Designing for Real People: Additional Lessons for Web Design from Mall and Retail Design

Written by: Saul Carliner

This three-part article attempts to add to web designers’ “bag of tricks” by suggesting lessons from bricks-and-mortar retailers that can be applied to web design. The first installment explored broad issues of strategy. The second explored tactical issues in structuring and presenting content. This installment explores additional tactical issues in design, such as refurbishing websites and the downside of online communities.

“One of the great conflicts in the discipline of web design is that between usability-oriented designers, who propose an approach to web design based on heuristics, and graphic-oriented designers, who propose an aesthetically-based approach (Cloninger).”Lesson seven: Appearances matter
On display: Fashion drives the retail industry. It certainly affects clothing retailers, many of whom change fashions five times a year (spring, summer, fall, winter, and cruise season). It also affects retailers of household merchandise, such as sheets, diningware, and furniture. Fashions for items like sheets and towels subtly change twice a year (in the spring and fall), and “hard merchandise,” like appliances and furniture, substantially change every three to five years.

Fashion drives sales in stores and malls, too. In regional malls, general design trends change about every ten years. In the 1970s, malls sported a dark, earth-toned color scheme (lots of browns and reds), linoleum floors, and storefronts that were flush against the walls. In the 1980s, the dominant colors changed to grays and mauves, and storefronts began popping out, extending slightly into the hallway. Like bay windows in residences, these pop-out windows turned glass from a barrier between shopper and store into an invitation to enter. The trend towards pop-out design accelerated in the 1990s, when the color palette lightened further to whites and creams. When possible, floor surfaces were replaced with stone, marble, and carpet.

Even within stores, appearances change. For instance, in the late 1990s, Banana Republic changed its look from high safari to Pottery Barn chic. The décor went from cluttered and accented with dark woods, to tidy and accented with blonde woods and metal fixtures.

The changes in mall and store appearance are indicative of more than an effort to provide the retail staff with a new environment; it is intended to generate sales. In fact, a mall renovation almost always results in significant growth in sales. Conversely, failing to remodel is often associated with a decline in sales. For example, as analysts tried to explain why Kmart fell from its position as the top U.S. retailer through the 1990s, many of them commented that Kmart stores needed to be renovated. It is not uncommon for stores in bankruptcy protection to continue their renovation programs, because they are believed to pay for themselves with increased sales.

Stores have found, too, that the visual design of merchandise is increasingly important. Stores like Target and IKEA distinguish themselves through design. IKEA tries to provide quality modern design at an affordable price, and Target has engaged designers of art-quality merchandise (such as Michael Graves) to design popularly-priced kitchenware and housewares. Target finds that it can sell these products and makes a higher profit on them.

Lessons for web design: One of the great conflicts in the discipline of web design is that between usability-oriented designers, who propose an approach to web design based on heuristics, and graphic-oriented designers, who propose an aesthetically-based approach (Cloninger, 1999). Usability expert Jakob Nielsen is in the former camp; he feels strongly that function outweighs form, and demonstrates his preference with his no-frills website, www.useit.com.

A more appropriate approach might be to balance the two. While taking into account known traffic patterns and concerns about convenience among shoppers, mall and retail designers also attend to the visual appearance of their domains. Similarly, designers of commercial websites should pay attention to visual design issues in addition to functionality.

Like in the retail industry, periodic redesigns can also have a positive effect on a website experience. For example, PeopleSoft noted that “inquiries are significantly up” following a late-2001 redesign of its site (Fox, 2002). Although improved structure, clearer links, and more focused content result in visitor retention, a new visual design often encourages visitors to explore new or improved features.

Lesson eight: Offer some personal attention
On display: In a U.S. retail environment characterized by a progressive decline in the number of staff on sales floors (leaving customers to serve themselves), Nordstrom has carved a niche for itself by providing outstanding personal service. For instance, it has a reputation for accepting returns without question, even if the customer did not purchase the product at Nordstrom. According to one legendary story, Nordstrom accepted a return of automobile tires, even though it does not sell them. More pragmatically, Nordstrom’s sales staff is known for contacting preferred customers in advance of a sale, and for providing personalized attention to customers.

This excellent service comes at a human price, though. A lawsuit in the early 1990s alleged that staff had to perform some of this work outside of regular paid hours. This is not to say that good service should not be offered, but that it comes at the cost of extra effort.

However, a store can receive a substantial financial benefit by taking this approach. For example, it can force competitors to regularly mark down their merchandise. Nordstrom competitors like Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s, Robinsons May, Hecht’s, and The Bon Marché sometimes purposely mark up the suggested retail price of their merchandise so that the sticker prices appear reduced. This was suggested by a disclaimer in a 2000 Macy’s circular stating that regular prices might not have resulted in actual sales.

By comparison, Nordstrom holds just two sales per season: a pre-season “preview sale” and a post-season “clearance sale.” Otherwise, it does not discount prices, not even for its own brand-name merchandise. According to some industry publications, Nordstrom has the highest sales per square foot, a key productivity metric in the retail industry.

The reputation has persisted for years, through strong and weak economies, and through Nordstrom’s expansion from its base in the Pacific Northwest to the U.S. east coast, midwest, and sunbelt.

Lessons for web design: Web designers can take a cue from the personal attention that Nordstrom is known for. Although functional websites ideally provide users with the information they need in a convenient manner, the information that’s provided online doesn’t always meet user needs.

