Why do corporate websites suck?

Can you imagine living in the oxymoronic hell of being a corporate web designer? I mean, you start life as a sensitive aesthete who can draw a decent picture. You go to art school, you master the Adobe Creative Suite, you worship at the altar of Milton Glaser and Christopher Alexander, can quote Tog on Design, and play a mean round of the Jakob Nielsen drinking game. You took a seminar with Edward Tufte. Your motto is “don’t make me think.”

You get a job at a big online publication or company and get the dream assignment: “Build us a kick ass web site. Engage the user. Tell a story. Distinguish us from the competition.”

The wireframes and the information architecture begin to emerge. You sell your vision to managers who think art is embodied in the oeuvre of Thomas Kinkade, painter of light; those managers who’s taste is only in their mouths. You get a green light. Go execute. People trust you and your vision.

And then, as T.S. Eliot wrote in his poem about your life – The Hollow Men – “…between the conception and the creation … falls the shadow.”

Enter the most dreaded people in the world of design: the “stakeholders.” Legal wants their boilerplate, PR wants a link. Marketing wants a star burst and swoosh around the promo. “Can you make the logo bigger?”

And so the old NASCAR race to deface your work begins. Suddenly everybody hates you. You get the feedback in your performance review that you’re too negative, you don’t collaborate. You seem very defensive about your work. You’re too emotional. You don’t understand the realities of the business.

You are accused of being a gatekeeper, a temple priest, an impediment. You listen to yourself argue in one design review after another and your own voice makes you sick. You try to take the side of the user, but that sounds so lame ….. Screw the user. Real men make money. We’re a business. Screw the user. Spam ’em. Whack em with a popup. Make that rich media ad autoplay – loudly. Use the <blink> tag. A lot. What do they expect for free? We gotta sell stuff.

Then the metrics geeks arrive. They proclaim that no one at Google is allowed to make a qualitative design decision without metrics. They want to A/B test everything. What the hell is the Taguchi Multivariate Methodology? Do you think Picasso left his Blue Period because of fricking metrics? Suddenly the web site becomes a lab for testing everything from palettes to pictures.

Last month a web designer named Dustin Curtis wrote a nasty open note to American Airlines and declared that AA.com sucked. I use AA.com. Pretty much every week. It isn’t pretty. But heck, it lets me print my boarding passes. Dustin thought it sucked badly enough to declare he would not use American any more, and to back up his critique, he presented a lovely alternative.

A user experience designer responded. A person a lot like the one I just described I imagine.

Over at Fast Company, a blog post pointing to Curtis’ work spawned a fascinating series of comments. Read them. Then tell me … why do corporate web sites suck? (except for Apple’s, which somehow has some holy status among the design world).

The interesting thing is committee design versus centralized “dictator” design. Can a design dictator be trusted to understand the business exigencies of a company? Or do committees build towers of design babble?

I don’t know. I declared after my fourth redesign at Forbes.com that:

  1. Never trust a designer
  2. Web sites are screwed without designers
  3. I am not a designer
  4. Neither are you

Now I basically figure the Marissa Mayer process at Google is the only one worth following, but damned if I have seen it at work. HIPPO seems to dominate all design eventually and I am also guilty.

I need a simple contact manager

This has to be the oldest need in the world, but I would love to put my contacts into the cloud and keep them there, free from the incompatibilities of Lotus Notes, Microsoft Outlook, Gmail, Blackberry, and whatever piece of crap device or software lies over the horizon.

1980s – newspaper reporter – I had a true rolodex. Stapling business cards onto the notched tabs.

1984 – PC Week. I move my contacts into AskSam, a flat file database. I start to print out huge snakes of sheetfeed dot matrix printer paper and pin to the wall of my cube.

1987 – I get sucked into a period of contact manager shiny-objectitis — GoldMine, ACT!, Lotus Agenda, Borland Sidekick ….. all fail

1988-1994: the email era commences. Starting with enterprise mail, external on MCI Mail, then CompuServe, The WELL. My personal contacts are all over the place by this point. I begin to lose portions of my “network” to entropy.

1995: Outlook. I start to declare MS Outlook is it. Despite the fact that the IT goons use some dumbass Novell email client as a follow on to CC:Mail. Opensource does not exist.

1995-2000: I rely on Outlook synching to a Palm Pilot. Forget synching to a Motorola cell phone. Not going to happen. Synch tools become a big buzz in the business.

2000: Lotus Notes enters my life at McKinsey. I give up on contact management. The Notes contact manager feels like something Franz Kakfa would write about.

2002-2004: back to Outlook, synching to a Windows Mobile device, a little HP thing ala the Palm.

2005: Back to Notes at IDG. I give up and refuse to manage contacts in Notes.

2006: Lenovo. Still on Notes. Not entering any contacts into Notes. Putting business cards into a binder with plastic sleeves.

2009: About to declare contact bankruptcy. My contacts are scattered to the winds.  I have IM contacts, internal Lenovo directories, backed up ancient CSV, PST and comma delimited Outlook files — gmail accounts, Thunderbird as my desktop email client pulling down pop3 mail for churbuck.com and my david.churbuck@gmail mail ……

Going forward: I want to stick this all in the cloud. How do I do this and balance my personal network with my professional? Suggestions please.