From best to worst in one website

Visually fantastic, but deeply flawed, Walt Disney’s corporate website shows all that is right – and wrong - with modern web design, David Bowen says.

It’s the best of sites, it’s the worst of sites. When we looked at Walt Disney’s corporate site, we got all excited. Could this bring a zingy new feel to our next Bowen Craggs Index, which is published in April? No sadly – it is exciting, but is it is also deeply flawed. It epitomises the best and worst of current thinking in corporate site web design.

The home page awakens

The site looks fantastic. Disney does of course have an advantage. It is the only large corporation that can plausibly have a picture of a First Order Special Forces Tie Fighter trying to destroy the Millennium Falcon on its home page. But its visual skill does not stop at outer space. A firework-sparkling Disney World makes the investor section more spectacular than any other I have seen. Philanthropy has a nice picture of Mickey Mouse with a small child, and even the apparently unoriginal image of three girls in Environment is done with sufficient panache to make it stand out.

Does this matter on a corporate site? Given that the biggest group of visitors almost certainly consists of people looking for jobs, the answer is undoubtedly yes. Who wouldn’t want to work for this oh-so-slick company? Which is why it is a shame that if they click the Careers link, they are switched to a colourful but frankly childish site where even Nemo the fish has a fixed grin and perfect teeth. So we have our first positive – spectacular good looks – and our first negative – fragmentation that speaks of poor governance.

Is gorgeousness lost on investors?

Back to the positives. Impressing young jobseekers is one things, but does it really make any difference if for example the investor section is also visually rather gorgeous? As long as it does not undermine usability, the answer must be yes. Even financial analysts have some human characteristics and private shareholders have many – they will be impressed, even if they do not realise they are being impressed. As we noted in a recent BC Tip, share price charts often look crude and dated: ‘Disney’s exceptionally slick visual presentation shows how much clearer and more aesthetically pleasing – and as a result easier to use – such tools can be.’

The thoughtful design goes beyond visual appeal. The default view shows price moves today, with tabs offering six options up to a five-year chart. A ‘View more’ button reveals much more detail, including moving averages and the like. I’m sceptical that many individual shareholders would bother with such things (and professionals have their own much more powerful tools), but if you are going to provide it, making it an optional extra makes perfect sense.

Why is it then that the same thought has not been applied to navigation on the site, and why in many places does visual effect indeed undermine the site’s usefulness?

Click, scroll, waste time

Let’s say I’m an analyst or a business journalist wanting to check out Disney’s latest full year results, to compare it with the previous year’s. I am of course in a hurry. I go to the investor section and can’t immediately see what I need – all I can see on my 13-inch laptop are those fireworks. No dropdown menu to help, so I start scrolling.

I find ‘Disney’s Full Year and Q4 2015 Earnings Results Webcast’ in a panel under Events and Presentations. I click and get a page with no information but links to a PDF release, a transcript of the webcast, and a MP3 podcast of it.

To see the previous year’s numbers I have to click a View All button below the panel, triggering a page in a new window, and scroll down it until I find the same panel for the 2014 results.

This may not seem particularly irksome, but (remember I’m in a hurry), it makes me work harder than I should:

  • I have to scroll and scan to find any information
  • I have to click at least twice more to find any content
  • I have to click, scroll, scan and click twice more to find the previous year’s numbers
  • The layout of the panel on a big screen, with four headlines across, is not easy to scan. It does make it easy to shrink responsively for a mobile screen, but PC and laptop uses will be by far the biggest group of visitors.

Also, I cannot find slides to go with the presentation – they may be here somewhere, but my scrolling and clicking has not revealed them.

Compare it with Citigroup’s financial information page: a table gives me immediate access to all information related to 2015 results, including webcast and Excel sheets, with icons showing what is available in what format. One click gives me the same, without scrolling, for 2014 and previous years. A left menu helps me move between different types of information, all without scrolling.

Failing the usability test

I’m guessing, but based on other experience I would expect Walt’s web designers to protest ‘But it did fine in usability tests’. To which my answer is, try a new usability tester. There is no way in the world it is as easy or quick to find information on the Disney site as it is on Citigroup’s.

The left menu is part of it of course – I’m pleased to see some brand new sites doggedly hanging into this useful brontosaurus of a design feature (see our BC Tip this week). But beyond this is a belief that making people scroll and scan is somehow as good as giving them fixed, ordered links to click on.

As we’ve said before, it may be fine on a shallow media site and the like, but not on a corporate site where speed of access to complex information is crucial.

The Disney is site is also rather shallow, but this has been achieved by putting much content on hard-to-search PDFs – including most of the information in Environment and Philanthropy. Better surely to put it all on the site, as other companies do, and provide the navigational tools to let your visitors find it.

A final thought. I have to scroll much less when I look at the site on a giant screen than I do on a laptop – obviously. So tell your builder to design the site on a laptop – obviously.

First published 27 January, 2016
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