In the summer of 2000, Maria Malicka faced one of the
most megalithic site revamps of all time; telecom giants Bell
Atlantic and GTE, had just merged together to found Verizon and
as the newly promoted Executive Director of Retail ecommerce, it
was Malicka's job to pull their two separate Web sites together
into a single, even more effective one.
The project had four challenges that could have easily turned
into major headaches:
1. Integrating over 200 legacy and back end systems into one
2. Ramping up to handle significantly higher volumes of
nationwide traffic demanding a greater variety of services
from the site.
3. Gaining consensus from thousands of people both
internally and from customers.
4. Moving the entire project forward toward completion at
Although most companies' site revamps begin with
careful research and then move step-by-step through the design,
production, testing, and launch processes, Malicka knew Verizon
could not operate that way because the whole project was just too
enormous. If she could not juggle several stages at the same time
the whole re-launch would probably never have gotten done.
She says, "We began market research while also creating and
testing application prototypes simultaneously, otherwise we would
have never gotten off the ground."
What stopped the whole process from getting completely insane was
the fact that every single aspect of the redesign was focused on
three clearly defined goals:
Goal #1: Creating a (very) user-friendly site
Malicka says, "Our goal was for customers to find information
within three clicks or less -- very quickly, very fast -- so they
don't have to spend too much time surfing the site. If a
customer gets frustrated, if we don’t have our act together, at a
certain point that customer will give up and we may lose them to
Goal #2: Allowing customers to accomplish whatever they want
"So many companies want to drive customers to a particular
channel," Malicka says. "They discover that's not what people
want to do. Many come to the Web to find out how to contact us
on the phone. We needed to find out what customers wanted from
our site, not what info we wanted to provide to them online.
It's very focused from the customer's perspective."
That is not to say that Verizon did not want to save money by
moving as many tasks online as possible, such as bill paying and
new service orders. However, development priorities and
navigation design were set based on customer's expressed desires.
Goal #3: Making the site valuable to visitors
Instead of being a virtual brochure for the glories of Verizon,
the site's goal was to be a valuable tool to serve visitors'
actual needs. This meant including as much robust information as
possible so that visitors could find what they were looking for
Malicka remarks, "Many customers have questions on Sundays when
our offices are closed. We found 30-33% of our traffic is
happening after hours. It's not surprising."
The vast amount of research required to meet these three goals
-> Studying best practices in Web design
"I probably have a full library of every customers online
textbook published over three years, and so did my team," says
Malicka. "Also, we subscribed to [related] magazines and had our
competitive intelligence team provide us with articles about the
latest and greatest sites." She purposely did not limit this
research to telecommunications sites, "We wanted to examine sites
from other industries, especially financial industries and
service industries, to see whether they made sense for us."
-> Customer research
>From the very beginning, customers were consulted every single
step of the way, and when results came back showing Verizon was
going in the wrong direction with anything, the team immediately
redesigned and/or re-prioritized. "The most critical input came
from our customers," Malicka says.
After an initial brainstorming process, the Web development team
drew up a list of suggested top initiatives and site
capabilities. Then Verizon emailed out a survey to selected
customers to find out whether these ideas made sense, and which
should have the highest priority. "We had a very high response,
over 50%," notes Malicka.
Next, the team invited groups of 25 customers at a time to try
out proposed site redesigns at Verizon's focus group research lab
in Waltham MA. Each customer was put in front of a computer
screen featuring the proposed new Home Page and asked to
accomplish a variety of tasks, such as locating the customer
service phone number or ordering DSL service.
"We would test not only a particular application, but also
Despite the enormous amount of research the team had already
conducted, lab results contained a number of surprises,
1. Filling out online order forms that web designers think
are fairly simple is still hard for many people. Malicka
says, "We found the only people who went through order
pages fairly quickly were people in customer service jobs
who are familiar with inputting stuff."
She adds, "The system required customers to enter their
information in a specific structure - for example, it
required that house number is first, then street name,
and a suffix such as 'Drive' or 'Avenue.' It looked
reasonable until we tested with customers and they could
not get through it."
"I was observing one customer and she felt so bad that
she couldn't get through the address. So we created a
freer flowing address just the way a customer would
address an envelope, and only made certain
specifications. And if we found there was a 222 Main
Street and a 222 Main Ave, we showed customers the
options they could click on."
The result, "Now we don't find that many customers are
stuck on that page. Something like that could become a
road block -- it's so important to have feedback from
2. People are not familiar with pull-down menus. Verizon's
designers initially overestimated visitors' Web saavy.
