Move Over Portals; Prepare for Scenario Nets!

The Next E-Business Model: Task-Specific Cross-Company Workflows

October 20, 2006

Make way for Scenario Nets! We predict that this will be the next e-business model. Think workflows. Think business processes. Think about complex tasks you’d like to be able to execute easily on the Web. Add in portable personal profiles and shared customer information, and you have the makings of the next generation of e-business.


How should you design your next Web site? How do you ensure that customers will always encounter your products and services exactly when they need them?

Put yourself in your customer’s shoes. What function or task is the customer trying to accomplish? What are the tasks customers need to be able to do and in what order? Designing Web sites and applications using customer-driven scenarios or use cases has always been a best practice. But today, you can also use workflows and scenarios to craft new business models and to cement partnerships.

If you start with a particular task or function and think through the steps each customer will encounter, you’ll probably discover that your company or Web site doesn’t offer all the services and functions that the customer ideally needs every step of the way. But you can probably think of other companies and Web sites that do fill these critical gaps. Why not approach them and offer to co-create mutually beneficial Scenario Nets, where each of you links to the others in order to provide customers with a comprehensive end-to-end solution?


Have you noticed how long it takes to actually DO things on the Web? I’m not talking about slow download times; I’m talking about getting something done.

There’s a basic problem with the design of most Web sites—they aren’t designed to streamline the process you came to the Web to do. There are exceptions, of course, and these are the Web sites that tend to get our business:,,,,, National Semiconductor (,,, and are a few successful examples that come to mind. Each is reaching millions of customers each month, and each is racking up sales while keeping customer service costs at bay. But, if you look at each of these sites carefully, you’ll notice something that makes them very different from the majority: They’re all designed to quickly move the customer through one or more business processes.

Whether you want to find and order a computer, locate and buy a book, get the right toy for a 10-year-old boy, research and buy shares of a stock or mutual fund, pay your bills, find the right components for the product you’re designing, get help debugging a complex network configuration problem, or find out if the birthday present you ordered reached its destination on time, you can perform those tasks quickly and efficiently on the Web today (if you choose your venue carefully).

Needed: Scenario-Driven Workflows

But what happens when you want to perform a more complex task, particularly one that requires that you deal with multiple products and services? That’s when today’s Web metaphor breaks down. You wind up navigating endlessly across myriad links and Web sites, taking detours (some of which are interesting or informative), backtracking, and, in the end, feeling exhausted and defeated. What’s the answer? We need more function-specific marketspaces and smoother hand-offs among cooperating players.

Many of the complex tasks we’d like to be able to do on the ’Net still fall short of most customers’ expectations. Getting a mortgage, buying a car, planning a business or vacation trip, are all doable on the Web today, but few people actually perform those transactions from start to finish on the ’Net. Many pundits claim that customers are uncomfortable doing these difficult and expensive chores without the personal touch. I think there’s something equally basic at stake: We can’t move through the process painlessly and quickly enough.

Today’s Examples: Scenario-Based Destination Sites

Three Web players that demonstrate an understanding of scenario-based design are,, and Each of these e-businesses focuses on a targeted set of customers who are ready to perform a set of tasks. Each has thought through the likely scenarios these customers will need to perform. These scenarios form the unifying theme of their Web sites. At Autobytel, you can shop for a new car or a used car, research cars, finance a car, insure a car, and track the service record on a car. At, you can shop for a mortgage, find a home, and choose a contractor.

In my opinion, does the best job on the Web of understanding the needs of the frequent business traveler. More than one-stop shopping, is organized around the typical business travel scenario. It lets you book flights, rent cars, reserve hotel rooms for multi-segment flights, and select itinerary options based on convenience or cost. You can go back and change your mind about every aspect of the trip as many times as you want. As you’re booking, you can also optimize frequent flyer miles, select preferred carriers, and keep costs down. And, most important of all, tracks all of your frequent flyer mileage programs and lets you select the flights that will offer seating upgrades, and it automatically applies for those upgrades at the appropriate times for each airline. What’s missing?

