Why I’m Not Comfortable with Web Site Clinics

At nearly every conference where web design is discussed, site clinics are offered. At larger conferences, it takes courage to stand up in front of a room of a few hundred people and ask “experts” to tell you “what’s wrong” with your site. It’s an approach I’ve never stood behind and strongly dislike.

For starters, sitting on a panel and being asked to explain problems for a web site is like trying to figure out how big your mutt will grow when you have no idea who the birth parents are. We all need a little bit of history to start a web site. It helps us figure out what to design for and we may get some idea how it will turn out in the end. There’s nothing worse than someone saying, “Well, you could start by getting rid of the FLASH.” Says who? Why? Maybe, for that particular web site and its target users, FLASH is perfectly in line with their business requirements.

Site clinics catch missing things like “calls to action”. It’s common for home pages and landing pages to neglect a clear path towards doing something productive or completing a task. What a site clinic won’t tell you is how to do it, because again, what did the requirements tell the designer to do? Does the site have to meet Section 508, PAS 78 or ISO 13407? Does the person standing in the audience getting a site reviewed know? Does the panel of “experts” have any clue what those things are? Why are they important? Because calls to action are designed in many ways, for different people and even search engines. Unless design requirements are laid down and followed, who in the heck has the right to say, “Your calls to action aren’t good enough.”

Data is the better indicator of failed conversions; not someone looking at how attractive a site is, or not. I mentioned in a talk once that Jakob Nielsen claims to have come up with over 2000 usability heuristics. The next time you go for a site clinic, try to find out what they are. I bet you won’t be given this information because for starters, does your clinic advisor know what usability heuristics are? If they do, did they think to ask you if, when your site was designed, it adhered to a Requirements Document that laid down test plans, with usability heuristics built into them? I’m willing to bet your site clinic person has never written a detailed Requirements Document, test plan or test case. Why is this important? Because no two web sites are the same. No two site objectives are the same. No two projects include a full blown team of skilled people that will make sure every nook and cranny of usability, user interface, content, marketing, accessibility and information architecture specifications are applied to the project.

But you don’t know this. Chances are, you were sent by your company to “Find out what we can do to make our site look better”, and I bet nobody told you to take every bit of advice you hear and run it past your site requirements. Rather, a reviewer will say, “Make it clear what words are clickable.” What does that mean and how? Do you make buttons? Do you anchor text or a word like “Click here”? Do you put underlines under words? Are those thumbshot images clickable? You will go home, and tell your boss, “We have to make our links more visible,” but where do you start in determining exactly how to that, why and what will work best for YOUR target users.  If a review says, “Make buttons”, ask them to tell you how to make it pass accessibility standards as well.

Once I was at a site review in a packed room and the reviewer pointed out was there was no business phone number and address on the homepage. This is indeed a credibility issue, especially for ecommerce. However, there are special situations where disabled persons work from home and have a web site store. They don’t want their home address listed. Single parents with small businesses or startups with a home office and children at home absolutely balk at showing location information, thanks to Google Maps.  The “expert” will tell you that this information is necessary or you can expect to not be taken seriously. Again, the site’s specific circumstances weren’t included. There are reasons behind some choices. I understand and support them.  Let’s find a way that works and for which the site owner is comfortable with.

At small conferences, I’ve had the fun of doing site clinics for small business owners who are desperate for some direction, but are usually a solo venture. I’d much rather ask for volunteers, put up a web site on a screen and start by asking the site owner what they want the site to do, or what they know is a current problem. It’s not for me to simply say, “It’s black. I can’t read the content against the dark background.” It may not be intended for me, my gender, my age, my eyesight or my interests. It may be perfect for who it is designed for and it’s my job to inquire about that. I ask about tasks and we even get into user personas on the fly, just to get a feel for someone other than that site owner’s own user experience with their own site.

In nearly every site clinic I’ve been to, what the presenter says is a “problem”, to me, isn’t a problem. It’s often a matter of taste. I need time with a site, to “get into its head” and experience it for awhile. I can never look at a design and say it’s a winner or loser in one minute, which is what happens in a site clinic or quickie site review. I need to take it out for a walk first. I prefer to ask questions of the site owner because unless I understand where they are in their skills or knowledge base, anything I say may not be understood or applied properly.

