The unaffordable cost of irrelevancy

1 Apr 2010

I have a friend who says that if you want the worst website imaginable, you simply have to get five brand and design people in a room drinking lattes. The rest will take care of itself. That expensive exercise in ego-nomics has been responsible for some of the worst homepage horror stories and landing page shockers that have dogged the web since its inception.

The enemy used to be obvious.

Dressed in a stripy suit and carrying a bag labelled ‘swag’, it typically took the form of an intro page, replete with moving graphics, occasional sound and ‘reinforcement of brand values’ to really give the user an ‘experience’ of the brand. It screamed loud and clear ‘our design team can do animation’ and ‘we don’t care about our customers’. It sharpened up the response times of users all over the world who found the ‘skip intro’ link in mere nanoseconds.

In time, even the most indulgent of web teams realised they were simply annoying their customers and so got rid of their frustrating Flash intro pages. However, too many of them have simply replaced the swag burglar with a more subtle, respectable enemy.

Dressed in a smart suit and saying all the right-sounding things, this enemy isn’t so crude as to bore your customers with animated intro pages but rather makes them weary by hiding the important information in behind the dross. Using age-old techniques like CEO welcome messages, photos of the team, and publishing everything and hoping that the customer can make their own way through it all, the respectable enemy has the same devastating effect on the effectiveness of your website.

Research on irrelevant homepages

Stanford University’s director of research and design, BJ Fogg, published in his Persuasive Technology paper that irrelevant homepages cause 71pc of people to leave immediately without going any further. Can you believe that? Seventy-one per cent! That’s like being rude to everyone who phones you up between Monday morning and Thursday lunchtime each week. It’s like burning nearly three-quarters of your mail when it arrives in the office or not replying to emails for a week.

We have to get beyond the notion that websites are beauty parades because we are paying an unsustainably high price for vanity publishing.

I was driving home from Dublin about a year ago and I was caught speeding just north of Dublin, or rather I mean a ‘friend’ was. He wanted to know how to pay his fine and so he visited the Garda website at to find out how. The first choice he was asked to make was ‘first time visitor’ or ‘previous visitor’. My friend immediately thought this was a trick question so opted for ‘first time visitor’.

You can imagine his relief to see a smiling picture of Noel Conroy, Garda Commissioner, welcoming him warmly to the site, explaining its many features.

He couldn’t recall the last time he visited a Garda station to pay a fine only to be invited to meet the sergeant who would welcome him warmly to the station. He felt sure that Noel would understand that he sped because he was in a hurry to get home to his missus and simply hadn’t noticed his speed. After the warm welcome from Noel he pressed ‘enter site’ and was finally able to work out how to pay his fine.

My friend couldn’t help wonder how long he would have lasted on the site were it not for the fact he needed to pay his fine. He pondered that if it had been a B2B, e-commerce or an e-government website he would have been long gone, along with 71pc of everyone else.

Photo: Gareth Dunlop is managing director of the leading digital consultancy Ion. Their customers are in 15 countries and include Commonwealth Secretariat, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Macmillan Cancer, Oklahoma Publishing and The Patent Office.

Read more by Gareth Dunlop: 

Urgent need for new online metrics   

Electricity and the gold rush

The real reason the recession is good for marketing

The class of 2009 wants your job!

Firms need to be customer zealots, not technology zealots

Firms need to put aside their fears and embrace the web

Online advertising overtakes TV advertising


Gareth Dunlop runs Fathom, a UX consultancy that helps organisations get the most from their digital products.