One example of where this is the case is technical support. Even when the answers to users’ questions are listed on a Frequently Asked
Questions (FAQ) page, in a database of technical issues, or otherwise available online, an inexperienced or frustrated user might not have the patience to find it.

In response, some organizations provide a live online chat between users and qualified technical support representatives. For example, users of the AT&T Worldnet service with technical questions can engage in a real-time chat with a technical support person, who can help them diagnose their problem or resolve other technical issues.

Elearning provides web designers with another opportunity to apply the personal touch. One of the known concerns with asynchronous elearning (that is, courses in which the learner and instructor do not directly interact with one another), is that it’s anonymous. Other than the learner, no one is aware that someone is taking a course. As a result, online learning is plagued by a high dropout rate–although many people start courses, few actually complete them.

In some cases, people do not complete the course because the material is unclear and no one is available to clarify it. In other instances, learners start courses but get distracted. Without anyone to remind them about the course, they simply forget to complete it.

E-coaching provides that missing contact. Through e-coaching, a “real” human interacts with online learners soon after they enroll in courses. The coach is available to answer questions about course material, contacts lapsed students to encourage them to complete courses, and personally acknowledges learners when they are finished. Coaches may interact with learners electronically, by telephone, in person (if geographically feasible), or through a combination of these approaches.

A third application of the personal touch is the online column, in which a recognized expert accepts questions from readers, researches the answers, and posts them on a website as an article, for example. Frequent readers become familiar with the point of view advocated by the author and filter the responses through that point of view. Examples of this include Jakob Nielsen’s biweekly Internet column and “Ask the Expert” on TVGuide.com. In some ways, these materials are online versions of the advice columns in newspapers or the birds-of-a-feather sessions held at user group meetings.

In other words, although designers of functional websites should strive to prepare content that is self-explanatory, they should also be aware that some users might not understand the material. As a result, designers should provide a means for users to interact with a “live” person who can answer questions, clarify material, and encourage users when needed.

“Many web designers feel that a lack of online community on their site is due to some failure on their part… perhaps there’s a simpler explanation: users simply aren’t interested in participating.”Lesson nine: A community center or a community hangout?
On display: The Rouse Companies, developer of many regional malls and the planned city of Columbia, Maryland, envisioned its Columbia Mall as the centerpiece of the Town Center (downtown area), and as a community center. Part central meeting place, part community facility, this mall—and many like it—offers a variety of services intended to draw community members, much as the village green did in classic New England towns.

The Columbia Mall schedules performances by various community choral and theater groups, conducts publicity events that are co-sponsored with local media, and hosts community-interest events like health screenings. Similarly, some regional malls, like the Mall of America, feature community rooms. Others, like Owings Mills Town Center in Baltimore, sponsor “mall walkers” programs, in which people can walk the hallways of the mall for exercise before it opens.

But malls also attract a group that planners did not originally anticipate: teenagers, some who come simply to “hang out” in a climate-controlled environment, without any shopping agenda.

In some instances, this juvenile activity has turned criminal. A recent murder and some gang-related violence at one major mall in the Twin Cities area received wide, unfavorable media coverage. In some malls, like Owings Mills Town Center, perceived criminal activity has had a negative effect on sales. In response, many malls have instituted policies limiting access for teenagers. The Mall of America, for instance, prevents people under the age of 16 from visiting the mall on Saturday evenings unless accompanied by an adult.

Lessons for web design: Designers of many websites try to create a sense of community among users. To that end, they offer polls, threaded discussions, and places to post personal web pages. Much of the literature about online teaching extols the virtues of using community-building tools and services in technical communication (Cook, 2002).

But many web designers find that, despite their intentions, they have difficulty creating a real community online. Many web designers feel that a lack of online community on their site is due to some failure on their part. But perhaps there’s a simpler explanation: users simply aren’t interested in participating.

Occasionally, online communities offer benefits to learners and users, but most of the time they do not, and the community is unnecessary. As such, the energy expended on building unwanted online communities might be better spent on more productive activities. For example, in their study of the effect of course-related websites on student performance, Lu, Stokes, and Zhu (2000) found that students who primarily visited the community area of a site performed about 11 points lower on the final exam than the average student. On the other hand, each visit to the Notes page (which provided summaries of each in-class lecture) increased the students’ score 0.25 points. (So, a student who visited 40 times was likely to score 10 points higher.)

Other skeptics, like Carnegie Mellon president Jarod Cohon, worry that promoting too much online community might have a negative effect on in-person social skills (Hamm, 2000).

Most users visit functional websites primarily to get specific information; when they find it, they go back to other work. Although designers might want users to stick around on their site, merely offering a community does not mean a community will form, especially if the users are not (consciously or unconsciously) seeking one.

Designers might find a more compelling way to increase usage by providing more utilitarian content related to the subject of the site. Or, maybe users are simply satisfied with the site as it is and, as suggested in lesson eight, designers should provide users with opportunities to ask experts questions, rather than try to create a full-fledged, ongoing community.

In other words, online communities, like their in-person counterparts, thrive when they have a purpose, but can become a source of mischief and disappointment when they do not.

