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

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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,

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 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. 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 from the bottom-up. From the website, Boxes and Arrows. Visited June 25, 2002.
  • Hamm, Steve. (2000.) The Wired Campus. Business Week Online. Originally published December 11, 2000.
  • 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).

One comment

  1. The attempt to map real mall experience to online e-mall experience is noteworthy, but I must say the results are quite futile.

    The observations and patterns that have been made are alright, but the recommendations for an online shopping mall is nothing but very general recommendations which do not valuably map to the comparisons made.

    The recommendations and mappings are too generic. “On the safe side” so to speak.

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