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.