Deciding what Features to Implement: Go for the Win-Win.

Deciding what features to implement on a site is not easy. It’s not that designers lack ideas, we often have many of them: too many to implement. Somehow we have to sift through these ideas and figure out which ones are the best ones to implement in the scope of the project and which ones aren’t worth the time and effort. Here’s one way how.

Note: this is part one of a two part series. Part 2 is about Letting Features Emerge From User Behavior.

I recently got the chance to co-teach a class on web standards. The classes are relatively straight-forward: we talk about XHTML and CSS and how they relate to one another. Most questions that come up in class are about how to use CSS to implement a specific visual design element, and most are easy to deal with, either by answering outright or by quickly finding a helpful resource. Some questions that the students dream up, however, are much more difficult to answer. These questions generally deal not with how to design, but with what to design.

For example, one student is redesigning a small web site for a local company. The company has had the web site for several years but really hasn’t done much with it. The owner of the company wants the site to convince visitors to call him for further information about his products and services. However, he’s not getting as many calls as he wants and he feels that the current site is not living up to its potential. He has asked the designer to find that potential.

This puts the designer in a tough position. Not only are they expected to create an appealing design that looks good (which is all that is asked of some designers), but they are also expected to come up with features that positiviely influence the behavior of those who visit the site.

Too many Ideas, Not Enough Time

Deciding what features to implement on a site is not easy. It’s not that designers lack ideas, we often have many of them: too many to implement. Somehow we have to sift through these ideas and figure out which ones are the best ones to implement in the scope of the project and which ones aren’t worth the time and effort.

If you’re in this situation, where you’re dealing with a client who expects you to create a design that does more than look good, while offering very little guidance how to do so, take the path of least resistance: design for the win-win.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what makes a good feature because I’ve noticed myself returning to the same examples of features I think are great. Until recently, however, I didn’t realize what they all had in common: they provide a win for both the site and the users of it.

Ask a Simple Question

For every feature you’re considering, simply ask: Is this feature a win-win? This may seem like an obvious question, but given the relative newness of the Web and the amazing amount of experimentation out there I don’t think that it hurts to have a realistic question to ask. More specifically:

  1. Does the feature improve the experience for the user?
  2. Does the feature lead to either revenue or attention for the site?

If a feature does both (within the scope of your project) then it deserves serious consideration for implementation. If it only satisfies one of the criteria, or none, it doesn’t deserve as much consideration.

An Example of the Win-Win in Practice

Here are serveral features that you can find on many web sites. To demonstrate how this question might help us decide whether to implement these features, all I’ve done is ask how it helps users and how it helps the site:

Flash Intros

  • User: Flash intros often hurt the user experience by distracting users from whatever they came to the site for. In some cases they may impress people in the short term, but over time they become annoying re-runs.
  • Site: Flash intros cost a lot of money to implement and do get attention, but not the right kind of attention. They promote temporary negative attention (skip flash links were borne out of this) as well as long-term negative attention.

Flash intros are a Lose-Lose

Advertising

  • User: Advertisements distract users, providing a (slightly) negative user experience. Admittedly, it is difficult to imagine a visitor leaving a site simply because of an advertisement. However, it is not difficult to imagine that over several page views a user who is frustrated ultimately leaves a site simply because they’re sick of dodging ads to find the content they want. At some point, it will be different for everybody, this will happen. (It happened to me on lockergnome.com, a web site with more advertising than you can shake a stick at.)
  • Site: On sites with lots of traffic, advertising can be a big win generating huge revenue, but it’s becoming less and less likely. Only very large sites are able to generate significant revenue.

Advertising is a Win-Lose

Customer Reviews

  • User: Users who read customer reviews are better informed about the decision they’re going to make than those who don’t. This is a definite improvement in the user experience. I’ve seen several user testing sessions where a user will actually go to Amazon and read reviews before buying something on the site they’re currently on (some would have bought it at Amazon if they could have). Users love them.
  • Site: Reviews are a win for the site because they lead to increased revenue. Confident users (those who have read both pros and cons within the reviews) buy more stuff. However, reviews can work against a site if they are about the site itself or are overly negative. For most sites with a decent amount of content, however, there are good and bad things to talk about, not just bad things. Also, because reviews give insight into the user experience, consideration of negative reviews can actually lead to improvements over time.

Customer reviews are a Win-Win

These three features are common on the Web: I’m sure that most people are familiar with them. Many design groups have probably considered them for implementation at some point. Some may have even implemented them. Even though I think that only 1 out of 3 of these features is a win-win, I should add that my answers to the questions may not hold for every design project. I based my answers on the types of projects that I work on.

Also, when thinking about these questions think about the unfamiliar. The other day I had an unfamiliar experience that was slightly different than the three features I mentioned above as well as different than most features designers might consider when faced with improving a web site.

An Unfamiliar Feature

I configured a new Mac Mini on the apple.com web site. I’ve been interested in the Mini since it debuted because it is exactly what I need: a headless Mac (no screen) that I could use as a modest web server. To configure the product, I went through some options and put the Mini in my shopping cart. I wasn’t planning on buying just then, but I wanted to see what the total cost was so I could plan it into my budget.

The next day Apple called me. The woman who I was talking to said, “I noticed that you’re interested in a Mac Mini”. I said, “Am I?”, at the same moment I figured out how she knew. She said, “Well I knew because you have one in your Apple.com shopping cart”. I said, “Yes, I am interested in the Mac Mini”. At that point she offered me a deal, a small discount off the Mini configured as it was in my shopping cart.

After I got off the phone, I realized that this is a definite win-win situation for Apple and me. They recognized that I was interested in a product, and they called me to talk about it. I was surprised, because Apple rarely offers deals of any kind on their merchandise. I was happy about that.

I didn’t buy the Mini that day, however. I’m still saving up for it. But I do have the contact information of the woman who called me, and she assured me that the deal will still be intact when I do decide to purchase. So now it’s not a question of whether I will purchase, but when. I win by getting a deal on a machine that I was seriously considering anyway. Apple gets a win by making me happier than I would have been, as well as providing personal, helpful service at the time of the call. They also all but guaranteed the sale.

What makes this situation different is that it happened offline. The “feature” in this case has two parts. One is the ability to track users who place items in their shopping cart without making a purchase. The other is to then follow up with those users in the form of a friendly phone call.

Consider All Options

As designers, we often focus very hard on what we can do for the web site within our own skillset. When asked what features we suggest, we often suggest and implement those that we have implemented in the past. However, our skillset might only be part of the equation, as in this example. (I’m assuming that nobody wants to build a shopping cart and then call the folks who abandon them).

So, consider all your options for features, even those that don’t fit our usual conceptions of one. If you can demonstrate that it’s a win for the user and a win for the site, it might just be worthy of implementation.

Published: February 17th, 2005

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