Applying the Lessons
Many of the lessons learned by mall and retail designers transfer effectively to the design of functional websites. The lessons presented in the three installments of this article include:

Practices in malls and retail design Lessons for web design
Retail is a morphing medium. New technology doesn’t just change HTML code, it also changes entire communication strategies. More significantly, it changes the social structure of the web. So don’t assume that because an approach works now it will continue to work. Be open to evolution.
Stores purposely make shoppers walk past less-essential items to get to staple goods. Work with users’ known navigational patterns to direct them towards less-visited parts of a site.
Shoppers get bored with homogeneity. Web users will become bored with homogeneous content and presentation.
Malls can regain lost customers by turning themselves into “destinations.” Websites can retain visitors by becoming “destinations” for all of the services related to a given topic.
By opening up the design of their spaces, malls and stores give shoppers a better view of all the merchandise. Opening up the structure of a website can help users more easily find and understand its content.
For some retailers, the best way to provide all of the services customers want is to merge with complementary retailers. Web publishers should consider working with content brokers (and create licensing arrangements with other sites) to credibly fill in gaps in site content.
Traffic and sales increase after a store remodels. Occasionally redesigning a site can not only improve usability, but also increase traffic.
Retailers can distinguish themselves with quality service. Serve users directly, addressing them individually through online chats with service representatives, e-coaching, columnists, etc.
Creating a community can have unintended and undesirable results. Online communities are not always successful. Communities ultimately thrive when they need to; avoid forcing a community if one does not seem to coalesce on its own.

Of course, these lessons are just a few of that mall and retail design can teach us. You can probably think of some of your own.

The purpose of this article is not to present a comprehensive list of all the lessons from mall and retail design, or to develop a list of must-follow rules. Rather, I hope that, just as a vacation in an unfamiliar culture can build a new sense of resolve and purpose upon the return home, this “visit” to malls and retailing can help reinvigorate you and your work and give you new ideas and sources of inspiration. For, ultimately, the best way to design an effective online user experience is to draw on all of our experiences as users, both on- and offline.

Read Part 1 | Part 2


(Part Three)

  • Cloninger, Curt. (1999.) Usability experts are from Mars, graphic designers are from Venus. From the website, A List Apart. http://www.alistapart.com/stories/marsvenus/index.html. Visited June 9, 2002.
  • Cook, Kelli Cargile. (2002.) Layered literacies: a theoretical frame for technical communication pedagogy. Technical Communication Quarterly. 11(1). 5-20.
  • Fox, Chiara. (2002.) Re-architecting PeopleSoft.com from the bottom-up. From the website, Boxes and Arrows. Visited June 25, 2002. http://www.boxesandarrows.com/archives/002721.php
  • Hamm, Steve. (2000.) The Wired Campus. Business Week Online. Originally published December 11, 2000. http://www.businessweek.com/@@0M43kIYQYKPISw0A/2000/00_50/b3711099.htm
  • Lu, A., Stokes, M., & Zhu, J. H. (2000). The use and effects of web-based instruction. Journal of Interactive Learning Research. 11(2) .197-218

Saul Carliner is a visiting scholar at the City University of Hong Kong. His publications include Designing E-Learning (ASTD Press), An Overview of Online Learning (HRD Press), and “Physical, Cognitive, and Affective: A Three-Part Model of Information Design” (Technical Communication, 4Q2000).

Big Boxes and Shoppertainment: More Lessons for Web Design from Mall and Retail Design

Written by: Saul Carliner

This three-part article attempts to add to web designers’ “bag of tricks”“Most innovation on the web will involve some element of risk. Most proposed innovations are years ahead of the available research on web design.” by suggesting lessons from bricks-and-mortar malls and stores that can be applied to web design. The first installment explored some broad issues of strategy. This one explores some tactical issues in structuring and presenting content.

Lesson three: Watch out for the big boxes
On display: After the first enclosed shopping mall (Southdale Mall, in Edina, a suburb of Minneapolis) appeared in the 1950s, the number of enclosed, regional malls in the United States skyrocketed, with the largest growth occurring in the 1970s and 1980s. Regional malls earned their name because they were intended to draw shoppers from the entire region that they served, which, in a typical suburban area, included anywhere within a 30-minute drive. In most markets, these malls were the only shopping centers of such size and caliber in the region.

Initially, regional malls had two or three anchor stores. An anchor store is a large store that “anchors” one end of the mall. Almost always, the anchor store was a department store (although this is changing today). Between anchor stores were several specialty shops, usually smaller local merchants who were relocating from older, declining shopping areas (or shopping areas that they anticipated would decline). But an increase in rental prices for retail spaces in the mall (which are usually based on a percentage of sales), coupled with more intense competition, changed the make-up of stores in malls. To ensure the highest possible rent, mall operators preferred leasing to stores with proven track records, especially those with prior success marketing in malls. Few small, local stores could match the track records of national specialty retailers —small chains of stores that specialize in a single product niche (but, despite the name, actually operate internationally). Popular national specialty retailers include Gap (clothing), Spencer’s Gifts (novelties), Nine West (shoes), and Williams-Sonoma (cooking supplies). As a result, specialty retailers thrived as the market became saturated with malls. Even when the number of new malls began to decline, national specialty retailers could still generate the revenues that mall operators sought.

