Web design is expensive. Web designers earn upwards of $50,000 a year1, information architects earn even more.2 During the heyday of web design—the late 1990s—designing a large commercial website could cost as much as designing a medium-sized building. During this period, commercial websites were created and then often completely replaced with redesigned versions a short time later. Today the redesigning continues, albeit at a slower pace. What is the return on this design investment? A report on online ROI from Forrester finds that many commercial sites fail to even try to measure the effectiveness of design changes.3
|What lessons have we learned about how design improves the interface between customers and companies?
The web has been with us for about a decade now. We’ve seen some obvious trends, such as greater use of multimedia, search engines, and increasingly sophisticated markup techniques. But these trends were facilitated by changes in technology. What lessons have we learned about how design improves the interface between customers and companies? Perhaps we can start by asking how websites have actually changed over time, and from that we can learn how websites should change in the future.
To start working toward an answer, I compared three eCommerce sites: Borders.com, BarnesandNoble.com, and Amazon.com. Much of the media’s coverage of these websites, especially coverage of Amazon.com, discusses the business models, corporate cultures, and finances of the companies. Since the medium of interaction with these companies is the website, it’s ironic that the media rarely critiques the site design and its effect on business performance.
Because it is the homepage that carries the most responsibility for guiding customers, I examined the homepages of all three sites from a number of years, using screenshots from the Web Archive4. Presumably these large retailers had a great deal to gain, and lose, with these substantial online ventures. By comparing design decisions over time among the three sites, I hoped to discover lessons from their extensive and expensive design experience.
Competition is fierce in the online bookselling market, currently erupting in offers of “free shipping.” All three companies have annual revenues in the billions of dollars.
Barnes and Noble, which runs a large chain of stores in the United States, claims the largest audience reach of any bricks-and-mortar company with Internet presence.5 Yet, both they and Borders were put on the defensive when Amazon’s growth rocketed. During December, 2001 BarnesandNoble.com attracted over 10 million unique visitors,6 compared to Amazon’s 40 million visitors.7
Borders is the second largest bricks-and-mortar book chain in the U.S. 8 In April 2001, after operating their own online bookstore for several years, Borders announced an agreement to use Amazon’s eCommerce platform to power a co-branded website.
Amazon claims to be the leading online shopping site, having expanded their selection to music, video, auctions, electronics, housewares, computers and more.9 By February of 2002, Amazon, which had pursued a get-big-quick strategy typical of internet companies in the late 1990s, announced its first profitable quarter.10
I first studied these sites quantitatively looking for clear trends over time. I then critiqued them in a more qualitative way based on my own experience as both an in-house website designer and as an information architecture consultant.
There are many criteria that could be examined in such a study. I limited myself to those that would, I hoped, reveal as much as possible about the business intent of the design. I looked at criteria such as the type and size of layout, the type and amount of navigation, the amount of images and text, and functionality specific to the industry. Detailed results can be seen in the attached spreadsheet (PDF, 75k).
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Note: Missing data due to imperfect records at the Web Archive.
All three sites use very long screens to display content on their homepages.
Using a browser window with a constant width, we can compare the vertical size of each site (all screen references assume an 800 by 600 pixel monitor). The Borders.com homepage grew from a vertical size of about 917 pixels in 1996 to over 3,000 pixels in 1999. Barnes and Noble’s homepage has hovered around 1,500 pixels for the last several years. Amazon’s homepage, which began at only 626 vertical pixels in 1995, stands at roughly 2,156 pixels today. In a web browser, that equals five scrolling screens of information.
All three sites evolved to use three-column layouts.
In 1995 and 1996 respectively, Amazon and Borders.com used single-column layouts. By 1999, both of these sites as well as Barnes and Noble used three column layouts.
Amazon has consistently placed more links above the fold.
In 1999, the Borders site displayed only about eight links “above the fold” (the top portion of the screen that is viewable without scrolling). Both Barnes and Noble and Amazon had significantly more links above the fold in 1999, 30 and 48 respectively. Amazon averaged 43 links above the fold between 1999 and 2002 versus only 27 links for Barnes and Noble during the same period.
Through the years, the density of links on Borders.com was half of that on Barnes and Noble or Amazon.
