Web Informant 9 January 2001:
ScreenIt and BellSouth: the good and the bad of site design

http://www.strom.com/awards/231.html

When I first started writing these essays back in the fall of 1995, I had the crazy notion of giving out awards for good and bad web sites. (The legacy of that decision is in the URL of each essay, for those of you that are looking for some Strom trivia.) I quickly realized the folly of that approach, but every so often I come across something so unusual that I have to tell you about it.

First is a site that deserves praise, ScreenIt.com. Being a parent of a near-teen over the holiday movie season is hard enough, let alone being a parent during the remainder of the year. This site is a tremendous help in choosing which movies are appropriate for my daughter. It goes into excruciating detail about every possible objectionable scene in many, many released movies so you can make that parental decision without having to go see the movie beforehand. Each film is broken down into several categories, including descriptions of violence, sex, smoking, disrespectful behavior, and scary music, among others. As I said, the detail is fairly extensive. And it does something that I haven't found any other movie review site do: allows me as a parent to make up my own mind about the kind of fare my kid is about to see.

There is a lot of effort behind the site, all basically the work of an unnamed couple that lives in the DC area and screens all the movies themselves. The site works on several levels: the search engine is simple and well-designed, the pages are clearly organized, and the information is consistent without being judgmental -- after all, each parent has his or her own criteria on what is and isn't appropriate. They even have a weekly email newsletter that will tell you about new reviews they post. It is a site that I will return to many times.

And while ScreenIt does almost everything right, here is a web page that does almost everything wrong.

When you are looking over this page, and please don't spend more than a few minutes doing so, take the tactic of someone who wants to equip their sales force with pagers and wants to price out what the monthly service plans will be from BellSouth Wireless. I maintain that it can't be done, without at least calling them and trying to get one of their sales people to help you wade through this mess.

Now, BellSouth should know better, and I don't mean to pick on them. There are several other wireless email web sites that offer just as vexing and numerous pricing options. (Skytel, GoAmerica, and Motient come to mind.) For that matter, there are plenty of other web sites that are confusing that have nothing to do with wireless email. But the BellSouth page takes the prize for the most confusing assembly of information in a single place, guaranteed to scare off more customers than it generates.

Indeed, the more pricing options, the more things you can add or subtract to make your product so infinitely customizable, the fewer units you will end up selling, because the less people can figure it out and just walk away in frustration. This is especially true in wireless data, where you have one vendor who makes the hardware, another vendor who runs the radio network, a third vendor who collects the money from the customer, a fourth vendor who makes the device firmware and the fifth vendor who makes the actual user interface software. I might have missed a few others too.

Pricing information on the web is hard to get right, but BellSouth does such an amazingly bad job it is worth mentioning here.

Part of the problem is that the entire category of wireless email isn't easy to get right, because there are so many choices. Do you want a different email address for your pager, or do you want to synchronize its email with an existing account? Do you want your device to work more like an alphanumeric pager, with an 800 number that your associates can call and leave messages? Or more like a miniaturized laptop, complete with a keyboard to compose messages? Can you get coverage in your home city, and when you travel? And so forth.

I didn't mean this essay to get into wireless email, but you see what I mean. I have come across plenty of web sites as of late that take the approach to be obscure about their product pricing details. There is no good reason for this, whether it is by intent (we don't want the channel or our competitors to get wind of what we are actually charging or the cost of goods sold), by accident (an inept or uncaring web master), by antagonism (the marketing department is presently at war with the sales department, and whomever wins will take control over the web site and make the appropriate modifications), or by incompetence (we can't get access to the pricing database because we don't know how to webify this information).

Okay, so BellSouth has a poor pricing page. Let me end by giving some specific suggestions to improve yours. First, formulate the simplest set of prices you can. Eliminate options ruthlessly. I was working with a client last week who wanted to maintain two different product versions, a standard and a pro. The pro version, of course, was priced higher. But when we dug deeper into the issues, it turns out that the pro version is probably the only version that they should be selling. As Thoreau said, simplify.

Second, try your pricing page out on someone outside your immediate company; say the teenage son or daughter of some random employee. If they can't figure it out, scrap it. Maybe have the teenager rewrite the page to make more sense. They probably understand pricing algorithms better than your marketing department.

Third, if you are going to implement some kind of eCommerce system and accept direct web orders, make darn sure that you provide the complete pricing details up front, before someone gets two or three or ten pages into your ordering system. Many times I have tried to find out the actual price of something, including shipping, taxes, and other high-profit add-ons, only to have to go through the whole shebang and get to the final checkout screen before I got my "final" price. (Try ordering a PC from Dell and finding out what the shipping charges are ahead of time.)

In the meantime, I have to check out a few new movies my daughter wants to see this weekend.

Self promotions dep't

My latest review for Network World covers three DVD-RAM jukeboxes that can be connected to NT and Unix networks. However, the trio (and indeed, the entire category of DVD jukeboxes) is not quite ready for prime time. The article is entitled, "Don't Put a Dime into These Jukeboxes."

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David Strom
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