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peterme - thread killer. Posted on 08/28/2001.

On a mailing list devoted to information architecture, Christina raised the issue that businesses rarely stick with the one thing they're good at--they have a tendency to grow and to diversify. This often leads to a mess of a Web presence, reflecting this messy growth. I posted a rather lengthy response:

We at Adaptive Path have seen this as a trend in the kinds of companies that approach us. We've had more than one organization with an ever-growing, ever-unwieldy website come to us and say, "Um. Can you help us with this?"

Such web presences seem to be borne of the decentralization of businesses that occurred in the 80s and 90s. Departments were given autonomy and there was little central 'command-and-control.' And for businesses, this proved very productive. They could build more better faster cheaper. And such decentralization was fine when the primary contact a customer had with a business was a single department or, even, an individual at that company.

Then the Web happened. And customers turned to Web sites to interact with companies. And what did they see? Decentralized quagmires representing byzantine corporate structures that had nothing to do with the user's needs and goals. The web site structure mirrored the organizational chart. Since people inside these companies had no idea how the organization was structured, how could a customer begin to understand?

A parallel development happened (perhaps spurred by this quagmire)--the notion of "customer relationship management." The idea that a company should build a single relationship with a customer, across departmental lines, aware of all transactions a customer has with the company.

So, some companies have recognized that in order for their web presence to succeed, and in order for them to have an approachable customer-orientation, some degree of "centralizing" is necessary. To make the user experience across all interactions with the company consistent and fluid.

Managing this is not easy. At all. For the *business* to continue to thrive, it must remain decentralized--putting everything under a single point of control would make large companies painfully inefficient and a target for competitors. Yet, these departments must acknowledge that working together is good for everybody--it's a rising tide that raises all boats.

One trend we've seen is to have a centralized "web group" that is responsible for maintaining look-and-feel-and-use guidelines for an entire web property. These guidelines must be flexible enough so that the departments don't feel strait-jacketed, or else the departments simply will not use them. Yet they must be rigid enough to provide the seamlessness of experience across the various properties, or they'll be meaningless. Such efforts require an appreciation of and an ability to manipulate organizational dynamics. And such efforts will be different in every org--some require it to be top-down, a directive from the CEO (I think this is how it ended up working at IBM...). In others it catches on by word-of-mouth, where different departments see the success of a centralized solution, and want to take part in it (this seems to be how the MSWeb intranet has taken root).

This post pretty much killed the thread on the mailing list, which is why I'm bringing it here--I'd love to read some feedback from folks to hear how this gibes with your experience.

14 comments so far. Add a comment.

Previous entry: "The State of Web Surfing."
Next entry: "Treasure trove of design thought."


+ Customer Relationship Management is not some new idea. Rather it is one of the first things that broke when companies went more decentralized.

+ as companies get more dependent on technology, their overall business culture reflects IT trends & culture. Sad but true. But when you install Oracle ERP or CRM your next step is to alter your business so it "thinks" the way Oracle does, otherwise you wasted your money.

+ web groups are destined for extinction except in the largest, most bureaucratic organizations. In any other org, if you don't carry revenue, you are a cost center, and your influence has a definite upper bound. The people who make the numbers will dictate the rules.

+ I know, quality of customer experience has a real effect on the bottom line. But I have spoken to many IAs over the last 5 yrs and not met one who made an effort to demonstrate the quantitative, economic value of what they do. Certainly, it's hard. But the channel sales guy can concretely say "ok, I'm going to spend this capital, and then it's going to turn into this much revenue". The only kind of accountability that matters in a mature company (and in ALL public companies) is financial accountability.
Posted by Hugh Jass @ 08/28/2001 08:55 AM PST [link to this comment]

Hmm, so were you trying to make a relationship between CRM and look-and-feel-and-use guidelines?

My experience from inside a big company (Intuit) seems to be similar to yours as a consultant: a central web group trying to consolidate the online customer experience across all web properties.

However, as Hugh points out, it's the quantitative, economic forces that drive any/all efforts to centralize, stuff like e-commerce and support sites, not the usability police complaining about inconsistent navigation. To that end, focusing on the value-adds of a consistent, stadardized user experience to upper management seems to be the fastest way to effect real change in websites across a company.
Posted by Chad @ 08/28/2001 12:51 PM PST [link to this comment]

To the first point, no, I wasn't trying to relate CRM and look-and-feel guidelines, but it seems like I have, and it seems like both are outgrowths of massive decentralization.

About the need for quantitative validation, I wonder. In my experience, "quantitative" validation is brought up only when people don't want to do something, as a way of shooting it down. When they want to do it, they assume the numbers will follow (whether or not they do).