Free site clinics are learning devices. If you ask for usability help, you may want to find out how much usability work they’ve done and what kind. There are many niche areas that fall under the usability umbrella. The same goes for search engine marketing clinics. For starters, your competitors are often sitting in the audience. Be careful what questions you ask. Make sure your marketing “experts” have proven experience and have been around since BEFORE Google became the only game in town.

Finally, get advice from people who can help implement the feedback you receive. I don’t like telling anyone what to do unless I’d be willing to spend the time supporting them, guiding them to top of the line help, and waiting to see how it all works out.

Because it’s no fun telling a site owner how to win unless they come back with a big smile and show you the results.

17 thoughts on “Why I’m Not Comfortable with Web Site Clinics”

  1. Now that was an amazing post. You certainly know your “stuff.”

    Oh, how some people like to play the “expert.” I’ve recently run into a few of those folks recently, just in the “general business community.”

    Here’s one of my favorite lines when I give talks/teach.
    “You don’t make your candle any brighter when you blow somebody else’s out.”
    Berneice Arnold- My former mother-in-law

    Thank you so much for all your wisdom both in the soft and hard skill arena.

    Lisa Fields

  2. Yay, Kim. Thanks for saying nicely what I’ve long muttered words my mother would not approve about convention site ‘clinics’.

    10/20-minutes worth of site help? Value -> null.

    To me the appeal is akin to being on Jerry Springer. And the benefits, to reviewers, reviewees, and audience are also rough equivalents.

  3. Hi Kim,

    Great post! I agree with all the rationale you presented.

    In addition, I would suggest that it’s highly unlikely that the panel of experts has a grasp on whom the Personas are for the web site, what their critical tasks are, and whether those tasks are easy or hard to do based on the Persona’s domain and web expertise. Further, there’s the whole world of Persuasion, Emotion and Trust to be considered in any web site evaluation, including how Persuasive elements and techniques are being applied.

    Taken all together, it’s pretty clear that any web site manager who seeks advice from a panel is going to get what they paid for, which is nothing!

  4. I get what you’re going at, but have seen plenty of times it’s simple, easy and useful. My site used a serif font that was killing users. There was no particular reason for that. I asked for feedback, they told me so, and I changed it. Problem solved.

    From long participation at Sitepoint site reviews, I can say that often small things like annoying colour schemes and accessibility issues get picked up in these reviews. E.g. Missing alt tags. I doubt any site was intentionally designed to NOT work for the blind. “Haha, we got you with this all flash monstrosity :P.” Not something you hear too often.

    If the clinicians are spouting about particular elements in the lander that need to be changed, and how, then that’s not useful because they lack data. As you pointed out, rightly. But imho, this is a minor problem, if at all. And comments like those can just be answered by the review-requester, “No, really, we get 5% conversion with the 30-field form vs 1% with the 7-fielder.” Similarly, they can answer as to site objectives and requirements etc.

    These clinics help you realize when you’re forgetting best practices.

  5. Thanks Gab! For a quickie, I agree with you. The easy to spot things like fonts, alt attributes, and lots more of the just basic, but vital things make for near instant rewards. I would like to see in-depth site clinics at conferences or workshops where someone gets at least an hour. Big sites take time to take in and if you get a reviewer skilled in persuasive design, captology, and other goodies, the site owner may walk away with knowledge, help and greater sense of what it means to have a web site. Even better, offer a menu of feedback consisting of SEO, SMM, link and keyword boost and usability/accessibility…show them how it all ties together. Just can’t do that in 5 minute reviews or power point screen shots.

  6. Well done, Kim. I think you’ve illustrated the difference between a cookie cutter, high level sight review that can be conducted on the fly based on generalities alone and the value of having a customized evaluation by someone like you who takes the complete picture into account.

    There are certain basic issues and aspects of a site’s structure – like ALT attributes, as Gab points out above – that can be easily identified in such a brief and general review, without needing to take the site’s users and target audience into account. For a more specific and actionable review that provides real value to the site owner, more than identifying these basic issues is a necessity.

  7. What an excellent article, Kim. It’s interesting, as you point out, that quick site reviews without any background probably aren’t going to be all that much help to the site owner. I’d have to agree with that; there isn’t a whole lot you can say without knowing why certain things were done or not done.

