Unrisky Business & the Frozen TV Web Site

[August 7. 2012]

As I see it, the majority of Web sites are generic. It’s not surprising. Their development is driven by an interlocking series of theoretical dogmas and engineering / technical mandates. With only the slightest effort, you can Google up a whole passel of rules for every single component of Web site development.

Max Design 
Useit: Alert Box 
U. Minnesota / Duluth
Bruce Clay

Though many of these rules are purely technical, many claim to derive their authority from behavioral science. Trouble is, there’s little in the focus group approach to data gathering—that shamanistic ritual we’re pleased to call usability testing—that remotely resembles real scientific inquiry. In fact, the only behavior these sessions can quantifiably predict is the behavior of the people evaluating this data.

As evidenced by the current state of digital space, the majority of Web site developers will interpret this data in astonishingly literal terms, seeking to make a one-to-one correspondence between each factoid and some component of the final result.

And that result is so uniform, so predictable, it’s a wonder users can tell one cloned Web site from another:


Like the frozen TV dinner in the Jim Jarmusch film Stranger Than Paradise, this clone has everything. You got your slideshow marquee, you got your audience poll, your Fun Facts, your dynamic data updates, your celebrity shoutouts, and you got your viral video. It’s the slack-jawed, slacker’s response to the challenge thrown down by digital communication and it’s subtext is clear:

¡Please, Oh God, please find something you like on this page!

At one point in the history of Web site development, I suppose it was possible to sit back, cluck your tongue and say, “Well, digital communication is still in its infancy. It’s still early days and the technology is still growing.”

But with the emergence of HTML 5, CSS3, JQuery and a host of other programming tools, I’d be hard pressed to attribute the Internet’s global mediocrity to a lack of technical polish.

It’s attributable, more likely, to a generalized fear of flying. To dare to communicate takes the courage to risk offense, rejection and attrition. Yet nothing, in my experience, was ever sold by saying “Won’t you please buy my product, it’s really pretty good.”

On the contrary, to sell, you need to get out there—but that’s the last thing the non-committal, falsely hierarchical, gutless Web site clone is willing to do. Communication? Not a chance. Rather a drab floral arrangement of predictable engagement tactics, preferably those already sanctioned by years of use. Anything else would smack of risk—the one thing our opinion poll-driven society absolutely will not tolerate.

Where to go from here? Nowhere but up. Yet, the solution to the generic Web site epidemic will not be a new Theory of Engagement, let alone the unveiling of HTML 37. It will arrive in the form of a simple realization: There’s no way to test your wings in digital marketing without flying in the face of conventional wisdom.


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Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY




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