Friday, March 12, 2004

Should Our Websites All Look the Same?

Today an interesting topic came up on the CHI-WEB mailing list, a discussion list on human-computer interaction as it relates to the web. One member asked about the pros and cons of using different web designs and organizational schemes for different websites owned by the same organization.

Here is my response to her post:

-----

Pat M wrote:

> Sent: Friday, March 12, 2004 10:36 AM
> To: CHI-WEB@ACM.ORG
> Subject: DISCUSSION: Do extranets dilute your users' experience?
>
> Looking for research and/or anecdotal input about the following:
>
> If you have an established public Web site, and you have a
> significant new section to add or enhance, what are the pros
> and cons to using an extranet (a related, though different,
> domain/url) vs. just incorporating it into your public site?

This is an interesting question, one that I've thought about in connection with a number of projects, including my two primary current projects. (One is my own commercial site about permission marketing; the other is the website for a graduate school.)

Just an initial comment, which doesn't necessarily affect the question you are asking: Maybe this is just arguing semantics, but you are using the term "extranet" differently than the way I do (and from the generally-accepted definition, as I understand it).

I think most organizations define an extranet as an extension of the organization's intranet, allowing customers, partners, suppliers, mobile workers, and others to access internal information and services using a private, secure account through the Internet (commonly by means of a personalized secure web page accessed by username and password). One of the most common examples, I guess, might be the system that allows you to maintain an account at Amazon.com and buy lots of stuff on impulse using One-Click.

In the example of the Enterprise Rent-A-Car employment site, I would say the extranet is the system you enter when you login or create a new account as a job seeker. The employment site you mentioned at http://www.erac.com/recruit/ is an additional public website in the company's larger set of public web properties established for various purposes.

That said, I think your real question has to do with issues of branding, design, and user experience within an organization's larger "family" of web properties. Many companies and organizations operate multiple websites at different domain names or subdomains, or have different sections of a single website devoted to very different content.

Here are some of the questions that come to my mind for decisions around this kind of issue (assuming we are talking about a new web project):

1. What is the strategic purpose of the set of web content and web-based services planned for this new project? Does strategy suggest a distinct brand, interaction design, organization of content, look and feel?

2. Who is the expected user and what are that person's goals?

3. What are the constraints on this project, in terms of budget, resources, schedule, stakeholder influence, or other factors?

>
> For example, why would "companyX.com" create
> "companyXjobs.com" or "newservice.companyX.com" instead of
> just creating/enhancing that section of "companyX.com"?

Although one would like to think that some strategic thinking goes into decisions like this, that might not always be the case. The various web properties within an organization might have been developed at different times by different project teams for different purposes under different departmental budgets.

Awhile back, I took over management of the website of the graduate school that I mentioned before. The school has a very flat management structure that promotes collaboration, consensus, and grassroots empowerment. These are values that have a lot of worth, but it does mean that communications efforts take place in an environment that brings together many conflicting forces, especially in such a hot-button area as web development.

So the school's website is more like a mosaic of many mini-sites. The graphic design, navigation, and interaction design have a fair amount of consistency, which was not easy to achieve, given the cast of characters involved. But technically the site is organized around something like 15-20 subdomains, along the lines of psychdept.gradschool.edu, admissions.gradschool.edu, registrar.gradschool.edu, and so on.

I don't really have an opinion whether this is a good thing or a bad thing. One of the main reasons it was set up this way, as I understand it, is because this scheme supposedly results in shorter URLs, which are better for publishing in print. In other words, the publications department would much rather say:

To find out more about our Education programs, please visit eddept.gradschool.edu

as opposed to something like www.gradschool.edu/eddept/edprograms/yetmorewordstotype.html

What's interesting to me about this is that this structure of many domains came about in part from the wishes of the publications department and their ability to influence the web design process -- these are folks who are primarily in the business of print publishing, not electronic communication. I'm not saying whether that's a good thing or a bad thing, I just think it's interesting in terms of organizational dynamics as they affect web development.

>
> Assume for this question that the technical effort and
> expense is essentially the same for either venue -- maybe
> just marginally higher on the public site.
>
> As an actual example, if you go to Enterprise Rent-A-Car
> (http://www.enterprise.com) and click on "Careers," you go
> here: http://www.erac.com/recruit/default.asp. [No fault to
> Enterprise, it's just an example I'm aware of.]

Graphically, just about the only design feature that made it into both websites is the green "e" logo at the top left corner!

>
> Furthermore, if a company has spent time and money to
> establish its brand, why create different-looking Web sites?

So I guess I would say that in an ideal world, a company would create different-looking sites because they meet different strategic goals and serve different audiences with different needs. You might say that 'form follows function,' borrowing a principle from building architecture.

In reality, though, I think that many web projects come about in more of an ad-hoc manner. The VP of communications at Enterprise probably thought she achieved a major victory by convincing the VP of human resources to include the green "e" in the upper left corner.

Al Bredenberg
Broad Mountain Associates, LLC
Strategic Consulting
http://www.broadmountain.com
http://www.relucantgeek.com
ab@broadmountain.com
203-743-1946

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