Why are corporate websites like Brussels sprouts?

Large organizations relaunching their sites have a particular issue at the moment. It is the ‘navigation challenge’, and most groups attempting it are failing, David Bowen says.

Modern web design dictates that a site is uncluttered, with bold imagery, bold headlines and no distractions. That means that conventions of the past – most particularly a left menu for navigation – have no place. The needs of a corporate site’s owner dictates that people should be able to move around it easily, and that the owner can nudge them in suitable directions. The best way of doing this is to stick to conventions visitors will understand, and to keep navigation cues permanently in place.

These two are almost – but not wholly – incompatible: shedding convention is nearly always a mistake in web navigation, but so is looking old-fashioned. The navigation challenge is to combine cutting edge design with high usability. Can it be done?

Truck or Ferrari?

If you ask around the web design world, you are likely to get a shrugged ‘of course’. A combination of dropdown menus and scrolling to find what you want gives plenty of usability along with a clean modern feel. One time I talked about left menus I got this reply from a reader: ‘They are just distracting screen clutter and we could manage without them. See Gov.uk as an example that works well.’

Plausible, but wrong. He is not recognizing that there are many different types of website. Corporate sites are as similar to a government service site as an articulated truck is to a Ferrari. They are both vehicles, but to insist they follow the same design principles is unwise.

Let’s divide websites into types. There are many, but here are four:

·      Social media - like Facebook or Linked In,

·      Information sites -  Gov.uk or IMDB

·      Media sites -Huffington Post or Upworthy,

·      Corporate sites.

I have chosen the first three because they are driving fashion, and must be influencing the way corporate site designers think.

Then classify them in four ways:

·      Usage: How often are they used?

·      Depth and complexity

·      Purpose: Normally used for one task at a time, or for more than one

·      Balance of power: Do you need your visitors more than they need you?

Power failure

We have done an analysis on all these, but to make my point I’ll concentrate on the first and last: usage and balance of power.

Social media sites can get away with appalling usability simply because people use them so often. You get used to your car, however hard it is to drive; so it is with these sites. Facebook sent me an email saying I had three notifications. I clicked on the link: no mention anywhere of notifications. I know (because I use it frequently) that the globe icon is where notifications are – and I found only one. That’s two basic usability errors in two clicks. But no-one seems to mind, because they know Facebook so well. And it’s not the worst (I’d have a run-off between LinkedIn and Flickr for that prize).

Facebook also has the balance of power – it is the nearest thing on the web to crack cocaine. It knows people will come whatever it does. This is not so obvious for Gov.uk, but it is true. This much-praised UK government portal site gives access to pretty much every public service. Its usability is good for the simple journeys it offers to complete a single task. People may or may not use it frequently, but it too has the power – if users have to scroll, they will. The alternative is to pick up the phone and listen to piped music forever; no contest.

Media sites are simple, shallow, frequently used and addictive. Give people one infinitely scrolling page and they will accept it – why bother with complicated things like navigation?

Corporate sites are like Brussels sprouts

Corporate sites could hardly be more different – they are complex, deep, multi-functional and visited as rarely as people can get away with. No-one goes to a corporate site for fun so uniquely in this group, the visitor has the power. Corporate sites are the Brussels sprouts of the web world: you really have to prepare them well to make them remotely appetizing. Better than that if you want them gobbled with any enthusiasm.

But does this mean keeping left navigation? We spend much time recreating plausible journeys. One of the things that makes corporates sites different is that visitors need to make journeys from one area to another deep within them. Here’s a simple example an analyst or investor might try. Find the quarterly results, then Securities and Exchange Commission filings, then the annual report. How easy is it get from one to the other? Ignoring the reading times, this little journey takes 14 seconds on the ultra-conventional Novartis site, 41 on the new ExxonMobil site. On Novartis the links you need are in view; on ExxonMobil you have to scroll up and down, backspace, guess what to do next.

The commonly quoted line that ‘people don’t mind scrolling’ misses the point. It slows the process down, it creates uncertainty – they may not mind it, but it is making their lives more difficult. And they are more likely to give up. Brussels sprouts will be abandoned if they are not just perfect.

The answers are out there

Is there then an answer to the ‘navigation challenge’? Have a look at Sap.com, SAP’s site. Think up plausible journeys across any area of the site – corporate or customer-facing - and you will notice two things. First, there is no left nav. Second, you are not scrolling, and you can see where to see go without any serious difficulty. SAP’s trick is to put a breadcrumb trail at the centre of the mechanism, with shallow menus above and below it steering visitors locally.

Now try Qualcomm.com. It is visually striking – which makes it unusual for an IT site – and in theory its navigation comes close to solving the challenge. A breadcrumb trail is again key, with a slim bar expanding to reveal a left menu – but only when needed – and a battery of other devices to help people move around.

Neither is perfect. SAP has lost its top slot in the FT Bowen Craggs Index in part because it introduced an ‘off template’ navigation mechanism that added confusion. Qualcomm is poorly implemented in a number of ways. But both illustrate three points. That it is possible to have a good-looking corporate site that works well. That it is a complex and subtle business. And that it takes exceptional care to make it work – and keep working – well.

If in doubt – or if you lack the resources to keep on top of it – conventional left navigation is still the safest bet for a corporate site. It can certainly be ugly: Santander, Rosneft, Schlumberger are unlovely examples. But it does not have to be: look at BP, Total, British American Tobacco.

Why, you may ask, does the Bowen Craggs site not have a left menu? Because it is not complex, and double decker top navigation gives it appropriate functionality. We are lucky: we don’t have a navigation challenge.


First published 10 December, 2014
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