By the early 1990s, malls began homogenizing, and eventually fell into one of three broad categories. “A” malls catered to upper- and upper-middle-class shoppers. These malls featured department stores that primarily catered to wealthier customers (such as Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Bloomingdale’s in the US, and Holt-Renfrew in Canada), broader-appeal department stores with an expanded selection of merchandise, exclusive national specialty retailers like Ralph Lauren and Kenneth Cole, and merchants of exclusive lines of household goods like Pottery Barn and Crate & Barrel. “A” malls also contained national specialty retailers, such as Gap and Lechter’s Housewares, that market to broader audiences. “B” malls targeted upper-middle- and middle-class shoppers. Department stores in “B” malls had large selections, but not as large or as exclusive as those in “A” malls. Similarly, although the mix of specialty shops in “B” malls was similar to that in “A” malls, certain retailers (like Tiffany & Co.) would not locate in “B” malls; others (such as Banana Republic) offered a reduced selection of merchandise. Finally, “C” malls catered to middle- and lower-middle-class shoppers. They generally featured department stores that targeted only people in that income range, and national specialty retailers that sought a mall audience, such as Regis hair salons, Gap, and The Limited. Many specialty retailers that aim at shoppers in higher income brackets, such as J. Crew, Banana Republic, Abercrombie & Fitch, and Crate & Barrel, did not locate stores in “C” malls.

This renting strategy, called the retail mix, significantly reduced the risk of mall operators, but resulted in a monotonous shopping experience for consumers, who sought larger and more varied selections of merchandise. Mall visitors also found that the convenience of one-stop, climate-controlled shopping in regional malls was offset by the inconveniences of hard-to-find parking, long hikes between stores in ever-expanding buildings, and the limited selection of merchandise in the sometimes too-focused national specialty retail stores.

Two approaches offered an alternative to the regional mall. One was the “big box” shopping center, which is essentially a strip mall that contains several very large stores. (The term “big box” refers to the immense size of the stores, which often have 30,000 or more square feet of retail space, compared to the 1,500-5,000 square feet of a typical specialty shop in a mall.) Shoppers park their cars in parking lots directly in front of the store in which they intend to shop and walk right into it. Examples of big box retailers include Circuit City and Best Buy, which offer appliances and electronics; Home Depot and Lowe’s, which offer building and other home improvement supplies; Barnes & Noble and Borders, which are book stores; Office Depot, Staples, and Office Max, which sell office products; and Old Navy Clothing Company, Marshall’s and T.J. Maxx, which offer clothing and accessories.

The other approach is the “main street mall,” which features a combination of big box and smaller shops, and is designed to resemble the fantasy of a main street in a small American community at the turn of the twentieth century. This approach borrows from some of the earliest designs for shopping malls, which appeared in Los Angeles in the 1920s (Petersen Automotive Museum). The storefronts in main street malls, like those of early malls, face a pedestrian walkway; parking is tucked inconspicuously behind the building.

Developers usually build big box and main street malls near regional malls, where they lure away shopping traffic. In addition, consumer fashion preferences changed, and after many years of success, mall-based specialty retailers have found themselves fighting to win back customers. For example, Gap has seen same-store sales decline for two consecutive years (at the time this article was written). Mall-based book merchants have fared poorly against the big boxes like Barnes & Noble and Borders. Lechter’s, a mall-based housewares retailer, recently folded as a result of competition from big box stores like Bed, Bath & Beyond, and Linens & Things. Bored with the increasingly homogenized malls offering limited selections of play-it-safe merchandise, consumers are choosing these big box centers and main street malls instead.

Lessons for web design: The challenges of regional mall-based retailers offer three lessons for web designers. The first is to constantly innovate. Mall-based retailers found that uniqueness and creativity eventually degraded into homogenization as malls matured and became risk-averse. Similarly, the web was first characterized by significant innovation, but now shows a high level of homogenization—certain approaches to common web site issues have become standardized. For example, HTML Help became standardized in look and style as everyone strived to mimic Microsoft and as Robohelp (a help authoring tool) began to dominate the market. On technical support sites, nearly everyone offers users a chance to browse through answers to Frequently Asked Questions and to search for responses, but few offer other means of getting direct assistance online. Certainly other approaches exist that can be adapted from print, such as “ask the expert” columns and “tips and techniques” articles.

A second lesson is to remain on the lookout for, and experiment with, new formats. The general public is becoming comfortable with browsing the web on PC-based devices, but newer devices offering different formats for web browsing are now hitting the market. One example is the Personal Digital Assistant (PDA), which features a smaller screen and a wireless Internet connection. Right now, a common way to “browse” the web using a PDA is to download news to the device and read it offline while commuting. This affects the design and presentation of that news. Another device format is the integrated PDA and mobile telephone. Users can interact with the web using a PDA/phone, but they can also speak to people with it. This device challenges web designers to find ways to let users speak and browse simultaneously, or let them receive data continuously as they move about town.

Finally, note that most innovation on the web will involve some element of risk. Most proposed innovations are years ahead of the available research on web design (research almost always explores existing trends). Those who seek research-based data on which to base their design decisions can conduct their own research, but must ultimately rely on their design instincts.

Lesson four: It’s shoppertainment!“Although individual web sites need to remain focused, they must also provide constantly changing information to keep users coming back.” On display: Regional malls faced stiff competition from big box shopping centers and main street malls, and mall operators realized that, because shoppers could find the same stores in any mall, people needed a more compelling reason to visit. So regional malls responded by re-inventing themselves as “destinations” that included dining, entertainment, and educational attractions.

At the least, malls significantly expanded their dining options, so that shoppers would come for a meal and stay for shopping. These new options included food courts, which offered a number of fast food outlets in a single location, many of which were only available at the mall. Or, shoppers could choose from one of the mall’s sit-down restaurants. Depending on the class of mall, these might be casual dining restaurants like T.G.I. Friday’s or Ruby Tuesday’s, which appear at “B”-class malls, or one-of-a-kind, white-tablecloth restaurants, such as Tom Tom at the upscale Lenox Square, and The Peasant Uptown in Phipp’s Plaza, both “A” malls in Atlanta.

