9 Ways to Stop Your SXSW Panel From Sucking | February 24, 2009

Each year, hundreds of assorted geeks will get the chance to speak on a panel at SXSW, many for the first time. I’ve witnesses some truly inspiring and thought provoking sessions at SXSW. However I’ve also had to sit through my share of turkeys, from the mind numbingly boring to the painfully embarrassing. So here are my top 9 ways to stop your panel sucking.

  1. Keep your introductions short and sweet. Nobody wants to hear your life story.
  2. Create drama. Panels suck if everybody agrees, so don’t be afraid to argue.
  3. Plan your panels in advance. Don’t tell your audience you met for the first time that morning.
  4. Alternatively keep it spontaneous. Don’t tell your audience about the great discussion you had over breakfast.
  5. Make your responses snappy. Don’t hog the mic and don’t waffle.
  6. Don’t try to be be smart, cute or wacky if you’re none of those things.
  7. Be interesting. Try to entertain and inspire as much as educate.
  8. Keep the pace going. A good panel will live and die by it’s moderator.
  9. Audience questions need to be short and to the point. Cut people off if you need to.

As I’m on a panel for the first time this year (I normally do presentations) hopefully I’ll heed my own advice and manage not to suck.

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Is your website like a leaky bucket? | February 18, 2009

A lot of companies make money by driving traffic to their sites through marketing or SEO campaigns in the hope that some of their visitors will turn into customers. This makes sense when attention is plentiful and online marketing is cheap. However as marketing costs rise and attention becomes increasingly scarce, companies need to look outside of the traditional marketing funnel. Rather than simply increasing traffic, companies need to start focussing on conversions. After all there’s no point spending large sums of money pushing people to your site if they leave when they get there.

I call this the “leaky bucket” approach to product design and marketing. When water is cheap and plentiful, you don’t mind spilling most of it on the ground as long as you capture enough to quench your thirst. If you need more water you simply open the tap faster. You’ll end up spilling more but it doesn’t matter as you’ll catch more as a result. However as water supplies start to dwindle and costs begin to rise you’ll eventually reach a point when you can no longer afford to be wasting so much water. Instead it become much cheaper and more efficient to repair your bucket. As it currently stands most websites are literally leaking customers. These are people that actively want to use your product or service but can’t due to poor organisation or design.

This is where usability and user experience comes to the rescue. By ensuring visitors can find what they are looking for when they reach your site, you can plug some of the bigger holes. However the biggest holes are usually core processes like registration or check-out. A badly designed check-out process could literally be costing your company millions in lost revenue. In fact it’s not uncommon to see shopping cart abandonment rates as high as 95% on some sites.

Some of this can be put down to people window shopping, but a lot of this is due to bad process design. Shoppers with money in their hands getting frustrated by badly designed forms, or blocked by requirements to register before purchasing. For instance we came across a site the other day that prevented customers outside the US making purchases because State was mandatory and zip code was limited to 5 characters. We’ve even seen situations where customers think they have made a purchase but haven’t due to poor feedback design. All these issues are simple to discover and simple to fix.

So as attention starts to dry up, website owners need to start looking at plugging the holes in their system or risk losing out on business. After all it’s been known for a long time in marketing circles that it’s much cheaper to keep existing customers than it is to find new ones.

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Don't treat your website like a commodity | February 15, 2009

The traditional approach to product development involves coming up with new idea and then driving as many people towards that product as possible, in the hope that some of them will want it. As such we adopt the language of marketing, and talk about marketing funnels and conversion rates. If our marketing department has done a good job they will have created a campaign that not only generates traffic, but creates a previously unrecognised need. Tired? Need a break? Why not have a KitKat?

This approach treats every product like a commodity to be bought and sold. However the problem with commodity marketing is the fact that there is very little difference between products. There is so little difference between a Snickers and a Mars bar you can’t really compete on features. And because commodities are generally cheap you can’t really complete on price or quality either. So instead you create brands, build tribes and keep pumping money into your marketing campaign to ensure that when you’re standing at the chocolate counter with your 50p, for some reason your brain says “how about Twix” instead of a hundred other confectionaries. It’s not very subtle and is a bit of an arms race, but in the word of commodity marketing it’s really all the ammunition you’ve got.