There are two parts of the scenario that is missing. The first is the bargain-hunting factor. People who plan their travel online are always worried that they’re not seeing the whole picture. Although the site lets you select price as your most important selection criterion, there’s still the nagging fear that you’re missing a lower fare you might find elsewhere. For price-sensitive shoppers, should automatically link to other travel sites (or to bargain auction sites like, pass the itinerary information along, and return the results. If another site can fulfill that itinerary or segment at a lower price, then could pass the order on and take a commission.

The second missing piece of the scenario is the corporate travel agent. For all but the tiniest businesses, most companies’ travel policies require the use of either an in-house travel agent or an approved corporate travel agent. These agencies adhere to a set of travel policies set by the company, having to do with preferred carriers, negotiated rates, and many other terms and conditions. In order for business travelers to use to actually book (rather than to simply research) their travel itineraries, the site needs to be linked into companies’ corporate travel agencies and/or policies.

You probably think of these e-businesses as aggregators or infomediaries. Yet, notice that these sites are very function-specific. They are designed to walk the customer through a particular set of complex tasks, offering context-sensitive choices at each step of the way. Note, too, that, at the tightly integrated sites, like, customers don’t have to reenter personal profile information each time they are handed off to a linked business partner or supplier.

Tomorrow’s Examples: Scenario Nets

Today, what I call Scenario Nets—a network of interlinked Web sites that allow us to complete a task—are the purview of function-specific destinations, such as (for mortgages), (for consumer finance offers), or (for doctors, insurers, and patients). The next step in Scenario Nets will be more cross-site links. Why? Not everyone will start at a task-specific portal. Some may begin with a brand name company associated with the task at hand—L.L. Bean for purchasing a canoe, General Motors for buying a car, their realtor or their bank to start the mortgage-shopping process. Wherever customers begin a scenario, e-businesses should make sure that those customers can find all desired ancillary services.

So, if I begin my mortgage quest at my bank, link me to appraisers in my neighborhood, give me a list of mortgage brokers I might prefer to use, let me get my loan pre-approved through Fannie Mae before I go home-shopping, let me download my tax returns from Quicken to include in my mortgage application… the list of related tasks for this project goes on and on. Start thinking about creating Scenario Nets with linked partners for all the task-related functions your customers need to do. And think about ways in which you can partner with other, non-competitive players, not just as an advertisement on a Web page, but as a critical step in a workflow.

How Do Scenario Nets Differ from Internet Advertising?

How will Scenario Net partnerships differ from today’s site sponsorships, Web advertisements, or affiliate programs?

PORTABLE PROFILES. First, when customers click through to the linked site, their relevant personal profile information will tag along. No more reentering the same data over and over. Customers will have e-wallets or other portable personal profile passports that capture and re-submit personal information.

Will customers be given a choice about whether to carry this profile information along or not? Absolutely. Customers will have the same opt in/opt out choices for passing along profiles that they have today regarding cookies. The wording might look something like this: “Would you like us to convey your relevant profile information to this trusted partner?” A clickable explanation of what the “relevant” information would be in each case would follow.

SHARED CUSTOMER INFORMATION. The second difference will be in joint “ownership” of customer data. In today’s Web ad click-through models and affiliate programs, a customer’s identity is never shared. If someone comes to my site and clicks through to buy a book at, I’ll get the commission, but I’ll never know who came through. In tomorrow’s Scenario Nets, customer data will be part of the currency of exchange. I’ll get a lower commission in exchange for knowing the identity (at least what the customer will share with me) of our mutual customer.

Start Designing Your Scenario Nets Today!

Who will benefit from this next step in Web evolution? Convenience-minded customers will prefer to stick with networks of cooperating partners who save them time and steps. Companies that jump on this business model early will learn a lot more about their customers’ preferences, resulting in much better target marketing.

It’s time to start creating your own Scenario Nets before your competitors do.

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