At the most, malls added entertainment facilities. In some cases, especially at “C”-class malls and in some “B” malls, operators opened arcades that offered electronic games, Skee-Ball, and other amusements aimed at teenagers, especially boys. Some malls, like the Gallerias in Dallas and Houston, and Festival Walk in Hong Kong, offered ice-skating rinks. Many malls also added movie theaters. Some of these theaters were originally built as “outbuildings” (buildings on mall property, but not physically connected to the mall) but, as part of mall renovations, were brought into the mall. Malls also added other types of entertainment facilities like art museums (as in the mall in Bellevue, Washington (suburban Seattle)) and make-your-own teddy bear and pottery stores. Some malls also added bookstores and cafes, which remained open later than other stores in the mall. The Mall of America, in Minneapolis, and the West Edmonton Mall, in Canada, feature facilities like amusement parks and aquariums.

The move towards “shoppertainment” (as the Mall of America’s website calls it) started with big box retailers. For example, outdoor outfitters REI and Galyan’s have 50-foot-high climbing walls inside their stores so consumers can practice rock climbing. Similarly, Minnesota-based grocer Byerly’s has an in-store cooking school.

Lessons for web design: Although individual websites need to remain focused, they must also provide constantly changing information to keep users coming back. This content could take many forms. Some designers choose to increase the number of links to content on the site. But adding more links about a single topic often has only marginal utility to users. Instead, designers should consider providing companion services. For example, Monster.com offers links to online technical training courses, so that job seekers can develop or improve the technical skills they might need in a future job. This is a sensible companion service, because training directly relates to employability. An e-learning site, in turn, might link to self-assessments, so users can develop their own career plans and identify future learning needs.

When designers seek to add links to a site, they should limit the links to those that are directly related to the mission of the site. One popular technique is polling users for feedback on the site. For example, the CNN website usually has a poll about a topic that generates polarized views (especially the Middle East conflict). The Boston Chapter of the Society for Technical Communication usually runs a poll about the chapter or about an issue in the profession. In fact, some web design sources suggest that every portal site or home page should have a poll on it because they draw repeat visitors. But eventually, polling has the same effect as the homogenization of shopping malls, especially if it doesn’t support the mission of the site; an online poll on a technical support site would just seem gratuitous, for example. Although polls can actively engage visitors, most do not pose questions that directly relate to the purpose of the site. Furthermore, visitor responses are not scientifically valid and are likely to be ignored by the product designers.

Lesson five: Shop by glancing
On display: In the early days of mall-based retailing, stores generally had one central aisle, and all of the departments were available off of that aisle. Small departments sometimes did not warrant space directly off of the main aisle, so shoppers had to walk through one department to get to another. The design was not intended to encourage browsing —it was merely practical. For example, shoppers in one department store in a small exurban (beyond the suburbs) community had to walk through the women’s underwear section to get to the toy department.

In the 1980s, the prevailing belief in architecture changed and advocated that the structure of a public facility should be immediately visible to all visitors. This is the general philosophy behind Richard Meier’s widely acclaimed design for the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, and it can be seen in most stores today. Rather than a single aisle cutting the floor space in half, the main aisle was a square or diamond in the center of the store, such as that shown in Figure 1. Shoppers could see and enter any department from this aisle. Additionally, clear signage made sure that shoppers knew exactly where they were.

Layout of a store
Figure 1: Layout of a store

This design offers the benefit of improving traffic flow through the store—because people are distributed among several aisles, they do not bump into one another in the crowded merchandise areas. Department stores and discount department stores adopted this design first, but eventually other retailers adopted it too, especially those with larger spaces.

Lessons for web design: Just as central aisles made all of the departments in a store visible to visitors, so can designers make the structure of their websites apparent to users. One technique is to use a two-tiered menu on the home page that shows users both the general and specific topic areas covered by the site. If users are interested in a specific topic, they can link directly to it, rather than guessing which general category will lead them there or using a search tool that may not be able to lead them to the exact location of interest.

A second technique is to use previews. Previews, such as thumbnail images, provide users with a general idea of the content available to them before they choose it, and provide a tool they can use to quickly determine whether the content will be of interest to them. Thumbnails are widely used in operating systems and software applications, such as the previews of slide designs offered in PowerPoint.

Lesson six: When you can’t beat them, merge with them
On display: As shopping patterns change in the United States, some established retailers find themselves challenged. For example, discounter Montgomery Ward closed after 100 years in business because it could not find a niche in the changing discount market, which is now dominated by deep discounters like Wal-Mart (whose low prices Montgomery Ward could not match) and cheap-chic Target (whose style it could not match).

Similarly, K-Mart, which was the largest retailer in the U.S. ten years ago, filed for bankruptcy protection earlier this year. It faced many of the same problems as Montgomery Ward, as well as a stock problem: Shoppers often found that the basic goods they intended to purchase at K-Mart were not in stock. The stores were also poorly maintained. As a result, shoppers shifted their loyalty to other stores.