Sadly most website owners treat their online products in a very similar way. Rather than creating something that users actually want, they’ll simply extend another product or service. So just in the same way that Mr Snickers may have looked at Mr Mars and said, let’s make something similar, but with nuts, your average web entrepreneur will take an existing product, service or idea and extend it slightly. Even it it’s a genuine innovation it’s usually the idea that comes first, rather than the need.

Because there is little difference between the majority of online products, product managers resort to old school commodity marketing and focus their attention of driving traffic to their site in the hope that a few people will stick. This is why most big online products seem to focus more of their attention on SEO and marketing than they do on the product itself. After all, in their eyes the site is just another product to be bought and sold. It doesn’t really matter if it’s actually any good.

To get around this problem, people need to put a lot more thought into projects at their inception. It’s easy to fixate on a good idea, but our first ideas aren’t always then best. There’s nothing to say that there aren’t even better ideas out there waiting to be discovered. So rather than jumping in there with the first idea that makes the grade, try to analyse the problem from the users perspective. Does what you’re building solve a real or simply an imagined need. Are there more important, yet to be discovered needs that your product or service could solve instead?

Go out there and do some research. Watch people use existing products or services, both online and off. Ask people what they like about the services and what they dislike. Try to find out what frustrates them about the current status quo and use this to look for unmet needs. Rather than creating just another “me too” product, see how your site fits into the bigger ecology. Rather than compete with the market leader, try to compliment their services and fill a gap they’re not able to meet. Create prototypes and test them on real users. However don’t just do this to see if the site is usable, do it to see if the site meets users needs and be willing to ditch the prototype or even the project if it fails to test well.

I think one of the reasons most online products fail is through a lack of research, planning and customer empathy. We put all our eggs in one basket, without knowing if it’s the right basket or not. We end up committing to one course of action far too early in the process, so by the time the signals start coming in it’s too late to alter course. We have this fear that the time we spend on planning is wasted as it could be spent on production instead. However research and planning can not only help you avoid costly mistakes later on in the process, it can ultimately help you build better, more fulfilling products. Products that solve real world problems and make you more money in the process.

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Why I Can't Afford Cheap | February 9, 2009

I remember reading a story once about an octogenarian discussing her most prized possessions with a researcher. She shows the researcher an iron that’s been going for over 40 years and explains how she had to scrimp and save to buy the product and how it ended up out living even her husband. Quizzed on why she spent so much money on the iron she said “I’m too poor to buy cheap!”

Too poor to buy cheap. That simple phase really resonated with me and has stuck with me ever since.

Cheap is quick. Cheap is dirty. Cheap is disposable.

Cheap breaks.

Cheap costs money. It costs money to fix, it costs money to replace.

Cheap seems like a good idea at the time but cheap fails when you most need it.

Cheap is flimsy and unsatisfying.

Cheap is inefficient.

Cheap gets in your way.

Cheap costs you time and it costs you customers.

Cheap always cost you more in the end. That’s why I can’t afford to buy cheap. Can you?

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UX London book competition | February 9, 2009

Register now for the chance to win a mountain of UX Books, signed just for you!

That’s right. If you register for UX London before the Early Bird ticket deadline of 25th February, we’ll enter you into a free prize draw to win a stack of books by the speakers at UX London. What’s more, all the books will be signed by the authors themselves and contain a personalised dedication just for you. So you’ll be able to show off your signed copy of Don Norman’s “Design of Everyday Things” to all your mates in the office, complete with an inscription saying that you taught him everything he knows*.

Just register before the end of the early bird discount period on the 25th February and you’ll automatically be entered into the prize draw. To do this, either buy your ticket by credit card or complete the invoice form. This applies to those of you who have already registered too.

So what are you waiting for?

*Inscriptions may vary ;-)

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CSS Mastery Workshop in April | February 5, 2009

Just a quick note to let you know I’ll be running a public CSS Mastery workshop in Brighton on the 16th June. It’s going to be based on revised material for my book, so you’ll be amongst the first to sample it.

Hope to see a few of you there.

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