07 November 2013

Don't let Stanley Kubrick design your web content!

"So, I went to that company's site," the business reporter told me. "What do they do?"
 Ouch! 
I was embarrassed by that question about my PR client and frustrated that I had little or no input on their site's content. All key pages on the niche BPO provider's site were dominated by slogans, vision statements, mission statements, graphics of world maps, etc., but no clear description of what specialized services they provided.

To put it in terms of science fiction movies, the reporter needed to see a web site that read like Star Wars, but her  experience was more akin to watching 2001: A Space Odyssey.

I'm a fan of Stanley Kubrick's movies and Arthur C. Clarke's novels, but I thought the famous 1968 collaboration between the two suffered from serious gaps in story-telling. Kubrick meant to take a non-verbal approach to the movie, reaching the viewer at a visual or visceral level rather than through conventional narrative.

But I really wanted to know what the hell was going on in the third act, when the Discovery One's onboard AI starts killing crew members.  HAL9000's motive or malfunction is never revealed, and the stylized conclusion, "Jupiter and beyond the Infinite," is as confusing as it is breathtaking.

I didn't get the point of the story until I read Clarke's novelization of the screenplay a few months later.  "Ohhhh!" I said. "That's what they were up to," too late.

I was as oblivious to what was going on as Moonwatcher, the hominid ancestor of the human race, when he first encounters the alien monolith.

Company web sites often similarly mystify their visitors—not as mystified as Moonwatcher, but at least as confused as I was watching 2001 at 17.

Three example guidelines for avoiding this problem:
  • Describe what people or other companies pay you to do, even if your target prospects are likely to know that already. 
  • Give the reader an idea of how you provide the services or products in a unique way, different from your competition. (Pro tip: Just saying that you're "better" is only believable to your mom.)
  • Label site navigation tabs with terms that inform the visitor precisely what they will find after clicking them.  
  • The ancient (in internet terms) Web Site Visitor's Bill of Rights contains other guidelines that are still relevant today, and still broken today.


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