Companies spend megabucks on beautiful, well-designed web sites that end up losing customers, thanks to technical decisions made by the designers and programmers. Is some consulting firm’s junior programmer really the one you want making your strategic customer acquisition and retention decisions? With a little understanding of the interplay between technology and customer experience, you can start engaging your web developers in supporting your business with smart technical decisions.

The problem is that the world is diverse.

The web has developed dozens of technologies to help build bigger, more beautiful web sites. You will recognize some of the terms: "layers," "cookies," "javascript," "java," "style sheets," "flash," "shockwave."

Unfortunately, these technologies just don’t work on all versions of all browsers. I use Netscape for Windows and IE on the Mac. Two or three times a day, one of them reports a Javascript error and asks "Do you want to keep running scripts on this page?" C’mon, get real. How in the world does any user know whether to answer YES or NO to that, or what the implications are for my purchase?

Furthermore, some users disable cookies, Javascript or Java. I’ve heard companies pooh-pooh those users and say, "Well, I’ll just require you to enable cookies/Javascript to view my site." Uh, huh. When was the last time you were willing to reconfigure your browser on demand? Hard-core customers will do it. But those sites will lose customers who don’t know how, don’t want to be bothered, or aren’t allowed to change their system. Befuddled users don’t hang around to complete their purchase, they just leave. At best, the site loses one sale but the customer returns. At worst, the customer leaves forever.

So why do these technologies end up in web pages?

Flash sells. Look at any television commercial. When a designer is pitching a site laden with cool stuff, the management reviewers like it. It’s jazzy. It’s cool. It’s like a high-end ad. And that’s the wrong criteria to be using to design your web site.

Customers don’t care much about cool looking sites. They care about sites that get them the information or products they want. Yahoo is the most popular site on the web. It uses no fancy features, and it’s downright ugly. But it gets people what they came for. And that’s a much harder outcome for a graphic designer to pitch.

The programmers push the leading-edge technology, too. Take it from an ex-programmer: web site—even large database driven sites—require very, very basic programming, if any at all. The latest version of Quicken is about 10,000 times more sophisticated than 99% of the commerce sites in existence.

So most competent programmers find web sites kinda, well, mind-numbingly boring. But add in layers and flash, javascript and Java and Lingo, and suddenly the complexity is back to the point where it makes the job fun. Besides, all the advanced technology really *does* make certain things easier to program, and trying to use basic HTML to accomplish those same things just isn’t nearly as engaging.

Specific Problems

Here are some places in your site to dig to find out if you’re using these technologies:

1. Disable Javascript in your browser. This is the biggie. If your site isn’t usable with Javascript turned off, that could be a problem. Especially click on [SUBMIT] and [OK] buttons. Many sites have buttons that, for incomprehensible reasons, only work if Javascript is enabled.

2. Do you have Javascript running that makes sure the user types the right things into fields? If so, you just paid your programmers to do the same thing twice, because the data is almost certainly validated once it gets to your server, as well. You now have the maintenance expense of maintaining both the Javascript checks and the server-side checks. Yowza!

3. If you use Java, you’ll lose everyone who keeps Java disabled for security reasons.

4. Do you use layers or style sheets? Many sites do. They make some aspects of site creation much easier. They also tend to break in various browsers and look awful. Modern tools like Dreamweaver give a designer everything they need to create a consistent look and feel in basic HTML that works in all browsers. If your designers simply must use style sheets or layers, test the site in a wide range of browsers to make sure it looks decent across the board.

(And note that your designers will point out how convenient style sheets are, since you can revamp the whole look of the site by changing just the style sheet. But balance that against the increased testing and QA costs of making sure the style sheet solution works everywhere your customers are.)

The business question to be asking

The decision to include these technologies in a site is simple, when approached in business terms:

Is the expected increase in business from the Javascript/Flash/etc. more than the cost of losing even 1% of your visitors due to incompatibility or security concerns?

For most sites I’ve visited that use these technologies, the site would be equally useful without the technologies. So there’s no incremental gain from using them, while there is a risk of losing a customer. In a dramatic example of this, a site (let’s call them "GenericSTORE.COM") recently lost my $400 purchase when their Javascript consistently crashed in both Netscape and IE browsers. Their order desk was closed, and my special coupon expired the next day. I’ll now buy from a competitor, and if that competitor does a good job, they will probably have a new customer for years.

How much did that flashy bit of Javascript cost GenericSTORE.COM? Quite a lot.

There are certainly times when the extra technology helps. A highly-technical web-delivered product probably requires advanced technology by virtue of the kind of product it is. But most sites simply don’t.

As a businessperson, make sure your programmers understand the business case behind the technology. They’ll fight tooth and nail. They’ll say things like, "But Javascript is so basic, 99% of the browsers are compatible…" Yet if it’s that basic, why did GenericSTORE.COM’s scripts fail? And why do people continue to experience incompatibilities? And can we really expect customers to turn Javascript on, if their system manager requires that they keep it disabled? And more to the point: what is the lifetime value of the customers who have the 1% incompatible browsers, and is the extra Javascript functionality really worth losing that much money?

What’s the solution?

One solution is to test your site in as many browsers and environments as possible. Test in Netscape, all versions 4 and above. Test in AOL. Test in Internet Explorer (4,0, 5, 5,5, 6). Test in Opera. Test in Omniweb. Test test test. Test with Javascript turned on. Test with it off. Ditto for Java. Test.

Another solution is to have a site that uses very minimal technology. The HTML on my site works on every browser in use today. Only Netscape 1 and 2 would have trouble with the pages. The site uses Javascript to highlight menu items, but it still works fine with Javascript disabled. Yes, achieving this degree of accessibility has meant sacrificing some of the neato-cool features I could have added to the site. But look at it this way: no matter what browser you’re reading this on, you made it. It works. And you’re here.

So make your site simple and accessible. If you’re tempted to use technology that might lose even a single customer, ask yourself how much you’re losing with that customer, and whether it’s worth the extra bell and whistle. Amazon.com manages to do a hundred million dollars’ worth of business with a site that uses no Javascript and can almost survive with cookies disabled. When your site is rock-solid, your customers will love it, and at the end of the day, they’re the ones who keep you in business.

How Junior Programmers May be Setting Your Strateg…

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