    Interesting, too, that you’d want to follow through with them to make sure that they understand, and implement things properly. Once again, your kindness shows through. There’s little more satisfying in the industry (IMO) than having a client tell you after a site launch/relaunch that the site is outperforming it’s earlier incarnation.

    Of course, as you say, conference site clinics are probably not the best venue in which to do an in-depth review. Now, IF a site is doing obvious things wrong that are impeding its performance, a quick review may pick these up. But a total walk-through is probably going to take longer than that. And, as you say, the site owner’s competitors may be sitting right there, taking it all in. Ouch.

  8. I think there are people who can do the conference-style site clinic well, but they know how to separate best practices from deeper issues. I completely agree that too often I see someone give a strong opinion off the top of their head, without really acknowledging that the answer may depend on the business model, audience, etc. I struggle with this even on the forums, where I’ll usually take some time to investigate before answering. We all want to rush to help, which is admirable, but some from-the-hip advice can do more harm than good.

  9. Agreed, these ‘clinics’ seem to trivialize the efforts of well-meaning business owners. Sure, it’s great to pick up a nugget here and there, but overall these seem gimmicky. Thanks for articulating this so well.

  10. Think it would be profitable to rent a space in the SMX Theater and do a shared, in-depth review or two of some lucky winner(s)’ sites? You do the usability, I do the SEO (not saying you can’t do both, but obviously I’d need something to address to share that). Is that a worthwhile tool?

  11. Gab, that’s the kind of site review/clinic I’d LOVE to participate in. The benefit for the winner(s) is being able to see, and understand the value of, the holistic approach to their online presence. I’d even add an accessibility person to the mix, b/c this is a growing need and badly overlooked.
    (I can do that too but would be happy to take in someone like Joe Dolson to do it.)

  12. How different are conference clinic reviews from site reviews people can get on the forums? And if you think clinics don’t provide the value they should provide, why is there a “Website Hospital” subforum at the Cre8asite Forums?

  13. Hi Yura :) Great questions!

    The Cre8 Website Hospital is different in that anyone can offer site feedback. Therefore, it can be peers, prospective customers, persons practicing their review skills…they tend to attempt tasks and take their time on the site they’re looking at. Unlike a quickie review, there is unlimited time to spend on the site.
    The other difference is that the site owner, per our instructions, is encouraged to ask specific questions and have us address known issues they may be having. It becomes far more than a “look at my website” and, if the site owner engages the reviewers with feedback and dialog, can be an ongoing process where they make changes, return for feedback, make adjustments, etc.

    In conferences, there is no ongoing dialog. No chance to try something and return for recheck. Conferences may offer less of a customer or potential user response and be more of a consultant approach by someone who may never use the site.

    Given a choice, I would take the ongoing dialog the Website Hospital provides, because experienced members of the Community offer help, as well as the general public who are members of the Community and may be part of the target market.

    The risk of competitors observing applies to both situations, forums and conference. For the forums, in the case of Cre8asitedorums, search engines do find the posts, so if a negative review is presented, there could be a concern. We try our best to make sure site owners are aware of any risks to a public site review.

  14. @Yura – Just to chime in on that last point, I think a key issue with the forums vs. a conference site clinic is just time. If someone posts a forum question, I can review their site, click around, and take the time to understand the context. The nature of a conference session requires people to be reactionary – you can’t sit for 5 minutes and say nothing, or the audience will get bored. I also find that there’s pressure for the panelists to let their personality show and each get their opinion in. That’s fine in a discussion session, but that friendly competition in a site clinic tends to make the advice even more reactionary.

  15. To be honest, I’ve never visited a SEO conference, so I can’t compare.

    While it’s true that on the forum you:
    - provide questions to ask before starting the thread
    - can ask questions later
    - can spend some time on the site,

    you are still fairly unfamiliar with the site, it’s goals or past performance, unless the poster does respond to the questions.

    In essence, it’s still a 3-10min review of a site that should require days or weeks to analyze and test changes on.

    While I can’t argue that free reviews, particularly at the Cre8asite Forums, do carry weight (sometimes beyond expectations), they still carry some of the drawbacks of a quick shot review.

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