A third stand-by of American retailing, Sears, is not facing bankruptcy, but it is facing other challenges. Sears is best known for its hardware and appliances. It faces stiff competition in these areas, but is working hard to retain its customers. Another significant part of Sears’ business is clothing and housewares, but in an increasingly fashion-conscious market, consumers are no longer interested in wearing clothes with the Sears label. For years, Sears has tried in vain to upgrade the perception of its fashion lines. It tried a catchy advertising campaign—“See the Softer Side of Sears”—that capitalized on its strengths in hardware, but ultimately it did not result in sustained increases in clothing sales. So Sears recently purchased a specialty retailer, Lands’ End. Lands’ End markets classic clothing to upper-middle- and middle-income consumers, primarily through its catalogs. Lands’ End has the consumer base and reputation that Sears was seeking. Although the merger is too new to report results, it seems like a good match, and should address the weaknesses in Sears’ product line.

Lessons for web design: As Sears addressed the weaknesses in its product line through its merger with Lands’ End, so web designers can address weaknesses in their content areas by partnering with, or merging with, sites that have complementary resources.

The news business has always relied on this type of relationship. Wire services such as Reuters and Associated Press provide stories to newspapers when they do not have their own reporters available to write them. Although many pundits of professional journalism thought that these services would falter with the rise of the Internet, it actually breathed new life into them, as they became the primary sources of news for non-news sites like Yahoo! and Lycos. In fact, newspapers and television news organizations post stories from wire services on their websites as soon as they receive them, so they can provide coverage of breaking news without taxing their own resources. Newspapers also use external services for specialized content. For example, several newspapers team with Internet sites like CareerBuilder.com to provide online job listings, and with other outside services to provide personals advertisements.

These arrangements are not limited to newspapers and retail chains however. Some drug store chains team with medical websites to provide background information on medical issues. For example, the website for drug chain CVS relies on content from WebMD. Some of these sites, in turn, get their material from sites that are primarily intended for medical professionals, like medscape.com.

Rather than hiding these relationships, most websites promote the original source of their content. As specialized content providers gain credibility, citing the original source serves the same purpose as citing sources in an academic paper—lending authority.

Functional websites benefit, too, by sharing content with related sites. For example, many consumers believe that product information provided by a company has limited credibility, because companies are perceived to only present themselves positively. By linking to external sources that consumers value as credible, organizations can address this credibility gap.

Similarly, technical websites can link to scientific and professional journals to provide factual background for their content, and can link to e-learning sites to help users become sufficiently knowledgeable about technical concepts to fully participate in discussions on a particular topic.

One potential issue of concern in this area is the pending lawsuits that may limit this “deep linking”—i.e., linking to a specific article on a website rather than the site’s homepage, without express permission from the owner. Some copyright experts believe that deep linking may violate copyright rules, but as yet no legal ruling has been made.

Most organizations choose to license the content they get from other websites. The term content brokering has emerged to refer to this practice. By licensing content, organizations avoid potential copyright problems.

In Part Three
Sometimes, creating a community online is useless. Wondering why? Check out the next installment in this series.


(Part Two)

  • Mall of America. (2002.) www.mallofamerica.com. Visited July 10, 2002.
  • Streetscape. Permanent exhibit at Petersen’s Automotive Museum. Los Angeles, CA.
  • Saul Carliner is a visiting scholar at the City University of Hong Kong. His publications include Designing E-Learning (ASTD Press), An Overview of Online Learning (HRD Press), and “Physical, Cognitive, and Affective: A Three-Part Model of Information Design” (Technical Communication, 4Q2000).

Inconspicuous Consumption: Lessons for Web Design from Mall and Retail Design

Written by: Saul Carliner
“In many ways, websites are like shops in a mall —even websites that are not primarily intended for commerce.”For those of us who approach design as a problem-solving discipline (Erickson, Rowland, 1993), one of the ongoing challenges and delights is finding fresh sources of ideas for framing problems and designing solutions. In fact, some assert that the characteristic that sets apart the best designers is the size of their “bag of tricks;” that is, the number of ideas that the designer can draw on at any given moment.

Although in-discipline techniques are usually the best source of applicable ideas, after a while, they don’t always seem fresh. So sometimes, designers must look outward. In fact, Jerry Stead, CEO of Ingram Micro has suggested that “the best solutions come from non-competitors,” (1999); meaning that some of the most applicable solutions to a given problem come from outside the immediate discipline.

So while many scour the web for new ideas on web design, others are looking elsewhere. In an earlier article, published in Technical Communication (the Journal of the Society for Technical Communication), I explored lessons for web design learned from museum exhibit design (Carliner, 2001). But, in many ways, websites are like shops in a mall —even websites that are not primarily intended for commerce. They compete with other websites for “traffic,” just as stores compete with one another for shoppers. Stores try to hold onto shoppers until they make a purchase, just as web designers try to promote “stickiness” until users complete their intended task. Stores also hope that first-time customers become regulars, just as designers of websites hope that first-time visitors will return again and again.

These similarities suggest that the retail environment, which has centuries of experience behind it, might have a few lessons to teach those of us in the emerging discipline of web design. This three-part article explores some of those lessons. This first installment explores two lessons; the next two articles will describe seven more. Although the lessons range from broad issues of information architecture to specific issues of content design, they are not intended to be comprehensive. They are intended to provide a number of small “aha!”s and “of course!”s, rather than a single epiphany about web design. But in these small insights, I hope to help you expand your bag of tricks.

But first, some clarifications
Although I explore the relationship between mall and retail design and web design in this article, please be aware that the vantage point is a little off-standard. When I refer to mall and retail design, I mean the bricks-and-mortar kind, not an online mall or e-commerce site.

