and other collateral for online marketing, after pondering this site for some time I realized that I could not improve upon this website. Yes, I could make it look prettier. I could add functionality. I could re-platform it with a CMS. I could go to Getty Images and purchase stock photo assets featuring 20-something women in business suits standing in office suites talking on their smartphones, and put those images into jQuery slideshows on the home page.

I could do all of the above and still not increase the functionality of their website of Berkshire Hathaway Incorporated one tiny bit, or add one dollar of value to their investment portfolio.

The site has it all: Relevant content for the investors like company address, contact info, as well as other content of interest like annual stockholder letters from Chairman Warren Buffett dating all the way back to 1977. Online marketing? Got it covered – linking from the bullet-pointed text on the home page is a landing page containing a plug for Geico Insurance (a Berkshire Hathaway holding) from the chairman, displayed in wonderful single-spaced Times Roman. What more do a couple of billionaire octogenarians and their stockholders need?

Not believing for a minute that, in a world full of money-hungry design firms, I could be the only person contemplating the stark nakedness in the design of a website that is the online face of a corporation whose assets are somewhere in the neighborhood of $250bn, I googled queries targeted to find discussions about the phenomenon and found quite a few. Comments about the site’s er, spartan design range from thoughtful to abjectly disgusted. It seems beyond the comprehension of many web designers that a business doesn’t feel the need to commission a website featuring dozens of Ajax forms with headings stylishly laid out with the latest in server-side fonts. How dare B-H not upgrade their primitive website since 2003? And that horrid excuse for a logo – Oh, the humanity!

But what about attracting customers with professional-looking design and elegantly presented content? Well, any investment group whose Class A stock is priced at around $125,000/share will do just fine without websites to promote their business, thank you very much. As far as branding goes, any organization that acquires stakes in businesses solely for investment purposes needs no branding; indeed, branding visibility of an investor with a large stake in a particular corporation could very well taint that corporation’s brand value.

But the absolute genius in not developing a new website for Berkshire Hathaway is this: Any new site dev or major changes to the existing would have to be approved by CEO Warren Buffett and Vice Chairman Charlie Munger. And based on last year’s earnings, their time comes in at around $30,000 per hour (each). Which means that even the most cursory review and approval of agency work will see an instant net loss of around $20k for them just to look at it.

Put another way: I figure that in the time it has taken me to write this post and get it online, Warren and Charlie made around $85,000. So the only thing I learned about UXD/UI design in the above exercise is that clearly I’m in the wrong business.

Survival of the Tech Titans

Shared a link to a Forbes article today called Here’s Why Google and Facebook Might Disappear in the Next 5 Years piece that details fundamental flaws that may keep today’s web giants from competing in a landscape dominated by mobile apps.

The article was a good read and makes some good points, but like a lot of tech journalism it focuses on trending, innovation, industry hindsight. Google, Amazon and Facebook might have trouble down the road but I doubt it will be due to inability to adapt to new paradigms. IMO if they have problems with adapting to a changing landscape it will be due more to corporate bloat than anything. When companies get too large, their swelling ranks of shareholders invariably demand growth — growth that can’t be satisfied by simply continuing to feel the brilliantly simple product(s) that made the companies household names.

McDonald’s is the obvious example: What started as an ingeniously efficient way of selling a narrow range of products grew over 5 decades into an amorphous restaurant corporation who can only maintain their place in the global market by implementing superficial, trend-driven changes to their menu offerings and constantly budgeting for exorbitant rebranding facelifts.

The real question for high-riding tech companies is: How good is your product? If the core product is good, and far superior to anything else out there, then it’s trend-agnostic. Rejiggering for a new mode of user behavior of mode of communication is a matter of creating an alchemy from a mix of seasoned leadership and young turks stepped in the latest ideas. If a leadership can listen and learn and identify great young talent to put new ideas on the table then it’s not a big hurdle.

Google, Amazon and Facebook all have amazing products. But they’ve all lost focus by messing with their basic formulas, and it’s that, and not the inability to adapt to trends, that has made them stumble.

Google wants to play in social, but for all the billions in cash that they have to throw at the problem they can’t figure out UX — which is maybe not a surprising blind spot for a company who made billions with a web page containing a single entry field.

