The internet is a dynamic environment that is constantly experiencing significant change. So too are organizational websites. To continue to be relevant and effective, they must be consistently subjected to optimization as they adjust to changing conditions and user behaviors. Sometimes, this needed change is obvious and steps required to adjust are clear. More often, site managers sift through an enormous amount of data seeking things that might indicate there is a problem with no identifiable starting point.
Needless to say, viewing a vast array of traffic reports, page engagement studies and user segments can be daunting but errors do get found. Much of this type of work might be better categorized as maintenance, however. Website managers and analysts also pour over data seeking explanations to specific questions around performance but generally, these efforts tend to be localized to the matter at hand. These approaches do ultimately contribute toward optimizing site performance and user experience. The problem is that one can get embroiled in “putting out fires” in the short term and lose focus on optimizing to improve the wider goals the website is looking to achieve.
Other methods do exist that help to identify where your optimization efforts should begin while keeping focus on the bigger picture. In other words, they drive optimization to align directly with the achievement of the website’s primary objectives while still addressing those common, shorter term issues. One such approach involves the employment of the Theory of Constraints.
Theory of Constraints (TOC) is a management philosophy introduced by Eliyahu Goldratt. It was first introduced in 1984 with the publishing of his first work, The Goal. Theory of Constraints consists of a number of different business and project management philosophies but its main premise is that any manageable system is limited from achieving more of its goals because of a small number of existing constraints.
Theory of Constraints teaches practitioners to focus on identifying constraints and directing all efforts to limiting their impact. Doing so should allow the system to better achieve its goals. A common application of this part of the TOC involves identifying these constraints in manufacturing assembly lines. The simplest way to view this would be to visualize a linear, step by step process where raw materials start on one end and a finished product is the result at the other.
Raw Material —– Process Step 1 —– Process Step 2 —– Process Step 3 —– Product
Of course, most manufacturing processes are not this simple but they certainly can be mapped using a similar approach. More importantly, these maps allow managers to track progression throughout the manufacturing process and look for steps that are taking longer, or requiring more resources than others along the way. These are the problem points within the process, the constraints, that if improved can better assist the overall system’s achievement of its goals.
So how does this translate to website optimization? Similar to any manufacturing process, a website is a system that is designed to meet one or a series of goals. Instead of making a product, the website is designed to guide a user along a path moving them to complete a desired action. Completion of this action, whether it’s purchasing a product or filling out a form, represents the end goal of the website “system”.
User —– Home Page —– Nav Bar —– Content Page —– Form Page —– Submission
Any veteran website manager will tell you that visitors rarely adhere to such a straightforward path like this one above. Search engines can drop them anywhere within a website. Navigation bars are pervasive throughout the site and some users may not even engage it to find where they are going. Internal site links, ads and other options can further complicate, or sometimes, distract a given user from following any predefined path. In truth, a great deal more time than this space will allow can be used to discuss proper definition and mapping of a user experience path.
Regardless, a website’s content, tools, navigation and overall user experience will elicit a common set of behaviors that can be visualized. Many shopping tools and checkout processes contain a number of required steps that can be mapped themselves. Some user paths may be very concise throughout like these and some may be more broadly defined. Further, matching results of these efforts to the original user path the site was designed with should result in a system map not unlike what we have discussed earlier.
Whether a website’s process to achieve its goal is exact or loosely defined, we should have the framework needed to begin applying Theory of Constraints concepts to optimize performance. Analysis can focus on user movement from step to step, page to page or interaction to interaction. If the desired outcome is to submit a completed lead form, what percentages of visitors are arriving at the form page? How many are actually following through and completing it? What common steps or behaviors do users that complete a form typically take and how many are doing so? Are the needed steps clear to the user and are easy to access? It is important to analyze site usability factors in addition to actual metrics to ensure identification of any constraints.
Applying TOC to website optimization tasks you with viewing and analyzing these user behaviors through an assembly line like lens. Visualize users and their movement within the site as the raw materials being guided through the manufacturing process discussed earlier. Doing so allows you to better focus on those areas and interactions that move users closer to the final, desired outcome your website was intended to produce. You begin by looking at the early steps and work to identify the first constraint in the process. Bear in mind, the purpose of website optimization is to make the most of the visitors you have; to maximize conversion.
(Traffic generation is a separate issue, albeit an important one and equates more to the acquisition of raw materials like our manufacturing example from earlier)
Constraints in a website’s user path can involve significant bounce rates on a given page, a lack of interaction with a key link or non-usage of a navigation option. Whatever your analysis has uncovered, it should demonstrate a limiting effect on the number of users moving forward in the process towards the desired outcome. Once a constraint is identified, as with any site analysis work, qualitative and quantitative data is employed to understand why the issue is occurring and to develop a solution to prevent or limit its negative impact.
Theory of Constraints dictates that once the first constraint has been limited or removed, focus is moved to the next constraint discovered in the process. Each time that one has been dealt with, the output at the end of the process should be improved. An important, underlying aspect of TOC is the idea that only a small number of constraints are impacting a system’s ability to achieve its goals. With this in mind, there should only be a few of these to focus attention on.
In addition, it can be assumed that not all constraints can be completely fixed or eliminated. Some may require ongoing effort to limit their impact and the Theory of Constraints is meant to uncover their importance and thereby justify the resource expenditure needed to mitigate them. Again, the end game is to maximize achievement of the website’s goals; the completed actions it was initially designed to produce.
Websites that employ several enhancements or feature dynamic content are susceptible to numerous error occurrences that are, by definition, constraining factors to a site’s performance. The need to deal with them is no different than when discovered using more traditional site analysis. However, what Theory of Constraints does is to focus effort and resources on those issues that most directly impact the website’s goals maximizing optimization of the user experience, including your more typical error issues. Application of this TOC philosophy changes prioritization as it encourages a more holistic perspective for optimization. It also should help to mitigate that shorter term, “putting out the fires” focus discussed in the opening.
It is well known that the internet is a dynamic environment that experiences change at a rapid pace. To remain effective, websites must be continually optimized as they adapt to new technologies, industry developments and shifting user behaviors. The ability to focus on what matters most is critical to keeping up in such an environment and applying Theory of Constraint philosophies can make a difference. TOC necessitates understanding what path users are following as they move toward completing the action your site was built to elicit. Further, it dictates that attention and resources be directed toward those areas in the website experience that are limiting or constraining the number of completed outcomes.
By viewing site optimization through this slightly different lens, a great deal more attention can be paid to what matters most in your web experience. Further, those efforts can be approached knowing that they are most relevant to achieving what the website was built to do whether it is to sell products, collect leads or generate ad impressions.
Website managers will always have technical errors emerge, content to adjust and enhancements to be made. However, by trying these TOC philosophies, optimization meant to increase performance and ultimately, achievement of overall goals can be more focused and clear in purpose.
There is a lot more to Theory of Constraints. Here are a few links to begin exploring: