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Commentary for: 30 March 1998
Last Week's edition

Just who's (ir)responsible?
award logo Last week I published a review of the new Listener site and it seems to got up some people's noses.

Yes, I was very critical - but then again, something created by the joint efforts of a professional technology company, a professional advertising firm and one of the country's largest publishers has no excuse for being anything less than professional in its ergonomics and implementation. Sadly The Listener's Web site doesn't measure up.

Shortly after my review was published I received a Right of Reply from Russell Brown in which he claims that it was not Glazier Systems who were responsible for the site's development - but Walkers Advertising.

I can believe this ... check out the Walkers site - is this really an adequate showcase of their own abilities? Where's the functionality? Can you read the copyright message at the very bottom of the page? If all you're going to do is put an email link up - what's the point in even bothering? Based on this page, would you hire these people to build YOU a web site? And just what does "disrupted in our favour" mean anyway - it certainly hasn't done much for either their own site or that of The Listener.

Looking at the picture and caption in Russell's article on on page 29 of the Listener, it appears clear (to me) that Glaziers were most definitely involved in the development of the project so I contacted both Glaziers and Walkers to try and find out exactly who was responsible for what.

Neither company would comment - both suggesting that I contact Paul Little, editor of The Listener instead. When I spoke with Paul he was unable to clarify which company was responsible for the problems I'd highlighted in my review.

Excuse my cynicism but this just sounds like a case of buck passing and playing ostrich. Nobody's prepared to put their hands up and say "we screwed up" - instead, they'd rather ignore my questions or refer me to someone who doesn't have the answers.

Bad form Walkers, bad form Glaziers - at least have the courage to accept the responsibility for your work, or are you too ashamed?

Remember, I don't care what colours a site uses (so long as it doesn't interfere with legibility) or what theme it has - the critical issues are ergonomics, functionality and reliability. I stand by my claims that The Listener site, at its launch, was unreasonably deficient in all these areas but perhaps we'll never know who was to blame for what. Although a number of the points raised in my review have been addressed, even now, over a week later, many of my criticisms are still valid.

There's an old adage which says "it is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open one's mouth and remove all doubt".

Why am I so harsh?
So why am I being so hard on the parties involved with The Listener site, and advertising and technology companies in general?

Simple - we see this whole scenario played out almost every time "wannabes" (professional or amateur) get involved in the design and implementation of Web sites. After all, it's easy to build a Web site right?

Let me say this yet again - expertise and experience in other publishing media such as print, radio and TV does not always translate to expertise on the Web. It is so frustrating to see technology companies and advertising agencies rush headlong into the field of Web site design and implementation with nothing but contempt for those who really know how to use the medium. "We don't need no steenken help - we're the x-spurts!".

Let's look at just a few examples of other sites that have originally been developed by "experts" in other media (some of these have been subsequently turned into quite decent sites - but they were very, very bad when they launched):

  • XTRA
  • TVNZ
  • TV3
  • The Herald
  • NBR
  • Toyota NZ

Now TVNZ and Xtra have improved immensely since their first efforts and I've got comments to make about the Toyota site below, but the point is - are these "first cut" efforts really satisfactory?

The Net is a significantly different medium to everything that has come before it and while the basic principles relating to marketing and advertising still apply, there's a whole lot more to learn about the ergonomics and interactivity required for a Web site.

There are no "experts" who know it all - but there are a lot of good people and companies who know a lot about their own field of involvement. Let the advertising companies stick to their strength - the creation of eye and ear-catching material, even entire advertising campaigns - but keep them right out of the technology and ergonomics side. Likewise, let the technology developers build the back end and use whatever servers, scripting systems and other stuff they need - but keep them right out of the creative process.

I'd wager that the task of creating a Web presence as part of an overall marketing or publishing strategy is way beyond the skillsets of any single company in New Zealand - it simply involves too many disciplines.

At this time, the only safe way to do it properly is by hiring experts in their respective fields, either directly or through a company with a proven track record in the creation of "good" Web sites. Such a company will almost certainly sub-contract out some of those areas where they lack skills. It is pretty much essential that somewhere within the development team, a project coordinator be used who has a significant breadth of knowledge and is ultimately responsible for ensuring that all these pieces work in concert. Unfortunately this approach seems totally foreign to many clients and developers. It appears that all too often none of the "experts" want to relinquish control and far too many are claiming skills they simply don't have or significantly under-estimating the complexity of the task at hand.

What every you do - don't just blindly hand over responsibility to your advertising agency or IT department/contractor without verifying their credentials in the Internet design and implementation area.

Now it's not impossible to build large, complex Web sites that work properly from day one. A perfect example of this is the ClearNet site. Widely praised for its form and function, on launch-day there was really nothing to criticise - they got it all almost perfect (yes, they even employed an independent pre-launch site-survey). As a result, they haven't had to change its basic format very much at all since it was launched. It's not cheap to build a good, function, reliable, ergonomic web site but it's a much better investment than the kind of shonky, unprofessional efforts coming from those companies that should know better.

So what's MY angle on this? Why am I complaining so loudly?

Well it sure aint because *I* want to design or build Web sites - that's not my line. I'm happy to admit that I'm no Web designer and my skills in developing back-end software is merely "adequate".

As most of you will realise, I make my money, like most publishers, from selling advertising. What I want to see is an industry that acts maturely, and that consistently produces quality work. At the moment this is not the case. Sure, we have some really good companies such as Web Masters, Web Design and others who consistently create high-quality sites that are well designed and tested - giving me little to complain about. However, there are a whole lot more out there who are creating sites like The Listener - sites which don't work, aren't checked for errors, are poorly implemented and have atrocious ergonomics.

