Boulder Community NetworkIndian Peaks, mountains above Boulder County
  Volunteer!    Feedback
About BCN   Donate

Last Update:

1999.04.14; by Michael C. Gilbert

I had the privilege last fall of teaching a workshop on "Why Web Sites Fail and What To Do About It" at Nonprofit Day, an annual conference of the Support Center for Nonprofit Management
Eighty representatives of nonprofit organizations from the San Francisco Bay Area participated in a discussion of some of the more common ways that nonprofit Internet strategies go wrong.

In my capacity as author of the Nonprofit Site Analyzer Reports (, I've had the opportunity to look at thousands of nonprofit web sites. Several important patterns have emerged for me. These are reflected in the five syndromes to which I devoted most of my workshop: the Upside Down web site, the Dead web site, the Disconnected web site, the Cool web site, and the Stingy web site.

Here are brief summaries of each syndrome:

The Upside Down Web Site:
There is good content on the site but it's buried under an organizational chart or some other impenetrable hierarchy.
The Dead Web Site:
It's never updated. Not to be mistaken for the Dead on the Outside Web Site, which looks like it's never updated, but is actually an Upside Down site.
The Disconnected Web Site:
Where all the communication is one way and there is no way for the reader to send email or otherwise contact the site owners.
The Cool Web Site:
So enamored of the technology that it is almost impossible to use, at least on a regular basis.
The Stingy Web Site:
Gives away nothing of value.

What each of these syndromes has in common is a single simple problem: The tendency to focus on a web site as a product, rather than as a means of communication. Non-profits often focus on simply having a web site, when instead they should be developing web sites and email and every other communication medium in the context of their communication goals and systems.

I described the concept of Whole Systems Internet Design to the workshop participants as one way to get around these problems. This approach is simple, but deep. It means looking at web sites and email as parts of a system. It means looking at what has been called the "Information Ecology" of an organization, mapping out who uses and produces each flow of communication and then determining how Internet technology can improve that flow.

Although I always recommend such a thorough approach to planning an Internet strategy, I realize that some organizations just aren't there yet. So I want to give people something to do with their sites without committing immediately to a full exploration of their information ecology. Enter the Quick and Dirty Site Analysis Worksheet . You can complete it in less than an hour.

For those organizations who are ready to delve more deeply into a systems approach to Internet strategy, I offer some Recommended Reading . The books and web sites listed there will provide months of study and some very in depth tools. You may also contact me at, with your questions.

Quick and Dirty Site Analysis Worksheet

This short checklist is focused on questions that can be answered about a site in a few minutes time. It is also restricted to the "front end" of a site.

Quick User Test:

  1. Describe one class of user of the system.
  2. List three things a typical example of such a user would want to accomplish when coming to this site.
  3. Describe the experience of trying to accomplish each of the three tasks. How long did they take? How many clicks? How many false turns?

Front Page Checklist:

  1. - How long did it take to fully load?
  2. - When was the last time it was updated?
  3. - Is there an email link? Or direct comment form?
  4. - Does a first time visitor know where to go?
  5. - Would a repeat visitor bookmark this page?
  6. - Is the page packed full of value?
  7. - Can you get to 90% of other key site destinations directly?

Further Reading on Whole Systems Internet Design

Web Sites :

- AlertBox column on web site usability:

- The Flow Experience:

- User Interface Engineering:

- Yale Web Style Guide:

- Web Developer's Virtual Library:

Books :

- Cognitive Systems Engineering, by Rasmussen, Pejtersen and Goodstein

- Database Backed Web Sites, by Greenspun

- The Fifth Discipline, by Senge

- The Team Handbook, by Scholtes, et al

- Work-flow Strategies, by Kobielus

  These books are provided in association with

Last Update: ,
BCN Home Feedback About BCN Donate Search BCN Volunteer!