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.

Author: David Churbuck

Cape Codder with an itch to write

12 thoughts on “Why do corporate websites suck?”

  1. Going through that very process right now. You don’t need a web designer. You don’t need a coder. You need a user experience expert. Somebody who understands easy and simple. The people making, selling, and marketing the products don’t understand that, regardless of what they say.

  2. David,

    I think part of the problem is that companies try to manage the user around the site, trying to funnel them here and there all with the aim of getting the money.

    It would be interesting to see the difference in commerce sites vs purely informational website designs.

    If the site were organized based on value to the customer rather than value to the site owner (business), there might well be a difference as well.

    Perhaps too much focus on user behavior and not enough on experience, with emphasis on understanding and delivering the kind of experience the USER wants to have.

    I think this happens because business objectives get in the way – companies have revenue targets they are trying to back into via promotions, click throughs, average cart value measures, etc, rather than thinking of their site as providing a service and trying to make it an exceptional and rewarding one.


  3. Charles — remember the round one with the tools? Saws and hammers and shit? Those were the days when I learned never to trust a designer.

  4. I do–though in its way it was actually pretty cool. It was the Capitalist Tool/Digital Tool trope and it worked in a half-assed early Internet kind of way. Not a great way to sell ads, though, but at that point I think we were just all sort of amazed that it worked at all. The godawful purple version, however, was truly the ugliest thing I’ve ever seen. Thank god no one came to the site in those days so only a handful of us know of the abomination of which I speak. I try to forget about it.

  5. Purple version? There were so many and it wasn’t until the last one – the Rare Medium tear sheet template — that the site found it’s identity. Still hanging onto that blue id for the past 9 years

  6. I really hope that someone would commission Thomas Kinkade to design their website. the possibilities therein are so funny, i’d have to repeatedly change my underwear.


  7. Personally, I have long fantasized about driving a stake through the heart of a stakeholder…

    The corporate website is a tangle of compromise, bound together with a web of conflicted goals. It’s chance of success is inversely proportional to the number of people in the “decision matrix” or on the “design review board” more than 2 or three and the chances of success plummet.

    Lengthy approval processes assure that we’ll be featuring stale content, while review boards introduce the concept of “Mutually Assured Mediocrity.”

    15 years as a corporate webmaster has taught me that there absolutely must be a single point of responsibility.

  8. The Fearless Competitor, Jeff Ogden – 8035 26th Avenue North, St. Petersburg, FL 33710 – Nice guy who won marketing awards and the President of Find New Customers http://www.findnewcustomers.com. Proud Notre Dame grad and father of three great boys, but I'm now divorced.
    Jeff Ogden says:

    Max at Clickable introduced me to your blog, David. B2B websites suck for all the reasons you state and one more — customers are looking to solve business problems. Corporate websites talk about our company, our products, our services and our customers. Problem is that buyers don’t care.

    Websites should focus on customer problems and personas. Almost none do.

    I also invite you to visit my blog. http://www.fearlesscompetitor.com. All the best.

    Jeff Ogden, the Fearless Competitor

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