Overcoming stagnation

Paul Boag

For many websites the days of rapid growth have passed and they have slipped into stagnation. How then can you re-energise a site and start it growing again?

In a recent report that I wrote for one of our clients at Headscape I explained how most websites pass through a common product life cycle. This life cycle includes the following stages…

  • Exploration – Most organisations begin with a series of exploratory sites, where they discover the potential of the web. This often involves low investment and slow growth.
  • Growth – At some point during the exploration phases the ‘penny drops’ and the organisation realises how the web can benefit their business. More substantial investment is made, the site is dramatically improved, and rapid growth follows.
  • Stagnation – Following the initial rapid growth there is a period of stagnation. This is because the ‘quick win’ fixes have been made to the site. Obvious problems have been resolved and so the benefits of fixing these changes have passed.
  • Maturity – Once the challenges of overcoming stagnation have been met, a site enters a period of gradual but steady growth. This is characterised by continual incremental changes to the site, which consistently stimulate growth.

It is easy to generate rapid growth on an early version of a website. There are so many obvious problems to fix. You can have a big impact with relatively little effort. However, what happens once that stage is over? How do you avoid sinking into stagnation?

Overcoming stagnation

Stagnation is not an entirely negative period. Although it consists of slower growth, it does not mean a decline. However it does generate fear…

  • A fear that growth will turn into decline
  • A fear of the competition catching up
  • A fear of losing customer loyalty

This fear can lead to knee jerk reactions that are detrimental. This mentality manifests itself in two particular reactions. First, it leads to panic decision making. Something has to be done and it must be done now. Second, it leads to the creation of additional features. These two reactions often go hand in hand. As growth slows, organisations seek ways to maintain momentum. One source they turn to is user feedback. However, instead of considering the impact of suggestions on the overall usability, they instead grasp hold of it ‘as something we can do’ and implement immediately. This leads to feature creep and complexity. Before long all vision for the site is lost and the organisation has become reactive.

This can be overcome in three ways…

  • Going back to basics – Step back occasionally and ask two questions. Why does your site exist and who is it aimed at? So much time can be spent troubleshooting, adding features and responding to requests, that focus is lost. It is easy to spend time placating the requests of the vocal minority, while damaging usability for the majority.
  • Pause and evaluate – Every website receives criticism. However, it is important to pause before responding to that criticism. Who is criticising? Are they an important segment of your audience, how many of the same comments are you receiving? How serious is the criticism? Is it a mild inconvenience or a serious issue? What are the ramifications of fixing the problem? Who else will it effect and in what way? The danger is that by rushing in to a fix a problem you create more.
  • Simplify – There is a belief that growth is maintained by giving the user more. However, often the opposite is true. Look to solve problems and increase growth by simplifying your site not by adding new features.

It is the area of simplicity where I believe there is most to learn.

The importance of simplicity

There are two reasons why simplicity is important…

  • Simplicity sales
  • Users have limited attention

What do I mean when I say simplicity sales?

Simplicity sells

One of the most successful products of our time is the iPod, and yet it is inferior to its competition in almost all ways. It is more expensive, has inferior technology and offers less features. The reason it has come to dominate the market is because it is simple and easy to use. This simplicity has become the trademark of Apple products and with it has come new-found growth for the company.

There are examples online too. In the early years of the web Yahoo! dominated search listings. However, as the web grew their site struggled to adapt. It became complex and hard to use. It is therefore not surprising that the minimalist interface of Google came as a breath of fresh air and quickly supplanted Yahoo’s dominance.

Google went on to apply this same simplistic approach to online advertising. They swept aside traditional banner advertising, replacing it with simpler text adverts accompanied by a ease to use administration system that allowed anybody to run an ad campaigns. The majority of users will select simplicity over functionality.

Limited attention

We forget that people have a limited capacity to process information. In fact we are only able to process 6-7 pieces of information simultaneously. That is why we find it so hard to learn to drive. It is not until we can process information on a sub conscious level that we feel relaxed driving.

As we translate this principle to the web it becomes apparent why web pages can be so overwhelming. There is simply too much going on. One technique to reduce complexity is assigning user attention points to pages. For example, lets say you have 15 points of user attention to spend. Each item you add to the page costs 1 point of attention. If you want something to stand out it needs more points. This demonstrates that you need to reduce the number of screen elements or risk a lack of focus because points are too thinly spread. This problem is perfectly demonstrated by the difference between the Yahoo! and Google home pages…

Google and Yahoo Homepages

When compared to Google it is obvious that Yahoo! is demanding too much from its users and spreading their attention too thinly. By having so much content and not emphasising any particular element, the whole page lacks definition. It needs to prioritise and simplify its content.

To move a website from stagnation to maturity we need to simplify. This involves making some difficult choices.

Simplifying is hard for two reasons…

  • It is hard to remove functionality you have invested in.
  • It is hard to remove functionality people use.

Nevertheless it is necessary.

When it comes to the mental barrier of removing functionality you need to recognise that it is costing you money. Every time the complexity of that functionality undermines the user experience it is potentially driving users away and reducing profit.

Just because some people use a piece of functionality does not mean you should keep it. Every piece of functionality on your website is probably used. The question is, how much are they used and how badly does it overcomplicate the user experience for everybody else?

The above post is an extract from a report written for WFF by Headscape