Beware user experience overreach in your website overhaul

  • 13-Aug-2012

We're advising a large public-sector organization in their selection of a new Web Content & Experience Management (WCXM) platform. Concurrently this organization is also overhauling the user experience of their websites. They've gone about it the right way: selected a reputable UX agency, figured out potential dependencies between the UX and technology work streams, and managed the overall effort as part of a holistic program that also includes careful attention to renewing their core content. All good stuff.

But I'm a bit worried. Specifically I'm worried about an over-ambitious UX strategy.

UX Overreach?

Usually such concerns flow in the opposite direction. Historically, user experience and information architecture experts have complained (rightly) about big hairy WCXM platforms getting in the way of fashioning better user experiences. Even today, WCXM vendor platform-creep remains a serious problem. Enterprises can still over-buy technology, and alas many do.

But I'm seeing a trend where old habits of technology overreach are getting matched by UX overreach. Under the lure of big, beautiful UX plans, some customers are biting off more than they can chew, while failing to execute on the basics. Sometimes the push here comes from outside agencies who over-spec functionality that the customer can't sustain.

In lieu of shelfware, you can end up with shelfscreens: planned user experiences that you never roll out.

A good example of UX overstretch is promoting highly specialized personalization in lieu of more realistic segmentation strategies. (One of my favorite stories about this was when a senior US government executive demanded that a federal portal for small business owners display its content by business type and state, until a plucky underling pointed out that in fact, the agency had no content whatsoever "tailored specifically to a carwash owner in Rhode Island.")

Other examples of potential UX overreach can include:

  • Overly sophisticated "related content" modules that require unrealistically complex tagging and system intelligence
  • Content re-use visions requiring highly granular information models that become unsustainable over time
  • Devilishly complex navigation structures to support myriad potential user journey variants
  • And so on...

It's hard for any web or marketing manager to say no to this stuff at first. The wireframes will entice. The new features will look delicious in Photoshop. The HTML prototypes will likely test well. But then what?

A Reality Checklist for Agency Deliverables

I'd like to see UX consultancies include a special appendix when they deliver any spiffy new user experience plan. The appendix would contain a kind of "reality checklist" that itemizes the true cost and impact of each proposed visitor journey:

  1. Here's the operational maturity and ongoing staff education you'll require
  2. Here's how your upstream editorial processes will need to change on Day One
  3. Here's the metadata savvy (and consistency!) you'll have to sustain across your enterprise
  4. Here's the impact on the technical development schedule
  5. Here's a weekly schedule for all the new professional image and media assets you'll need to refresh
  6. Here's all the various changes and additions to your content you'll have to make prior to migration
  7. Here's the battery of tests you'll need to run to monitor UX fidelity among multiple dynamic page components
  8. Here's the performance hit at runtime
  9. Here's the new metrics you'll need to capture and analyze to prove value
  10. Here's the skillsets and level of effort you'll require on an ongoing basis to maintain this user experience

And oh by the way, here's the WCXM functionality you'll require to execute the proposed experience. Sometimes UX overreach can lead to enterprises investigating tools that are too complicated for them to deploy effectively. Those schedule and financial costs must get weighed against the benefits of each user journey.

What You Should Do

To be clear, I am a big proponent of UX methods. The right user experience should become your primary goal, with technology playing a supporting role. Just take the same critical eye to the practicality of proposed UX plans as you would to the suitability of any new software you introduce into the enterprise. Ask for that checklist.