Designing Web Usability by Jakob Nielsen

Last night one of my UVSC students (actually, a successful net entrepreneur already) told me she was reading Jakob Nielsen’s Designing Web Usability, which I highly recommend. It reminded me that there are a core set of books, related to a core set of skills, that are absolutely essential to a successful internet business. Web design, of course, can make or break a web site. But so can several other things.

You could liken a successful online business to a chain of dominoes. If one domino is missing, the line of dominoes will not work. But I prefer thinking in terms of mathematical formulas. Let’s say you take a set of core skills and assign each of them a value of 0-1. Then you line them up and multiply them. The product of all the numbers becomes the likelihood of success for your venture, or rather, describes the revenue-generating potential of your web site.

I would propose that the following “core skills” would represent numbers in our mathematical formula:

  • web site hosting (a slow site can kill your online revenue potential)
  • web site design usability
  • web site credibility
  • search engine friendliness of web site design/architecture
  • content management system (how quickly can you update the site?)
  • online marketing strategy and tactics (how are you bringing visitors to your site?)
  • web analytics and skill and speed in testing and measuring new ads/designs/copy/offers
  • customer database design (to streamline repeat orders and maximize lifetime value of customers)
  • customer and prospect email marketing strategy

So the success formula could perhaps be written as hosting x usability x credibility x seo x cms x marketing x analytics x database x email strategy

Using numbers, now, let’s assume that your team is perfectly skilled at every aspect of your internet business except web site design. Your revenue generating potential would be calculated like this.

1 x .5 x 1 x 1 x 1 x 1 x 1 x 1 x 1 = .5

Looking at your web business this way, you simply cannot afford to be weak in any of these core skills. Most large companies don’t have these core competencies, at least not in a group that controls the web site. It is more likely that very small and cohesive teams that combine marketing, development, and IT strengths. That is precisely why most of the wildly successful internet companies (eBay, Yahoo, Amazon.com) were pure-play start ups with very small teams in the beginning.

It is very difficult to build a web site infrastructure that combines a well-architected customer database with a content management system, web analytics, and a permission-based email marketing strategy. When you have multiple weaknesses in your chain of core skills, you are multiplying low numbers, and you quickly end up with a very weak revenue-generating machine.

Most companies that I have consulted for look something like this:

.8 x .7 x .6 x .5 x .4 x .3 x .2 x .2 x .5 = .0004

The product of the typical online business is therefore .0004, or less than 1/2000ths of the potential, if they had every competency and executed perfectly in every way, becoming one of the leading web companies in their space.

It usually takes years and significant capital to develop (or hire) and hone these core skills and to build the kind of machine that is possible to build. But those internet companies who have done it can reach valuations in the billions. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of individuals and small businesses generate some revenue online, but far below their potential. Unfortunately for the late-comers, there seems to be a network effect and customer lock-in that rewards the winners with a winner-takes-most outcome.

My point today is not to suggest that this mathematical formula is water-tight. It was just a random thought. But rather, to suggest that if you are a net entrepreneur, you should consciously find experts in each of the fields listed above and develop your knowledge base in each of these areas. Improve in each area, speed up your site, improve your site credibility, update your web site more often and using web analytics to test and measure what works best. If you do this, you’ll see the multiplication effect working for you instead of against you.

I’m working on my list of recommended books, sites and newsletters and will post it in the future on my internet entrepreneur’s resources page.

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