Jupiter Communications Press Release: A Critique

A few weeks after Jakob Nielsen announced "The End of Web Design" in the summer of 2000, the research and consulting firm Jupiter Communications (later renamed "Jupiter Media Metrix") issued a press release that seems to respond indirectly to his position. The Jupiter press release praised online companies that devoted resources to bandwidth-hogging web enhancements, and branded most companies as "conservative" and "outdated" for avoiding them.

Regardless of your opinion about slow-loading but feature-rich websites, the press release was so poorly written, and the research appears so shoddy, I suggest that you run screaming from the unbounded evil that Jupiter represents.

Full Text of Jupiter's Press Release

Analysis of Key Paragraphs

"Words, words, words." --Hamlet

Not even one in five online retailers deploys well-accepted and widely supported Web technologies such as Java, Flash, or chat functions to enhance online shopping experience and close sales-according to a new report from Jupiter Communications, Inc., (Nasdaq: JPTR). (Jupiter release, ¶1).

The opening sentence begs the question

Saying that fewer than one in five online retailers are using these technologies "to enhance shopping experience and close sales" implies not only 

  • that the other online websites are in fact achieving these goals (that is, enhancing the customer's experience and closing sales), but also 
  • that the high-tech gizmos are the reason these sites are succeeding. 

The sad story of boo.com suggests that technical sophistication does not guarantee success.  In fact, "popular, scaled-down sites like Suck, CapitolHillBlue, and TheSmokingGun all make money, as in that stuff left over after the bills are paid. Meanwhile, heavily staffed [and highly technical], venture-backed heavyweights like Salon, TheStreet.com, and APBNews are bleeding money like hemophiliacs." (Matt Welch, Online Journalism Review.)

The language is not English, but "Marketese."

Note the strategic deployment of the emotionally-loaded word "deploys," rather than the more objective "uses;" note also the blatant editorializing of the labels "well-accepted" and "well-supported."  Perhaps only the more technically-experienced readers would understand or care, but...

  • Java is a computer programming language that could be used to write a chat function...
  • ...hence, the inclusion of the term "chat" is redundant.
  • But even the casual computer user might ask, what is "chat" but a "function," anyway?  

What does "well-accepted" mean? 

Well-accepted by whom?  

  • By the people who are willing to pay designers for Java, Flash and chat doodads, or by the people who actually use the darn websites?  
  • Consider the statistics.  If Java, Flash and chat are "well-accepted," why then do more than 80% of online retailers avoid it?
  • Why are stripped-down, text-based websites like Yahoo! and Amazon.com so popular?  Would they be more popular if their pages suddenly took ten times longer to download?

What does "well-supported" mean?  

It is true that advances in technology mean that more and more people have computers that are capable of handling fancier web programming techniques... but will an expensive color-and-sound "Flash" show enhance the shopping experience of a guy who accesses the Internet from a 2-inch LCD screen on his wireless phone?   

(By the way, Java applets can indeed be useful.  I once even wrote a Java applet for an academic article on medieval drama, but quickly learned to move the applet to in internal page, rather than force people to wait for it to download on the homepage.  That applet conveyed information that would have been absolutely impossible to convey in ordinary text. By contrast, the very few Flash animations that I've actually bothered to watch seem to me to be simple translations of ideas developed for television advertising.  If the graphics are the best thing about your web site, then it will be most interesting to people who go online in order to appreciate the graphics. I'd be willing to bet that most people have different priorities.)

Note what happens to the same "facts" when I rewrite the lead with an equally biased counter-spin: 

A Jupiter Communications study reveals that over 80% of online merchants wisely avoid the bandwidth-hogging frills that have doomed countless high-tech, high-profile, but terminally dimwitted dot-com failures.

Suddenly, Jupiter's own research supports my position! Boy, Jupiter offers some useful data, if I can put it to use to critique the very claims that Jupiter is trying to make. Glad I got those statistics for free, unlike the poor slobs who shell out the big bucks for Jupiter's wisdom.


