Why Big Companies Stink at the Web

Take a look at the list of Fortune 500 Companies and then look at their websites or apps.  Ignore the companies who started or grew up on the web, whose survival and growth depended on a great web offering (Apple, eBay, Google, etc.) and the companies who very clearly emphasized building a world class web presence to propel their brand forward (e.g. Nike). What you are left with is about 400+ companies with user experiences ranging anywhere from marginal to underwhelming to painful.  A few of these companies don't require a good web experience to maintain their success, although the case could be made that every one of them should represent the company with the best possible experience.   So why do the best and most profitable companies with such talented employees struggle so much with their online offering?

It's Not the Money

The fact that they are on this list implies that they have enough in the operating budget to spend what it takes to build and maintain a great online presence.  

Yes, projects that are small or medium in scope take way longer than they should, and are much more expensive than they should be.  Usually this is because there is such an entanglement of backend systems, proprietary systems, and system dependencies to work through in every project.  Unfortunately this puts a lot of projects in the parking lot, when in reality it should add urgency to getting the project done.

The worst part about the whole money argument is that it's usually not to scale.  Re-building the log-in experience at a seven-figure project sticker price would be nonsensical to many small or medium sized companies, but if that's less than 1% of a Fortune 500's yearly operating budget and it positively effects 100% of the customer base, it should get done.

It's Not That They Are Too Slow

If 100 people were polled, I would bet 90 of them would say these big company experiences stink because the companies are too slow to respond to the rapidly evolving pace of the web.  This is a hurdle to be sure, but one that can be scaled with a forward thinking IT/Engineering leadership team.  Systems should be built to communicate to other systems seamlessly, but these should not be chained together. The presentation layer should always be decoupled from the back-end so the UI can be tested, changed, and optimized regularly.  

Further, there should be an allocation of budget and resources that focus entirely on continuous optimization.  This group should never be building new features, but should be working closely with those teams to ensure standards and laws of light, flexible and scalable are in place and followed every time.  It might slow you down initially on the roadmap, but the return on speed and ability to build future friend.ly sites and apps will more than cost justify the effort in the long run.  

The other problem with the speed argument is precedent.  Great experiences are already being offered from several of these Fortune 500 companies, and so any argument that size or the pace can't be overcome is already a losing argument.   It's a choice to serve up a marginal web experience, it's not an outcome of being big.  

The Problem is The Rotation of Shot Callers

Senior Executive General Vice Director Managers, I'm pointing at you.  And it's not your fault.  Well, for the most part it's not your fault.

The problem is the phenomenon of the executive rotation.  These companies hire the best and the brightest, so naturally they want to retain them.  Part of that retention strategy involves shifting them around different parts of the organization to keep them from getting bored.   And in theory, this makes perfect sense.  But here's the problem, part of that rotation at so many of these companies includes running a part or all of the web presence for a company.  And frankly, many of these people don't know what they are doing in that capacity.  There seems to be a perception from the people who make that decision that it's easy to come up to speed or onboard quickly in the online world.  It's not easy, in fact it's very difficult.  Just look at how mobile has thrown so many companies off.

These leaders are probably fresh off a 4-5 year stint running an integral function of the business.  That usually means getting extremely deep into the core competency of the business or very targeted in a specific vertical.  Maybe that's pricing strategy at the point of sale.  Maybe it's becoming engulfed in learning the regulations around a segment or spending years pulling different levers in the cost logistics of the business.  And whatever it was, they probably did it well because they are smart and high-horsepower individuals.  

But then one day, they are thrown into a decision making role on the web.  They are  forced to cram all they can in an effort to get up to speed with what's happened in the last 5 years, and then have to make highly impactful strategic decisions based on the cliffs notes of what they can gather.  

This is what baffles me.  When everyone universally agrees that no faction of enterprise has changed or evolved more rapidly than the web, why is it assumed that you can drop someone into an evolving landscape when that person hasn't been living and breathing these advancements for the last 10 years?  5 years? 1 year?   Think about the web in 2008 vs 2013.   Tablets, apps and smartphones were non-factors or non-existent.  Flash was still the way to present compelling UI.  Internet Explorer was the dominant browser and Chrome wasn't even a blip on the total browser market share radar.  And that's just the fringe of all that's changed.  User behavior, expectations and personas have all changed drastically as well.

These companies don't drop these leaders into accounting roles unless they have an accounting background, and the web should be no different.  In fact, I could argue that the rules of accounting have remained relatively stable over the past several decades and one of these high-horsepower individuals could better assimilate themselves to accounting than driving the web strategy.   

There are a few exceptions, the smart leaders who stayed up to speed with the advancements in technology even if their role didn't call for it.  Maybe it was fun for them, maybe they knew it would be important in a future role.  But in my experience, those people are definitely the exception.  

The Outcome

So you have people in critical decision-making positions approving or shooting down web projects based on a lack of first-person experience or history in the environment.  Maybe they look at competitors and copy.  The competition has an app that does X, so we need an app that does X and maybe even Y, they say.  Or worse, they simply go by what's easiest and cheapest to do and prioritize projects that way.  Hopefully they are armed with a team who has grown up in the web space and they lean on them heavily, but that's always a double-edged sword because at some point the leader soon realizes how replaceable they are and decides to interject their wisdom into the whole process.  After all that's what they are hired and paid handsomely to do.  

Big companies should hire web experts to run web strategy.  Treat it like a specialized discipline like you do accounting or legal.  Hire or promote designers, developers (who show a penchant for business savvy), smart e-commerce and social media experts.  Grow them into leaders in your organization.  And if you must, urge and prepare your highly talented folks who go away from the web for a period to stay on top technology and experience.   This is what is done in Silicon Valley and at most High-Tech Startups, and the difference is noticeable to the end user.  It also makes for a more compelling work environment for web folks, so attracting key talent will be easier.  

And most importantly, your end users will thank you for providing a better user experience.