Amazon are the undisputed king of search-based retailing, but they (willfully) stumble and bumble with online advertising. Worse, with the success of selling their brand as a boilerplate for small independent sellers, they’ve become indifferent to user experience and are seemingly adrift in that area. At one time Amazon meant books and other media, sold with revolutionary efficiency and economy. But when you shop at Amazon today, you ask: who are you really dealing with? It’s de-evolved from a focused online retailer into an eBay-esque supercharged flea market with expedited shipping options and a credit card racket on the side.

As of this writing Facebook has maintained their brand purity, but they’re considerably younger (albeit in web 2.0 years, where lifecycles sometimes seems as brief as the average horsefly). Even in their relatively young life they’ve already had to manage disgruntled users with various UI redesigns, and are bracing for more when they roll out expanded advertising.

Facebook needs to adjust their business model for monetization, so tinkering with the core product is necessary. But as the Forbes article points out, their profits don’t even come close to what they’ll need to generate to justify the $5 trillion (or whatever it is this week) IPO that everyone’s waiting on, so I expect to see the funding angels applying additional pressure to fiddle with the business model very soon.

I don’t think that a new mercurial world of mobile and device app-driven marketing and commerce should rattle any corporation’s online strategy if that corporation has their head on straight and sticks with what they know.

The really good news is… With McDonald’s strategy as a blueprint, we see that even if your product’s quality becomes a joke, and your company is running on nothing but marketing subterfuge, you can still manage to stay in the game. In McDonald’s everyone has a model for future success, whether they take the high or low road to get there.

Twitter eats Posterous, Spits out Bones

Twitter announced in a news release today that they have consumed Posterous. Not a big surprise, as Posterous has been eclipsed by Pinterest and Tumblr as preferred communities for econo-blogging and for sharing linked content.

IMO the reason that there hasn’t been much buzz about Posterous in the last couple of years is because they couldn’t settle on a UI model. That’s also the probable reason that Twitter is not expected to do anything with the site as we know it, and focus instead on getting the most out of the talent they’ve acquired.

Posterous screenshot

I was a Posterous user, but I recently deleted my account that I’ve had for the last few years. I originally wanted to use Posterous for sharing articles without having to showcase them in a standard blog post; the original clean interface seemed perfect for the task. But right when I hit a stride with best ways to use the platform, Posterous introduced Spaces, and suddenly all linkage and messaging were pushing users to convert to the new system. Other changes followed, and pretty soon you didn’t know what Posterous was good for.

(Of course the fact that my Posterous site was poaching search value from my other sites was also a problem, but that’s another story…)

Pretty hard to make a new social media startup take flight if you doubt your own concept and zigzag about trying to follow prevailing winds of change in the industry. However, as the folks at Posterous have no doubt made of with a huge boodle after their company was purchased by Twitter, the only people who might get burned are the faithful users whose numbers jacked the selling price up. Twas ever thus.

JP Morgan Chase Snubs Their own Investments – and Investors

Would you buy 14,000,000 shares in stock of a company you don’t believe in?

That’s apparently what JP Morgan Chase has done. Despite owning that amount of shares in the web browser Opera (approximately 14% of the company), they issued a release last week that warned their customers they would block customer access to Opera and Chrome for reasons of security/standards compliance.

JP Morgan Chase graphic

I find browser wars a pretty tedious subject, but this strange tech news is interesting not only for its potential impact on e-com (Chase’s customer base is so large that Chrome and Opera could lose users over this), and even more for the black humor of its subtext.

The idea that a financial institution would invest so heavily in a company and then smack it down by issuing a press release trumpeting their lack of confidence in it is a classic portrait of the dysfunction rife in the financial sector.

And it’s arrogance. Chase seems to project a cavalier confidence that if they impulsively make decisions to degrade the bank’s user experience, their customers will have to take it and like it.

Can you imagine this kind of posture with a major multi-channel retailer? Too much competition in that sector. In retail if you don’t have top-grade UX some other hungry store comes along and eats your lunch.

One bizarre thought: what would happen if you performed the (almost impossible) task of following the money? Could be that if you bank with Chase, you might even own a piece of Opera – through the tax dollars you loaned them through the federal bailouts. Do Chase account holders get to vote in Opera’s next board election?

And no, I haven’t done any research on the bailout connection. Just saying…