"Full of Sound and Fury, but Signifying Nothing." --Macbeth

Jupiter's report advises that online retailers abandon conservative Web site development practices and optimize their interactive real estate to match the technical capabilities, of most online consumers that can support a rich interface adequately. (Jupiter release, ¶1)

Count the Logical and/or Rhetorical Sins

  1. Red herring: Are the authors really campaigning against "conservative... development practices," or are they campaigning against boring and ineffective (hence, to some people, "conservative") websites?  Since users do not "need" to be entertained or "wowed" by graphics when they go online to buy a book or reserve an airline ticket, does it not make more sense to invest resources in the creation and organization of useful, up-to-date, well-written content -- the kind of stuff that attracts hits from search engines?
  2. False identification. Does conservative design equate to a boring website? Not necessarily.  Few things are more boring than looking at a blank screen while waiting for a huge Java file to download.  I am rarely bored on the Internet when I am actually accomplishing whatever it is that I set out to do.  To me, therefore, a useful website is neither boring nor ineffective.
  3. Inaccurate metaphor.  The press release tries to convince retailers that spending money on "Java, Flash and chat functions" is like investing in real estate.  In fact, these "enhancements" are less like the piece of property upon which you might build a house, and more like the pink flamingoes and gnome sculptures that you might set among the shrubs.  
  4. Tortured syntax.  
    • I can forgive the awkward comma, but the restrictive "that" clause limits the scope of the sentence to "consumers that can support a rich interface adequately".  If you read the sentence quickly, it seems to claim that "most consumers... can support a rich interface."  In fact, the sentence says that retailers should focus only on those users whose computers will handle all the high-tech gizmos that Jupiter Communications can produce. 
    • According to the grammar of the press release, the alternative to a "conservative" design accessible to everyone is a "rich" design accessible to "most" of the people whose computers "can support a rich interface adequately".  Apparently, the stuff that Jupiter Communications wants online retailers to do will not match the capabilities of at least some of the people whose computers can support a "rich interface."  
    • Note the awkward addition of the modifier "adequately."  Perhaps the point of the sentence is that at least some of the online consumers do not have the technological capabilities "adequately".  Whether the authors mean that this minority has technical capabilities that are better or worse than "adequate" is grammatically ambiguous.
  5. More "Marketese."  I would translate "optimize their interactive real estate" to mean "slow down your web pages and annoy your customers with technological trinkets."  But that's just me.


"More Matter, with Less Art." -- Gertrude

In a new Jupiter Executive Survey of online merchants, 60 percent cited customer feedback as a primary factor in their decision to integrate advanced technologies into the user interface. However, a recent Jupiter Consumer Survey of online shoppers found that more than 50 percent of respondents indicated they would use the technology if it were available. Specifically, 56 percent said they would use items such as virtual dressing rooms, and 51 percent said they would use zoom-and-spin technology if available. (Jupiter Release, ¶4)

Spurious "However"

The word "however" usually signals a reversal or contradiction; however, in the press release above, it links two sentences that seem to agree with each other. The first sentence claims that online merchants who did integrate advanced technology did so in response to customer feeedback. "However," the second sentence claims that a majority of online customers want such features. So... where is the contradiction?  Both sentences seem to make the same point.

What does "use" mean?

The paragraph reports that a majority of respondents "would use the technology" (as delivered, presumably, through Java applets, Flash animations, and chat functions) if it were available.  But what does "use" mean?  

  • "I would probably sample it once out of curiosity, and then hit the 'go back' button in frustration after 20 seconds of waiting for a huge file to download"?
  • "This feature would make me so happy that I will open up my wallet and stuff cash into your hands, just for the privilege of watching some words scroll by the screen or listening to a music clip"?

The biggest problem with this paragraph is the fact that the authors have confused user surveys (in which researchers ask subjects to predict their own behavior in a hypothetical situation) with user testing (in which researchers sit and watch what happens when subjects are confronted with real problems, in the lab or in the field). 

Voodoo usability 

Note that the surveys mentioned above report what people say that they would do, if the technology were available.  What people say they will do often has little connection with what they actually do.  

According to minimalist web designer Jakob Nielsen, "When people sit around a table and discuss what they might like to see on a site, they will often focus on superficial aspects and praise fancy features like animation and Flash effects. But if these same users were ever asked to actually use the site to accomplish a task, they would usually ignore the animations and would find that the Flash effects hurt them more than it helped them." ("Voodoo Usability")

Related Links

Jakob Nielsen
The End of Web Design
Websites must tone down their individual appearance and distinct design in all ways: visual design, terminology and labeling, interaction design and workflow, and information architecture.  This press release is an indirect response to Nielsen's above article; for direct responses, see Sippey or Hurst (in July 27 article -- scroll down a bit).

Jakob Nielsen
Flash: 99% Bad
"Although multimedia has its role on the Web, current Flash technology... makes bad design more likely, it breaks with the Web's fundamental interaction style, and it consumes resources that would be better spent enhancing a site's core value."