One element that adds to my wonder is branding. Branding is an extremely non-quantitative endeavor that companies are willing to spend ton$ of money on because of a perceived value. Branding is a "cost center" (to use the term from the first comment), yet thrives in American business, and has little boundaries on its influence. (Admittedly, this depends on the company). I'm somewhat familiar with Intel, which is an exceedingly decentralized corporation, which has an *extremely* powerful brand operations and management group, and I'm guessing that group cannot point to a number on the balance sheet and claim responsibility--it's just understood that Intel's branding efforts have lead to heaps and heaps of value.
Posted by peterme @ 08/28/2001 01:58 PM PST [link to this comment]

The connection between value of design (as a bigger service) and the success of a company is the subject of many of the articles in the latest Design Management Journal. The keynote article: Valuing design: Enhancing Corporate Performance through Design Effectiveness specifically looks at a study that investigated 51 companies in 5 industries over a 5 year time frame. They show - with numbers from annual reports and other quantitative data - that design conscious companies (read into this good design artifacts, supported design groups, methodology, design research, possibly usability if they make products etc) generally do better. Therefore the assumption is that design will effect the bottom line and while mostly labelled a cost center in an internal org. should be valued and funded.
Whether this is centralized or spread out across the company, the design face of a company should be unified with a single vision or voice appropriate to the products being delivered. That may mean a central responsibility with decentralized design groups working with different organizations - marketing designers working in a different place than product designers, but a central Creative Director or UE Director or whatever guiding the voice and presence of the companies outside face - whatever that may be - website, marketing materials, brand, products etc.
Posted by erin @ 08/28/2001 04:19 PM PST [link to this comment]

I think one of the biggest problems I've faced is trying to convince the heretofore independent departments that giving up a wee bit of control is a good thing.

The intranet at my former job was (and is!) a mess. Every department has full jurisdiction over their pages, and given that very few people know Dreamweaver or HTML, it's a mess. Trying to find anything is a chore. I suggested a revamp, which would incorporate ideas along the lines of weblogs, so people didn't have to muck with HTML if they didn't want to.

And so I think it should be. The technology needs to be a tool, and nothing more. Accounting and Compliance won't know jack about making the intranet a cohesive experience and valuable resource (outside of pure content). However, convincing people that this mini-centralization is a good thing was very very difficult, and in fact I didn't succeed (due to a lack of interest from highers-up, who saw nothing wrong with the current ways.)

As for external properties, that voice does need to be just as cohesive. While I'd made strides towards bringing everything together (style guide, voice 'rules', etc.) there were still components that both Marketing and IS wanted to control - and this really, really caused the user experience to suffer. A middle ground is totally necessary.
Posted by Paul @ 08/29/2001 04:41 AM PST [link to this comment]

To Erin's post--

I'm wary of drawing too direct a line from "good design" to "business success." Well, I'm wary of saying that in order for a company to succeed, it needs good design. I'm guessing that the relationship between the two is correlative--that companies that know what they're doing also engage in practices of good design. A clueless company that tries to improve itself through good design practices (whatever those are) without addressing other parts of the company will fail.
Posted by peterme @ 08/29/2001 07:03 AM PST [link to this comment]

So who begins to share with upper management the value of design to business success? It comes back to learning the business language. Perhaps we approach this by understanding the business ideology and start reading resources they read. They are probably already aware subconsciously about Harvard Business School research on emphatic design...aka contextual inquiry/product development using ethnographic studies. User experience design/HCI/IA stuff is there, I think we just need more visibility in their world.

I'm wondering how we can take it a step further.

Does it mean more evangelizing or strategically placing IAs at business schools? I know for sure that there's a two way learning between myself and Stanford Business School community; hopefully I can help plant the seed of our profession's value to business & management.
Posted by Madonnalisa Chan @ 08/29/2001 04:43 PM PST [link to this comment]

I think you are correct, Peter, the people who value design are also making smart decisions in other areas of their company. Good design can't fix a flawed business model or dysfunctional organization but Bad design can have negative impacts on the product or perception of the company. The study that I referenced clarifies that it these are early findings and they are positive for the design profession as a whole in terms of quantifying design value. Unfortunately, there are a lot of intangibles that can't necessarily be tracked that also contribute to the success or demise of businesses. I just think it is great that there are people out there studying this and that there will be places to point to for reference and support as we educate our coworkers.
Posted by erin @ 08/29/2001 06:01 PM PST [link to this comment]

Information design and information architecture are central to the an enterprise's functions, which is to produce a product (what ever that may be) and tantamount to getting this product built or in shape to be a service. This requires information gathering, assessing, storing, and ultimately sharing of this information. Companies that can access, understand (knowledge), disseminate this information efficiently will have a step up against their competitors. IAs can greatly improve the efficiency in delivering and presenting information in logical manner to the user or user groups.

