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Breath Mint or Candy Mint?

Kevin Millecam's picture

Here at WebWise we do a lot of work for technology firms. As such, we often see each of our clients wrestling with the same problems. One interesting problem they face is how to intuitively organize their products into categories that 1) make sense to their customers and 2) achieve their marketing objectives.

Tomato, Tomahto

In the 1960s and 1970s Certs mints were the focal point of an iconic advertising campaign. In the ads, one spokesperson would insist "CERTS is a breath mint!" while another would declare, "CERTS is a candy mint!" Just before the two resorted to fisticuffs, an unseen announcer would resolve the issue by declaring: "It’s two, two, two mints in one!"

Case in Point

When I worked for Novell I managed the publication of a product catalog named "The NetWare Buyer's Guide". It was a hefty book (several hundred pages) that covered scores of products that were organized in a dozen or so categories. We (the production team) used to muse at the fact that whenever Novell got a new marketing VP, he/she would make their mark by changing the company logo and by reorganizing the products and categories in the Buyer's Guide. Customers loved the Guide but they hated the fact that each new edition (revised every 6 months) was delivered with a learning curve.

We solved this problem by adding an alphabetical product index to each edition. This index let the marketing department organize the catalog in ways that they thought would leverage the latest industry thinking. But more important, the index helped our customers find their products -- however they might be categorized.

Solutions for the Web

Technology is a beautiful thing that often gives us the power and ability to solve problems in ways that are revolutionary. Our WebWise developers have come up with some wonderful ways to keep both sides of the "breath mint or candy mint" conversation happy in the web world.

Leveraging Tech to Manage Buckets of Info

The Content Management System (CMS) we use empowers us to do very cool things with products and categories. One of the foundational tools in our CMS is a taxonomy tool. This tool lets us create a vocabulary of terms that describe categories and their children (er, products). Once you have an organized list of categories and products -- backed up with some tech -- you have the foundational structure for a truly agile website.

If the taxonomy is woven into the foundation of the site, changes made to the categories and products are immediately reflected in the site's DNA (read: lists, sections, menus). If you change a product name, for example, the name is automatically changed throughout the site. If you (assuming you're a site admin) move a product -- by dragging it in your web browser -- from one category to another, the website transforms to reflect the change.

Here's what a simple vocabulary, built with the taxonomy tool, looks like when used to organize the Solar System:

In this fast-moving world of "changes in Internet time", having a tool that can give you flexibility and agility is priceless.

But what about the customer? We need to be careful that we don't confuse our customers now that we can change products and categories on-the-fly. To avoid playing the shell game with our customers, we do a couple of things to help them keep their bearings while navigating our evolving sites.

One thing we do is we use the taxonomy tool to give the customer hints regarding changes that have been made. When we change a product name we usually include hints like what the product was named in its previous life; This treatment "Product Zinger (formerly Product Wow)" goes a long way to helping users find products by either their old or new name. When we add this information to the product name, it's instantly replicated throughout the site and helps with the transition from the old to the new. Since it's so easy to make these changes, legacy information about the product name can be removed after an appropriate transition period. By the way, this technique is also useful when a product is known by a formal name and an acronym -- both the product name and its acronym can be used to track the product.

The taxonomy system gives us the flexibility to change our product descriptors quickly without leaving our customers in the dark.

Night-Vision Goggles for Customers

Another tool we've developed is a discovery tool that lets customers see past the marketing organization and focus on quickly accessing their beloved products. Customers use the tool by typing in the name of the product they are looking for. As soon as the customer starts typing, the discovery tool starts unearthing products. The tool displays a linked list of products and (for context) the categories that they are currently organized under.

Customers only care about the product name -- especially when they're looking for support. They don't care if it's part of XYZ Strategy or part of ABC Suite. They just have a question about Product X and they want a quick and easy way to find it.

Here's an example of what happens when a user types "mobile" into the discovery tool:

If you want to experiment with a living version of the discovery tool, click here to see Symantec's implementation.

If you find yourself being asked to classify your products as either a breath mint or a candy mint, drop us a note. We can help you build a system that will keep your marketing VP happy and will help your customers retain their sanity.

"Problem Solved" is our new blog series where we describe real-life problems that our clients have asked us to help them solve. Without getting technical, we'll describe the steps our team took to dissect the problem and craft a solution.