User Interface Engineering wrote an excellent article about how Netflix publishes changes to their site every 2 weeks. Highly recommended. I’m envious of Netflix.

Web development as product development

Let’s think of a web site as a product that your web marketing team is designing. Most user experience professionals already think in these terms. A product like a remote control needs to be tested before it’s released to customers. If it’s hard to use after it’s released into the wild, you’re going to have a lot of unsatisfied customers. What makes a web site great in comparison is that it can be modified after being released to the public. On the fly. No recalls.

Unfortunately, most every design team I’ve worked with has handled web design “the old way.” They blame experience issues on the current design and do not want to test and tweak it. “A grand redesign will solve it all, once and for all,” teams have argued. They yearn for the golden moment that they can tear down everything they’ve done and start all over again. Talk about a waste of investment!

“Iterative process” isn’t worth anything until you include the word “rapid”

Some design teams have masked this problem by adopting a process that uses a concept called iterations. I’m fine with using this word in the right context, don’t get me wrong. But then, all of a sudden, an iteration turns into 3 months of work due to an overly-bloated process. Often this 3 months of effort is based on a weak, untested design.

Time to rework your company

In The Invisible Computer, Don Norman argues that companies will have to rework their entire org chart in order to get their product design methodologies right. Particularly with technology. But, as Netflix has demonstrated, it goes way beyond the org chart. It goes as deep as the company’s culture, down to the level of the individual employee’s attitude.

Take this for example. If you’ve ever done usability work in a larger web development environment, I’m sure you’ve seen this scenario, described in the article:

Once, a designer had spent time and energy working on a feature that testing showed didn’t work. When it came time for the team to remove the feature from the site, the designer was distraught. He had become too emotionally invested in his design, and it got in the way of his job.

Designing a good product takes a large level of humility. All of your design decisions are merely guesses as to what is right. You don’t know what works until you test it on actual people. No more shooting lightning bolts down on the peasants from your tower. Companies like Netflix and eBay have it right. (I think I once read that eBay has a weekly iteration cycle.)

In order to be successful with your product or web site, you need to work with humble designers. Anyone who makes a decision about the product’s functionality has to accept that they are probably wrong. Decision makers have to be confident that the testing process will reveal the truth.