Can you imagine how much trouble I (and other Web publishers) would have trying to convince a prospective advertiser that the Web is a great place to invest their advertising dollar if they had gone to the Listener site last week and clicked on the Microsoft banner ad at the bottom of the front page? (for those who didn't try it - all you got for your efforts was an error 404 - "Not found"). Why should I, and other Web publishers have to suffer the side-effects of this kind of incompetence?

The Listener, and all other mainstream publishers, broadcasters, advertising companies and Web developers, have a responsibility to meet minimum standards or the local market risks being labeled as unprofessional and not worthy investing in for advertising purposes.

This kind of amateur stuff is bad for the whole industry!

"About Face!"

The offer you shouldn't refuse
About that Toyota site
Remember how I blasted the Toyota site a few months ago? Let's face it, that site was another perfect example of just how bad things can get when an advertising company and a bunch of techos get together without really understanding the medium they're using. It was also a perfect case of failing to properly test a site before launching it.

One of my biggest gripes was the way they totally buried information five, six or even seven levels away from the front page. I also directed people to look at another independently commissioned Toyota dealer site that was vastly superior in design and implementation.

The Toyota site has changed quite a bit since then. Despite the fact that one of the companies responsible for developing that site sent a Right of Reply rebutting many of my comments, it seems they have subsequently implemented many of the changes recommended:

  • The site is now much flatter - most models are just a click away from the main page
  • You no longer need to have the Adobe plug-in to view the specifications of the vehicles
  • They've dropped the bandwidth-wasting wannabe video clip
  • Navigation has been greatly improved by completely dropping the previous "brainless" design
Gosh - could the criticisms presented in my review (despite the rebuttal) have actually been valid? Could it be (gasp) that they got it wrong and have done an about-face. Why is it that so many of the ergonomic features of that dealer site have now suddenly appeared on the official corporate site?

Once again - the big-guns stuffed up and had to learn from the little guy. I wonder how much money Toyota would have saved, and how much more effective their site would have been if they'd hired the right people in the first place?

When will this lunacy end and how many companies will have to suffer at the hands of self-appointed "experts" before we see some realisation that the Web is not TV, it is not radio, it is not print and it is not a CDROM.

You don't call a garage mechanic to fix your VCR, so why do so many big names hire the wrong people to build their Web sites? To be quite honest, I think we have a new breed of cowboy on the Web - "the corporate cowboys". They are possibly even worse than the traditional "one man band" cowboys because they charge so much more for their crappy work. Their sites may have prettier graphics - but they're just as non-functional and downright "stupid" as their cheaper peers.

Actually, I've been meaning to revisit the Toyota NZ site for the past couple of weeks but every time I sit down to write something - the system is unavailable. For instance, as I write this on Sunday morning I get the following message when trying to get past the front page:

"Did not receive any response from application. It is possible that the application does not exist, or that the requested url is incorrect."


Quite frankly, apart from a few notable exceptions, I'm becoming increasingly disenchanted with the calibre of material appearing on the local Web. It is no wonder most NZ Web users disappear off-shore as soon as they log in.

So... here's my offer.

I'll provide any advertising agencies or large site-implementors 15 minutes of my time, spent giving their Web sites a quick once-over before they launch - for FREE! Now this isn't long enough for a full site survey - but given that I often find several major problems with newly launched sites within just a few minutes, it's certainly going to be of significant value to some people.

I'm not touting for business, I'm not going to charge for this - my payback will hopefully come from seeing an increase in the standards, so that I don't feel so embarrassed about being part of an industry that currently produces so much sub-standard material.

Now, the offer has been made - I wonder how many will be too proud, contemptuous or just plain stupid to take advantage of it? I guess Aardvark's readers can judge for themselves over the next few months.

Those who choose to play "expert" can expect the usual levels of "no holds barred" scrutiny from Aardvark. Of course those who get their 15 minutes of free help won't be immune to scrutiny either, but hopefully they'll be better prepared to survive an Aardvark grilling because of the input provided.

Spread the word, tell a friend about Aardvark
Aardvark's popularity continues to grow steadily and I thank all my readers for their regular visits. I would like to take this moment however to ask you to mention Aardvark and give the URL to a friend or a work-mate this week. There are still tens of thousands of Net users who don't know about Aardvark - maybe you'd like to help them out (But please, no usenet postings or unsolicited emails or chain letters ;-)
Tell me about it
Part of the recent competition entry form were some questions designed to help me find out what you, the Aardvark audience, thought I could improve the site.

As a result of this feedback, I changed the publishing deadlines for Aardvark Daily and it's now published twice daily - the morning edition being online by around 5:00am and the afternoon edition at around 1:00pm. I also realised that not everyone will be able to get access to the Net twice a day so I always keep the last two editions online as well as the current one.

What do you think - is this better?

Also, if you have any other suggestions at all about the weekly and daily editions then let me have them.

I want to know

Rumour Mill
Sources tell me that there could be some kind of announcement coming out of IHUG this week. A new service perhaps?

This Week's Featured "Aardvark Enabled" Site

Sports Beat

Aardvark Enable your own site and you too could appear here!

The I.C.B.I.T Award
I Can't Believe It's True!

Sorry... believe it or not, I've just been too busy producing this bumper edition of Aardvark Weekly and doing other things to do the ICBIT section this week.

Don't worry, there's a raft of good stuff stockpiled here for coming weeks though.

Right of Reply.

Russell Brown demands an apology in his

Right of Reply

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