Website management: you can’t automate everything

The biggest challenge a website manager has is to understand how humans work, not how content management software or search engines work.

I recently did a workshop with a bunch of engineers in the audience. I was explaining the essential need to understand your customers by observing their behavior. “I don’t want to waste 30 minutes observing someone,” one engineer said to me.

First off, let me say that I have huge respect for engineers. Their genius has given us much of the modern world with all its conveniences. We need our engineers today more than ever.

However, at the heart of engineering, particularly software engineering, is the belief that there’s a way to automate everything. Engineers build engines, many of which are supposed to replace people.

The first time I heard the phrase “content management” I made the pretty silly assumption that content management was a discipline focused on how to professionally manage content. How wrong I was. Content management was, and to a large extent still is, about content management software.

The school of content management brought us such developments as portals, customization, personalization, and distributed publishing. These management-free, technology-driven solutions have led to public websites and intranets teeming with poor quality, badly organized, out-of-date content.

What do you get when you personalize crap content? Personalized crap content. What do you get when you distribute publishing rights to people who can’t write, don’t care about what they write, think metadata is a country bordering Outer Mongolia, and will never, ever review or remove what they publish? You get the website you deserve.

Why do so many organizations think they can solve the problem of customers finding stuff on their websites by simply buying a new search engine? No extra staff. No management of the search process. Magic mushrooms may exist but a magic search engine certainly doesn’t.

Technology is important, even critical, but we still need quality people to manage websites if we want those websites to deliver value to the organization. Web managers’ number one task is to develop a deep understanding of customer web behavior. There is no better way to do this than to observe customers as they seek to complete top tasks on your website.

Recently, Amazon got in a lot of trouble when a ‘technical glitch’ or ‘cataloging error’ resulted in thousands of books, including many gay and lesbian books, becoming much more difficult to find on its website. “This whole mishagoss could have been easily avoided but for the one thing Amazon (not to mention a whole lot of other online entities) is notoriously remiss - actual human-on-human customer service,” MSNBC’s Helen Popkin writes.

“Like many of its online compatriots, Amazon wants to automate everything,” Ann All writes for ITBusinessEdge. Amazon is a truly customer-centric organization that continuously invests in understanding its customers, but sometimes even they get it wrong.

To understand web self-service it is much more important to develop an understanding of human behavior in an online environment than to master any technology.

You can’t automate everything, as Amazonfail shows


2 responses

  1. Gerry

    I live with the CMS scenario, day in, day out. Of late I have been fortunate enough to work with a design team who have asked me to humanise the CMS they use for all their sites; this is refreshing.

    But, alas this isn’t the usual story, the engineer who said: “I don’t want to waste 30 minutes observing someone,” is the reaction I normally encounter.

    I mean if engineers have difficulty allowing web manager’s access to a website, what hope is there for the customers?

    The fully automated approach is perfect when everything is going well, but when there’s a blip, it’s like having the rudest shop assistant, who turns their back on you in the store and proceeds to go on their coffee break just when you need their help.

    Sites are still living in the past by not embracing the future, one thing that will never change is us being human, and humans, now and then need a little hand holding to guide us when we’re not sure which way to go.

    The web is brilliant, it means access to so much, for so many, let’s just make that scenario easier.

  2. Never a wiser word spoken. Thanks for this delicious post Gerry. You are my new internet superhero.

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