Posted by: communicationcloud | September 12, 2009

Why software companies’ websites are doomed

Often in the software business everything conspires against customers (or potential customers) having an effective encounter with business information. Maybe “doomed” is a bit strong, but I believe there is a significant limitation on the success of many software companies’ websites, which is a result of the approach businesses often take to providing their customers with information.

How organisations think about their business information

Here’s the common scenario, distilled from my experience at various software companies…

  • Different parts of an organisation take on different parts of the customer experience: sales are interested in selling; technical authors want people to understand how to use the product; support pick up the pieces when things go wrong…
  • Each part of the organisation produces its own set of material to enable the customers’ encounters with their part of the organisation: demo videos for selling; tutorials for learning; troubleshooting knowledge base for dealing with problems…

This assumes the customers’ encounters with business are linear… which is usually associated with an assumption of a linear journey through the material that exists to support the customers with each stage of their encounter with the business.

This might look a bit like this (sorry the writing’s a bit small; you may need to double-click and display the graphic in its own window):

What we assume is going on

What we like to think is going on when customers come to a site

The reality: how customers interact with business information

But customers’ experiences rarely work this way. People have different priorities, different approaches to discovery. Often they bounce between what we see as different stages of their encounter: perhaps starting with finding information about a new release, then looking at the features of that release, contacting sales to ask about price, contacting support to sort out problems with getting a trial version up and running, encountering the product itself, then back to sales to make the purchase…

And the encounter with the business information bears even less resemblance to the assumption. Here are some encounters I’ve come across (in user tests, via web analytics, and from talking with customers):

  • customers find out about the product’s features in its help – not in the demo video the marketing team have so lovingly crafted for them at this stage
  • they get the technical information they need to get up and running from a sales person – not from support
  • later they find out how to use the product by watching the demo video – which was originally designated a sales tool

This is not the experience that the organisation planned for so carefully … the business information is accessed in a non-linear way. Something like this:


What’s actually going on when customers come to a site…

With online sales, even more than others, we lose our control over the order in which customers’ interactions happen. They may not even arrive at the site where you want them to. For example, they might get interested in your product through a search that brings them to your discussion forum. Essentially, users don’t care who wrote the information or when you want them to see it … they just want to find out whatever it is they need to know.

This isn’t insoluble – it requires a rethink about the organisation’s relationship with the information that gets put out there, and a new understanding of the customers’ experience of it. Solving this also requires some brave decisions about what’s most important to you about the experience your customers have.

Why do I care?

Which brings me to the reason this is on my mind. As part of my new job (did I mention I have a new job? more about that some other time…), I’m charged with making the Red Gate website better at enabling people to find the information they need. I’m very much looking forward to getting stuck into this…



  1. Part of my recent work on setting out an Information Strategy is based on part of this. The understanding that most people will encounter more than one type of information about your company/product/offering so it ALL needs to tell the same story.

    Be interesting to hear what else you drive out of this work.

    • Likewise, I’d love to hear more about the discoveries and learning from your Information Strategy work. Let’s compare notes at some point!

  2. […] Why software companies’ websites are doomed « communication cloud – view page – cached Often in the software business, everything conspires against customers – or potential customers – having an effective encounter with business information. Maybe “doomed” is a bit strong, but I believe there is a significant limitation on the success of many software companies’ websites, which is a result of the approach businesses often take to their business — From the page […]

  3. My experience comes from “grandfathering”(?) – my wife’s web site, set up by her brother on an “old” html-intensive platform, now transferred on to the “new-improved” cPanel interfaceby the stie host; I’m having to learn how to manage her site all over again. I’m a content writer, not a tech guru -I definitely relate to the spider-web approach you graphed!

  4. An interesting insight from “the other side” of the web site – and it all rings true for me as a frequent user of such sites.
    Yes, I tend to take a holostic look at prospective suppliers’ web sites – even for selecting Open Source stuff (as I don’t want to waste my time with a dud product) – and check out support and community areas, and third-party comment – as well as “marketing”.
    IME the info. strategy for such sites is piecemeal or (even worse?) designed by a committee – with the compromises and lack of overall vision almost inevitable with that approach.

  5. […] software companies’ websites are NOT doomed I wrote recently about how the internal structure of an organisation can impact badly on the experience of users trying to …. I’m pleased to say that I’ve since seen an example of a site that is succesful at […]

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