Some customers had never used a pull-down before, others
were simply overwhelmed when there were too many pull-
downs per page.
3. You need three kinds of site navigation to serve the three
different typical visitor personality types.
Malicka explains the research team's findings, "Some
visitors like the top-down approach where they come to a
corporate site, find a main topic and then drill down.
"Some customers like to search for information first, and
then they like to go to a particular area. They are just
like window shoppers who may not be ready to make a
decision. The third kind just come to the site for a
very particular purpose - they buy and get out. They
want to be very efficient, very fast."
-> Internal research company wide
Malicka's team ended up holding far fewer committee meetings for
a project of this magnitude than you might think, because they
began gathering key input from the very start of the project, and
they used virtual tools such as email, teleconferences, and
online surveys to gather data and consensus.
"We started with a committee meeting in a room," says Malicka,
"It was a two-day session in Arlington Virginia. Then we had a
number of smaller sessions within particular locations for fine-
tuning in Arlington, Dallas, New York City. Then other meetings
were videoconference calls or regular conference calls."
To make things easier, the team broke down every single decision
behind the site design and back end systems integration into
almost 20,000 different "rules" so they knew incredibly precisely
what they needed answers for and from whom.
Then, after a year of simultaneous research, development work and
customer testing, the team invited Verizon staff to try out the
prototype and give suggestions for final tweaks prior to launch.
First in July, they asked 900 of Verizon's employees throughout
the Company whose jobs were directly related to the Internet, to
try out the site. Then in August the invitation to test the site
was extended to 5,000 further employees in departments such as
customer care, marketing communications, and operations. 1,700
of these voluntarily accepted the invitation to test the site and
were given their own passwords, testing goals, and then were
"It was incredibly important to go through that testing to ensure
our objectives were met," says Malicka. "After each phase we got
ideas for a number of improvements, which we then had to
prioritize to determine whether or not something critical ought
to be fixed before we launched." Or whether it was a nice-to-do
item that could wait for the next design rollout.
Finally the initial site launched on October 16th 2001, with a
flurry of additional tweaks launching "right on the heels of that
date, through November and December."
(In fact, Malicka's team was so busy tweaking that they delayed
their site launch celebration party until January, and they are
still rolling out upgrades on a regular schedule throughout
The marketing and PR teams used four key tactics to drive traffic
to the new site:
1. Pre- and post-launch media relations
Verizon's PR department began growing pre-release excitement with
press releases and media relations efforts two months prior to
launch. Then they sent out a regular series of releases whenever
warranted from thereon.
2. Reprogramming voice response systems
Malicka's team coordinated with customer service and IT to make
sure messages directing callers to the Web site were included on
every single inbound phone menu company-wide that customers might
call. "It took quite a bit of effort," she remarks, "This was
not an easy task."
3. Television ads
Starting in December, Verizon's ad team very carefully tested ads
mentioning the site in target markets, such as New York and
Philadelphia, prior to rolling them out in other markets. Each
time the web team combed through site traffic reports to
determine what, if any, impact ads had.
4. Billing inserts
In January Verizon added a printed insert promoting the site to
In less than eight months, more than a million Verizon customers registered at the new site to order services
online. The most impressive thing about this accomplishment is
that these million customers represent a solid third of all
unique visitors to the site during that time frame.
That means more than 30% of unique visitors converted to
registered users. 30% is a remarkably high conversion rate
by any standard for any Web site.
Close to a million customers have saved themselves and Verizon
money by paying their bills online, and since Verizon rolled out
its paper-free billing option in late March, more than 50,000
customers have converted completely.
Although some other sites we have profiled have reported that
offline ads had little impact, Verizon's regional site traffic
grew by more than 50% on occasion as a direct result of local TV
spots. One reason these worked so well may have been because
they touted particularly useful activities visitors could
accomplish at the site; as opposed to just saying, "Oh we have
a web site, please visit it."
Malicka and her team had to work insane hours for about 18 months
to pull this successful launch off. She says, "We had very
little sleep last year."
Whenever she felt tired, one particular inspiration kept her
going, "When I was on strike assignment, acting as a customer
service rep two years ago, a customer from Israel who was moving
back to Washington called me. I suggested he look at the [then
Bell Atlantic] site. He was absolutely amazed at the basic
functionality and thanked me very much."
Malicka's thrilled about the success of the new site, "Customers
love it. They really love it."