Second, I intend for these lessons to apply to functional websites whose primary job is to share information that people need to complete a task or perform a job, not e-commerce sites, whose primary task is marketing products and services.

Finally, this article does not emerge from a scientific or systematic study. However, it does emerge from a sustained reflexive study of the retail environment; in other words, I’m a mall-a-holic. I have visited hundreds of malls in the U.S., Canada, Europe, and Asia over the past two decades (and made multiple visits to several of them), followed retail news in business and trade publications, and performed consulting work for retail clients. Although I have visited malls and read about the retail environment in Europe and Asia, these lessons emerge primarily from experiences with malls and retail establishments in North America.

Lesson one: A morphing medium
On Display: During the days of the American frontier, the majority of
the population lived in rural communities, and their primary shopping
needs were served by a general store (or, on the frontier, they just
made, grew, or traded their own goods). General stores carried a broad
range of merchandise (hence their name), from foodstuffs to clothing
and household supplies.

As the population urbanized in the latter half of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth, forward-thinking general stores morphed into department stores. Like their predecessors, department stores carried a broad range of merchandise, but organized it into separate departments (hence the name). For example, Baltimore’s Hutzler’s department store carried household supplies such as toilet paper and household cleaners in addition to linens, cookware, and clothing. Department stores differed from general stores by their size (department stores have several floors of merchandise, general stores were typically one floor), and their broader and higher-ticket selection of merchandise, such as furniture and fine jewelry. They largely served the growing middle classes. Most department stores were characterized by large flagship stores located in urban centers (Baltimore Jewish Historical Society, 2002).

Other general merchandisers were replaced by five-and-dimes, stores that sold a wide variety of merchandise for 5 or 10 cents (hence their name). Like department stores, five-and-dimes had many departments, but they competed for a lower end of the market.

As America suburbanized in the latter half of the twentieth century, shopping patterns changed significantly. At first, the shopping patterns mimicked those of the pre-World War II years, with shoppers going to strip malls (and later, enclosed regional malls) where they often found the same stores that they would find in urban centers. Department stores opened branch stores in the mall, which contained most of the merchandise found at the flagship stores. Five-and-dimes also located in malls.

But suburban life and concurrent social developments brought about more fundamental changes, which changed the retail landscape (Baltimore Jewish Historical Society, 2002). The growing women’s movement and economic anemia of the 1970s sharply increased the number of working women. As a result, a large group that once had many hours to shop (and would spend much of the day going to the large department stores to buy all their merchandise, have their hair done, and meet friends for lunch or tea (Baltimore Jewish Historical Society , 2002)), now had significantly less time for shopping. They sought convenience over elegance, and they became increasingly price conscious.

Retailers morphed again to address this price-conscious, convenience-seeking market. Five-and-dime, Kresge’s, remade itself as K-Mart (ultimately replacing all of its five-and-dimes), and department store chain Dayton-Hudson opened Target stores. Five-and-dimes could not compete with the broad selection of discount department stores, much less the prices. As a result, nearly all of the five-and-dimes closed, including former industry leader Woolworth’s, and department stores got a run for their money.

Department stores found that notions and other household items sat on the shelves because consumers could purchase them elsewhere at a lower price. The same happened with restaurants, hair salons, and travel agents, which consumers visited elsewhere in the mall. Even consolidation in the industry, in which local chains of department stores were purchased by larger chains, could not curb the trend. In fact, several major chains of department stores filed for bankruptcy protection in the late 1980s and early 1990s, including Macy’s, Allied, and Federated (which eventually bought the other two chains).

To survive, these chain stores decided to focus on their most profitable merchandise and slowly shed their slow-moving, low-profit stock. Ultimately, most department stores focused entirely on fashion (clothing, jewelry, cosmetics), linens, housewares (primarily cookware) and, in some cases, furniture. Most department stores shed their electronics, notions, toy, book, and greeting card departments, and their restaurants, hair salons, travel agencies and automobile shops. They conceded this business to the growing discount department store chains.

In other words, discount department stores focused primarily on price, while more traditional department stores focused primarily on fashion. The strategy worked well. By the boom years of the mid-1990s, most department stores had returned to profitability, and most discount department stores set sales records.

Focus has become especially important as these traditional retailers try to survive the current economic slump in the U.S. Target, which has carved a niche for itself as “cheap chic,” has performed extremely well. It focuses on high fashion at a reasonable price. In contrast, K-Mart focused on low price in theory, but in practice, it lost its focus. As a result, consumers perceived that other retailers offered a better selection of merchandise at lower prices. Customers shopped at rivals and K-Mart filed for bankruptcy protection in the first quarter of 2002.

Similarly, department stores have tried to distinguish themselves as fashion retailers. Most are surviving the current slump. The ones having the most difficulty are Sears and JC Penney, both of which maintain the large selection of products and services that their competitors have shed.

Lessons for web design: The experience of retailers offers two insights “Although most people apply the concept of branding only to e-commerce sites, brand identity also applies to technical support and e-learning sites.”to designers of functional websites. The first is preparing for constant change in response to the changing needs of consumers. Admittedly, designers of functional websites recognize that changes are inevitable. Most expect that the content will change, especially on sites about software and telecommunications. Designers should be aware that the technologies used to design, develop, and display websites also change constantly, and should prepare to adjust their websites in response.