One of the difficulties with enterprise information is the lack of cohesiveness of terms and clashing definitions of terms. This is often a result of large decentralized cultures and mending these disparities is a difficult political minefield to tread. Akin to these problems is the various disparate information stores throughout an organization. Variations in this information, whether it is product descriptions, marketing information, technical assessments, or any number of other data repositories is also problematic. This is where data modelling and data warehousing can play a role. Here IAs can help with the use patterns and information flows of this centralized information, which in turn helps the data modelling folks do their job better and in turn have created a greater efficiency for the organization as a whole.

In regard to the MBA crowd, many of the schools seem to be imparting information about knowledge management. This element is rather closely related as it is often requires IA skills to prepare for KM to be successful. The pitch to the business folks seems like it should run across the lines of "wasted time looking for information or information being presented is not consumed by the users." These are problems that IAs can help you solve and provide the user with information that is usable and provide them with an enjoyable experience. The bottom line folks respond to creating efficiencies that are measurable. Information is at the core of every business transaction and providing efficiencies in this realm may pique their interest enough to listen to more of what we have to say. (This is all nothing more than a thought based on observations).
Posted by vanderwal @ 08/29/2001 06:37 PM PST [link to this comment]

>>I'm wary of saying that in order for a company to succeed, it needs good design<<

You've just answered your question about branding. While branding can't be directly tied to revenue, it is recognized as strategically vital to the success of the firm: in order for a firm to succeed, it needs good branding. If good design is not vital to the success of the firm, and you can not tie it to revenue enhancement or cost reduction, then it is a cost center.

For most organizations design is a tactical issue of realizing strategic goals. Money is spent on tactical issues only if they result in a net cost reduction or net revenue enhancement. Companies that do otherwise fail eventually (as the fate of so many dotcoms has so eloquently demonstrated). For companies in which design is not a strategic concern, design questions are not discussed in terms of good v. bad, but in terms of "good enough".
Posted by dchase @ 08/30/2001 07:47 AM PST [link to this comment]

Re branding vs design, eventually it comes back to what customers will pay for.

There are a few successful companies with good branding AND good design (and in these cases 'good design' is itself part of the brand promise).

There are far MORE successful companies with good branding and bad design.

There are virtually NO successful companies with bad branding and good design.

Really this is just a variant of the old axiom that mediocre product that's well marketed will do better than a great product that's poorly marketed.

If I were working as an IA again I would be pitching my work as a type of "product branding" not "product design". I used to think it was important to get credibility on the development side of an organization, but that's mostly an ego issue -- "I'm making the product better, not tarting it up!!" In the long run I think an IA has a more fruitful / productive / profitable relationship with a marketing & branding dept than an engineering & prod development dept.
Posted by Hugh Jass @ 08/30/2001 09:21 AM PST [link to this comment]

Well, from my experiences in a decentralized government, trying to develop some basic consistency in user experience across business units requires both a) a big stick, i.e., senior management support, and b) significant persuasion, coddling, cajoling, threatening, and other means of getting the web site managers in each business unit to accept that consistency is good.

Most of our users don't understand the subdivisions and bureaucracy of our government--and they shouldn't have to. But the web site managers are often obsessed with ensuring that their web site is unique and identifiable (sometimes to the point where they don't want their site looking like "a gov't site," i.e. stuffy and bureaucratic.)

I found that constantly bombarding them with IBM, GE and Microsoft sites helped show that you can have diverse businesses and still maintain a consistent design throughout your site (consistent IA is another matter though).

Anyway, GE has an online style guide that's good, and it seems to be well adopted.
Posted by gene @ 08/30/2001 09:48 PM PST [link to this comment]

I think it's easy to go for central control, but the costs usually outweigh the benefits (esp. if we're talking about customers looking for "content" info, vs transactional/personalized stuff).

I don't think design consistency matters much, since few people will be (intentionally) going through many parts of a site during a given visit.

One hack that might work is a central side having a search engine based on spidering the collection of uncontrolled sites. You might want to nag individual webmasters about making their sites spider-friendly (some consistent meta tags, figuring out what to do about deep databases, etc.), but that would at least bring stuff together.

Then, for v2, you might look hard at the log of search requests, and find some patterns that might suggest opportunities for creating some data structure consistency across business units (e.g. a product catalog). But this might not even be worth it...
Posted by Bill Seitz @ 08/31/2001 09:19 AM PST [link to this comment]

The link to GE's style sheet, mentioned in comment 12, is exceedingly interesting. First, it looks like they are backing away from standardization--their first style sheet was extremely detailed, while the second consists of just an optional header and footer. Maybe central control just doesn't work at a huge organization.

Second, and most interesting: they say that while you may opt not to use the standard header, if your header is at all different it must have completely different colors. This seems like a really important point: wildly different subsites are probably OK, but sites that all look alike, but have subtle navigational differences, will be horribly confusing.
Posted by anon. @ 08/31/2001 01:37 PM PST [link to this comment]

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