Does making web sites “attractive” make them harder to use?

William Meisel

May 29. 2020

I’ve been recently populating a new web site, BotsAndAssistants.com, with concise descriptions of vendors that help other companies develop natural-language text chatbots and voice assistants for applications such as customer service. This project has led me to visit web sites of the over 400 vendors operating in this technically complex product area.

My long background as a technologist and analyst in conversational technology helps me summarize what these companies do on one page, avoiding the usual marketing overstatement. (The site is free to both users and companies.) The BotsAndAssistants site is deliberately sparse, almost entirely text, providing links to vendor descriptions through their name or category of application. One friend commented on the site, noting its utility and the value of an expert-filtered description, but noting that it looks “ugly.”

I realized that the sparseness of my site was an unconscious reaction to my frustration with the vendor web sites that provided me with much of the core information I was summarizing. They were typically attractive graphically and used many pages and links to convey their message. This seems to be the norm for web sites today, but it sometimes hides the basic information that a user is seeking. For example, it sometimes required my contacting customer service to find out if only a cloud solution existed, or if there was an on-premises or hybrid version of a vendor service, an option that is important to some potential customers.

The confusing complexity of many web sites in the bots-and-assistants space is particularly ironic when you consider the key advantage of the natural-language services offered. Much of the growth of conversational technology is driven by its ability to quickly get you an answer or a service you want; a well-designed conversational system provides results without requiring clicking through an over-burdened Graphical User Interface on a smartphone or Web site or a working through a similarly overburdened customer service line with layers of touch-tone menus. The problem the vendors in this space are addressing often is exemplified by their own complex and confusing web sites.

Is simplicity a virtue? It would seem to be so if you just want a direct answer or service. The underlying technologies of natural language processing, speech recognition, text-to-speech synthesis, and extracting answers from data are anything but simple. But the objective of using them is to simplify, to essentially allow a user manual consisting of “just tell me what you want.”

Conversational technology doesn’t challenge the scope of human intelligence in general, which excels at understanding almost any context. (See my recent book, Computer Intelligence.) However, Natural Language Processing can work very well in a limited context, such as asking an insurance company questions about their policies. In such limited contexts, it can in fact easily exceed the memory, expertise, and responsiveness of any one human. Research in the core natural-language technologies and continued increases in computer processing power that support increasingly complex models will continue to improve what conversational technology can do.

If just giving an individual the answer or service they want is a virtue, I couldn’t help wondering if we should take a step back in our approach to web sites. Nothing is wrong with backup web pages that go into detail on a particular service or product, but finding those pages from the home page should be easy.

A search function is a partial solution if thought is devoted to what customers are looking for so that the result isn’t a list of too many web pages with vague characterizations of the content of each. My experience in using web sites as a source of how a company wants to be perceived is that, when the product is very technical, as in the Bots & Assistants area, the look-pretty approach is more of a detriment than an advantage. To be fair, a look-simple approach might be unacceptable from a marketing point of view if users associate that with a lack of sophistication. Perhaps companies can have a pretty home page with a link to “just the facts,” a more compact and focused page or pages, advertising that simplicity isn’t simple, but a goal.

As a proponent for natural-language interfaces, I suppose I should be happy with web sites that frustrate. Of course, a conversational interface can be done poorly, eliminating its advantage over a graphical interface. But a conscious effort to make the most of any user interface technology should certainly be a goal, and that includes web sites.