Paring, Pruning, Planting - Managing Digital Growth

We planted a Weeping Pussy Willow in the rock bed adjacent to our deck a few years ago.  At the time it was just slightly taller than waist high... with green leafy branches that gracefully floated down to the ground.  Here's the cute little tree when we planted it (just to right rear of dog):
A few years later, this tree stood over six feet tall, a thriving monument to our landscaping efforts, and a monumental maintenance pain:  Prolific in its growth and planted a bit too closely to the deck railing ... it stood unruly most of the time.  Here it is a photo taken a few weeks after a serious trimming.
We had aptly named our tree "Cousin It" (after the classic Addams Family character) because when it grew out, it looked like the picture below -- only green and leafy -- and missing a hat:
To be attractive, Cousin It needed to be well groomed - at least monthly and with great care.  If I trimmed too much, it seemed to grow faster.  If I didn't trim it enough, it would begin to take over the railing, deck and everything else nearby, as new chutes sprang up and the long, extending branches grew down into the ground and took root!  Because the tree grew just off the deck adjacent to my home office, I spent a lot of time taming this beast on my breaks.

One day, I emerged from my office bleary eyed and exasperated. I had been conducting a user experience evaluation for a major brand, and desperately needed to clear my head in the fresh air.  I had found some unbelievable problems with my client's digital media presence that were not easy to explain prioritize or correct;  the outcomes of poor information design, technology issues and some bad thinking.  I stood there, contemplatively... as Cousin It stared back at me:  gangly, unruly and defiant.

Perhaps as an outlet for my frustration, I grabbed my clippers and engaged in a pruning fit.   As I furiously clipped and trimmed, I ruminated on the somewhat overwhelming and prolific challenges my client faced.  Some seemed unfathomable...and yet they were also way too familiar to me. 

The fact was, in different iterations, I found the same challenges on many of the other, highly reputable. large client websites and digital outposts I surveyed:

  • Bad logic in the decision tree which created hurdles and challenges for users
  • Navigational methods that conflicted with each other, resulting in serious usability issues
  • Lack of visual cues to adequately support way finding
  • Multiple properties repeating the same static message
  • Robotic, content full of "enterprise speak" - no sense of real humans working there
  • Poorly written or unclear content, instruction or communication
  • Conflicting messages and offers
  • Non-functioning or absent links
  • Pages that did not function or load properly
  • Sites that failed to load or function properly on mobile channels
  • Registration, opt-in and transactional forms that didn't function properly
  • Access issues and complications related to user permissions (log in, sign-up, etc.)
  • Lack of SEO and page optimization
  • SEO counsel that had actually worked to undermine usability
  • Lack of social integration (like, plus, share) across digital properties
  • Lack of ability to drive users effectively down key paths to drive business outcomes

I realized the problems my client faced were a lot like the branches and chutes I was hacking away at:  They were natural outcomes of rapid growth, poor communication, poor planning and execution and even some outright negligence.   However, the truth was, this client could no longer see clearly or objectively.  They knew there were problems but they didn't know where to start to correct things. Using Cousin It as an example, they couldn't see the tree for the branches!  

I suddenly realized the honor of my position.  They'd asked me to focus a trained eye to overcome what had become their own blind spots.  They knew I could help them, and I would.  Reaching this good place in my head... I ended my clipping frenzy and threw out the pile of offending branches.  Then, with renewed energy and a true sense of purpose, I went back to work. 

It took time, a lot of discussion and problem solving, but we began to fix things gradually....starting with the things that mattered most.   Sometimes, we had to compromise and fix things slower than I would have liked.  As we went along, we also needed to periodically take a break and assess the work from a distance to make sure things were taking the right shape for the business and the people they served. 

Today, this client is making great progress along with many others.  It has been my pleasure to see the fruits of our labor, which seemed so far off in the season of paring, pruning and planting.

Sometimes, all we need is some outside perspective (myself included) and a carefully trained, caring eye to help us overcome the hurdles in front of us.   It's true for gardeners, information architects, experience designers ... and it's true in life, too.


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LEIGH DURST

LEIGH DURST
I’m Leigh Durst, a 20 year veteran in business, operations, customer strategy, ecommerce, digital & social media and marketing. Simply put, I’m a strategist that helps companies (start-up to blue chip) achieve business shift, create more compelling online and offline experiences. I also write, speak and teach about experience design and next-generation business. I’m a futurist, visionary, strategist, doer and connector with a passion for people and helping others. When I’m not on the road, you’ll find me in the San Francisco bay area, working, beaching it and hanging out with my family and dog.

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Web Redesign: Workflow that Works