But the most fundamental changes may be social. As retailers had to re-think their physical layouts, departments, and pricing strategies in response to changes in shopping patterns that were themselves affected by changes in society, so website designers should remain in touch with the changing social and business environments in which their websites operate and be prepared to respond to them. In some cases, these changes in society will render existing research-based knowledge out-of-date, because the context in which that research was based may no longer be relevant.

The second insight is providing your website with a strong, clear focus. Just as shoppers like to know what a store is all about, visitors to websites want to know what a website is all about. This concept is called branding. According to Baxter, “the corporate brand [is] the image that customers and stakeholders have of an organization as a whole, as opposed to its individual products and services” (2000).

Although most people apply the concept of branding only to e-commerce sites, brand identity also applies to technical support and e-learning sites. For example, many software experts regularly visit Microsoft’s product support site, because that’s where they expect to find the latest fixes and related technical information. Many desktop publishing specialists regularly visit the technical support sections of Macromedia’s and Adobe’s websites for the same reason. Finally, many people visit their internal training site as their first source for education.

In years past, some organizations felt the need to develop portal sites, essentially one-stop shops for all of the information about a particular company or topic. But just as traditional department stores learned, in the 1960s through the 1980s, that consumers did not really value every department, so website designers have found that consumers do not always value a portal. Although a portal does provide the convenience of one-stop shopping, in some areas, users do not really want that service. For example, many e-learning portals, which were intended to provide one-stop shopping for online education, failed (Kiser, 2001). Perhaps one-size-fits-all corporate portals might consider the divide-and-conquer approach— have different sites for different needs: one for sales, another for support, a third for e-learning, and another for corporate visitors, like investors and job seekers.

Lesson two: Make ’em walk for what they want
On Display: Shoppers in supermarkets who merely want a bottle of milk almost always find that they have to walk past a pharmacy, household cleaners, health foods, and other distractions before reaching the milk. Shoppers who also intend to purchase meat, bread, and other staples encounter the same obstacles, and find that those staples are inconveniently located at opposite ends of the store. And when they check out, shoppers are forced past soft drinks, stacks of candy, and addictive tabloid publications and magazines like The National Enquirer and People Magazine.

Shoppers who go to a convenience store like 7-Eleven don’t have a much easier time. There, the milk and bread are also located in the back of the store. Or perhaps the shopper is a father on a mission to purchase a household staple such as diapers. Next to them, he is likely to find the six-packs of beer (Quesenbery, 2001). Even cafeterias, like Luby’s and Morrison’s (chains in the southern U.S.) place desserts first (the course that diners are most likely to skip), then offer appetizers and entrees, in that order. One might wonder whether retailers are purposely trying to make things inconvenient for shoppers.

Of course they are!

Aware of what shoppers are most likely to purchase, designers of retail outlets purposely give them a view of items that they may have an interest in, but are less likely to purchase, before directing them to the items they came to buy. This increases sales of non-essential items that usually yield a higher profit than staples.

Lessons for web design: Although conventional wisdom suggests that users prefer to find information of interest in three clicks or less, designers might consider directing visitors past non-essential content on the path to “must-have” content. If must-have content is to web users as milk is to customers of a grocery store, visitors to your site will likely tolerate a slight detour by the intellectual equivalent of the candy aisle before reaching the information they want.

More practically, you might place links to high-traffic content below links to lower-traffic content, in hopes of generating interest in the latter. As long as the links above the ones of interest look like links, and not advertising, users are likely to pay attention to them.

But don’t use this approach when the information of interest has “do-or-die” value. For example, like sick people who do not like waiting for doctors, users who visit a technical support website to troubleshoot a sick computer are not likely to tolerate a detour past the upgrades section. Similarly, first-time users to a website might be turned off by a detour.

In Part Two
If the best gifts come in small packages, why do web designers need to beware of big boxes? Check out the next installment in this series to find out.

For More Information (Part One)

  • Baltimore Jewish Historical Society. (2001.) Enterprising emporiums: the Jewish department stores of downtown Baltimore. An exhibit at the Jewish Museum of Maryland. Baltimore, MD.
  • Baxter Robert. (2000.) The contribution of corporate brand image to the achievement of corporate objectives – with particular reference to the Hong Kong Jockey Club. MBA Dissertation, Henley Management College. Hong Kong.
  • Carliner, Saul. (2001.) Modeling information for three-dimensional space: lessons learned from museum exhibit design. Technical Communication. 48(1).
  • Erickson, Thomas. (1997.) Notes on Design Practice: Stories and Prototypes as Catalysts for Communication. From the website, EPSS InfoSite. Visited July 3, 2002.
  • Kiser, Kim. (2001.) Closed for business: Two years ago, learning portals popped up across the Internet’s landscape. Today, many are buried in the dot-com rubble. What happened?. Online Learning magazine. September 2001.
  • Quesenbery, Whitney. (2001.) Comments in an informal conversation on web design.
  • Rowland, G. (1993.) Designing and instructional design. Educational technology research and development. 41(1). 79-91.
  • Stead, Jerry. (1999.) Keynote presentation to the Training Director’s Forum. Bill Communications: Phoenix, Arizona. June 7, 1999.

Saul Carliner is a visiting scholar at the City University of Hong Kong. His publications include Designing E-Learning (ASTD Press), An Overview of Online Learning (HRD Press), and “Physical, Cognitive, and Affective: A Three-Part Model of Information Design” (Technical Communication, 4Q2000).