What to do when your site isn't working

Given recent events in the country (click here for the news story, if you're not familiar), the issue of faulty, slow, or difficult to use wesites has become a national concern. The vast majority of us have sites, and many of us do at least some business online that requires customers, clients, or members to interact with our sites. Even if it's just to sign up for the newsletter.

The easiest way to frustrate your website visitor is to have a needlessly complex or difficult to navigate site. This can be a fully functioning website that, for whatever reason, is draining to use. The elements of the website that can make things easy or difficult for the user is referred to in the industry as user interface (UI) and user experience (UX). UI is how the site works mechanically, UX is how the site feels to use personally. The ability to define, understand, and work with this complex relationship is what sets a web designer apart from a person who makes websites.

One of the reasons has such a minimalist design, and why the majority of the sites I make tend to look stripped down, is because it makes it easier for users to find what they need without much hassle. I wrote more about this particular obligation to user comfort in my post Designer as Steward, which you can click here to read.

When a site is truly broken, the best case scenario is that someone internal finds the bug and fixes it in the same moment. When a site is well built and has sufficient support, the majority of bugs should be able to be fixed immediately. When a user is the one to find the bug, it is very important to make sure customer service standards kick in. The first obligation is to the user and the potential user. Any user who catches a bug, even if they are very upset when they report, even if it is extremely inconvenient or stressful, should be thanked, and if applicable, rewarded.

In the thirty minutes after a bug is reported three questions should be asked and answered:

  1. Is it truly our bug?
    One of the things that makes web design so exciting for those of us who love it, and so frustrating for others, is that there are literally millions of ways to see a site. Users will come to your site on anything from the latest computer with the most up-to-date browser, to an old Apple II they found at the thrift store and retooled to run UNIX. It may seem like you and your team get turned into people's personal IT department, but you are gathering practical, helpful information on how different users will see your site. Also, you're helping UNIX users to give up the ghost. (JK, I love my scrap hackers.)
  2. How long will this take to fix?
    Which leads to...
  3. How many users will this effect?
    You should have analytics measuring traffic to every page on your site, which will make it very easy to determine the approximate number of users that will be, or that have been effected by the bug. Use this answer to determine your next step.

After you've established that the bug is yours and the number of users who will be effected by it, the next step is to decide weather to fix the bug live or take down the page. It is only necessary to take down the effected page(s). If, in the case of the news story that inspired this post, the majority of users are unable to accomplish their goal site-wide, the entire site should come down and a splash-page taking responsibility for the shut-down with alternate contact information should go up in its place.

The fact that 3 out of 10 people can still get through is irrelevant. The chance of a user coming to your site and having a bad experience is overwhelming. A brick and mortar store wouldn't stay open if half the inventory was filled with spiders, and they certainly wouldn't try to excuse the discretion by saying that some people don't mind spiders. They'd shut the doors and call the exterminator. Also, reporting, billing and other time-sensitive activities your organization does through the site should be suspended without consequence, or it should be made extremely easy to accomplish the task by phone, email, or an alternate site.

Websites are increasingly the initial and primary means that organizations communicate with their communities. We have an obligation to make user experience our first thought. User experience extends far beyond the site, especially if the site is having issues. Customer service, client service, member service, and brand promise fulfillment should be at the forefront of our minds, even as we work to deal with unexpected issues.

For a more technical article on broken-site ettiquete, click here to check out this article in Inc. from Stephanie Meyers (no relation) .

~ M ~