The density of links has varied over time, but as of 2002 both Barnes and Noble and Amazon stood at about one link for every 15 vertical pixels of screen real estate. Historically, the highest link density at Borders.com was one link for every 28 vertical pixels.
Amazon communicates using images and links rather than text descriptions.
From 1999 through 2001, Amazon used more images and fewer text descriptions than Barnes and Noble. In 2002, both sites used about 560 words per page, yet the density of words was 33 percent lower on Amazon; Amazon distributes the words across the page as links rather than bunching them together in paragraphs. Over time, Barnes and Noble is becoming more like Amazon in this respect.
All sites eventually included navigation targeted at specific audiences.
Audience-based navigation—navigation labeled for a particular audience—appeared on Borders.com in 1998, on Barnes and Noble in 2000, and on Amazon as early as 1999.
Invitations to subscribe to an email newsletter were offered inconsistently.
Borders.com didn’t include this feature until 1998. Barnes and Noble included it only in 1998 and 2001. Only Amazon consistently included this feature from 1995 to 2002.
Online and offline design
So what lessons can we learn about how these sites changed over time? How has design contributed to Amazon’s high growth and significant lead over the others? In general, Amazon found a winning formula and applied it consistently over time. In my mind, the successful design elements emulated offline shopping experiences in many ways.
Personally, I was surprised at how long these homepages had grown. Combined with the three-column layout, each page contains a great deal of information. This is quite like the perceptual experience of browsing in a physical store. When you walk down an aisle in a bricks-and-mortar store you can visually scan the shelves quite quickly. On these websites, the long, scrolling pages are analogous to aisles (major groupings of items) and the columns are analogous to shelves (more specific groupings of items). With a similarly natural, efficient motion, a visitor can scroll down the page and visually scan the three columns of product listings.
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Barnes and Noble homepage
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Amazon’s higher number and density of links, and placement of those links above the fold, also reminds me of the aggressive product positioning in a physical store. It’s like walking into a food market and immediately being overwhelmed with rows and rows of colorful fresh fruit, stimulating our eyes and engaging our appetites.
The prominent use of images and sparse use of text on Amazon again harks back to physical objects with simple labeling.
The arrival of navigation intended for specific audiences seemed inevitable. Especially for the book market, a children’s section was developed surprisingly late on these sites given the disproportionately high revenues that come from children’s books in traditional shopping venues.
In general, many of the functions of these pages have become commodities: search engines, shopping carts, authentication and store locators. But Amazon’s extensive personalization sets this site apart functionally. Personalization mimics a personal shopper or a local store employee who knows you. While the online recommendations aren’t always right on, neither is a human assistant.
Rate of change
Many studies have found that our performance using a software application improves over time as we become familiar with its interface. Gerald Lohse and his associates translated this finding into the realm of eCommerce websites using statistical analysis.11 They also found that website visitors learn to use a site more efficiently over time and that this increases their purchase rate. In simpler terms, it means familiar sites are easier for people to use, so familiar sites are where visitors will make purchases.
It follows that sites that can be learned more quickly will more quickly become familiar, increasing the amount of purchases. So a faster learning rate equals a higher purchase rate.
Furthermore, Lohse found that familiarity with a particular website makes visitors less likely to switch to a competitive site because of the effort and time needed to become familiar with another site. He refers to this behavior as “cognitive lock-in.” Essentially, we are creatures of habit. He applied this analysis to several eCommerce websites by measuring the number of visits per person, length of sessions, and timing and frequency of purchases. He found the learning rate significantly faster at Amazon than at Barnes and Noble.
The rate of design change supports this finding. Amazon had no major redesigns from 1999 to 2002, only adapting their design gradually to changing needs. Barnes and Noble significantly altered their navigation in 2000 and 2001. Borders.com implemented major homepage changes in 1998 and 2000. Fewer redesigns make it easier for visitors to remain familiar with the site.
Many design elements on these websites are reminiscent of physical store layout, an approach to web design we should investigate further. Like physical stores, those designs should only change gradually to keep visitors buying. Continued analysis of other sites will hopefully help confirm or deny these findings.
It may be a fallacy to state, “Amazon is a successful business, therefore their website design is successful,” since many factors have contributed to their business success. And yet it’s hard to imagine them having such great success with a mediocre site. A similar eCommerce site launching today could do worse than examine and emulate the design elements that Amazon utilizes.