Nordic Track Book Club Review: The Big Red Fez

Seth Godin wrote “The Big Red Fez: How to Make any Website Better” in 2001.  If websites are still with us in 2011 (Heaven forbid), this book will be as relevant then as it is today.

Be forewarned that if you are considering purchasing this book it is in paperback format, is only 109 pages, and the text (consisting of two or three paragraphs only) is on the right-hand page with the left-hand page containing a screen image on the page’s topic.  I read the entire book during a single Nordic Track session, concluding at the 51 minutes, 15 second mark.  And I made notes while I read it!

Seth Godin, as usual, makes many excellent points, ten of which I will list below.  Definitely items which we in IT may not have considered, or items which we already know are important but due to budget, time or scope restraints (or sheer laziness) we simply do not implement.

The title of Big Red Fez is based on a simple yet effective analogy of a monkey (wearing a big red fez) being trained to jump into a vat of lime Jell-O, but to do so the monkey must be rewarded with a banana.  If the search for that banana is not obvious, the monkey will lose interest and not complete the Jell-O jump.  So to the monkey, its all about the banana.

Our websites contain bananas which we want our users to find.  How easy is it for our monkeys to find the banana? That is the main point behind Fez

The first question we must ask is “What’s our banana?”  If we don’t know where we want our users to go, then how can we lead them to it?  Godin advocates chosing a single banana and making it absolutely obvious for the users.  If you go to, you will see a clear example of what Godin is talking about.  His banana is that he wants visitors to buy his book.  So he supplies a big red circled “BUY THIS BOOK” banana.  Nice.

Here are ten points demonstrated in the book that I felt were smart (and obvious) observations:

1)  There’s a Japanese game called Pachinko, much like pinball, but vertical and 100’s of balls can be in play at the same time.  Balls drop to the bottom.  The farther down, the better.  The point here is that its okay to waste a lot of balls at the top as long as enough balls find their way to the profitable areas below.  Thus to create a profitable website you must determine what the X percent of balls you put at the top end up doing what you want them to do.

2) People decide to stay at your site within 3 seconds.  If they don’t know what to do, they hit the back button. 

3) Design pages with one and only one objective.  If you don’t pick that one thing, neither will your visitors.

4) Make a different web page for every important banana, i.e., a page for non-subscribers, for first-time visitors, and a third for subscribers.

5) If getting subscribers is the banana, why present potential subscribers with a detailed list?  Get basic stuff to begin, then later after the user is a subscriber solicit more information.

6) The mighty search results page.  Typically the response to nothing found is simply that: “nothing found.”  The analogy is going into a retail store and asking for collar stays.  The salesperson responds “we don’t have any” and walks away.  Better to provide a list with the top searched items, discounts, anything.

7) Studies find that 60% of online shoppers who initiate a purchase leave the site before the purchase is made.  Imagine, as Godin says, a grocery store with 60% of the carts abandoned.  There are many reasons for this, many of which stemming from painful or overly difficult checkout and purchase processes.

8) What happens after purchase?  Most sites simply say “Thank you.”  What a waste, according to Godin.   Why not something like, “Thanks! We appreciate your business.  Click here to save 10 dollars on [lipstick]!”  This is the moment to take the relationship a step farther.

9) Start a conversation.  “The biggest win you can create when you interact with a customer is actually not closing a sale.  The biggest win is getting someone to tell ten friends, who then come do business with you.”

10) If you measure it, it gets done.  Measure what you want to happen and test to make the measurements go up. 


Article written by

A long time developer, I was an early adopter of Linux in the mid-90's for a few years until I entered corporate environments and worked with Microsoft technologies like ASP, then .NET. In 2008 I released Sueetie, an Online Community Platform built in .NET. In late 2012 I returned to my Linux roots and locked in on Java development. Much of my work is available on GitHub.