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It’s a Shoe, Not an Airplane

I originally began writing this in the morning on September 22…2010! At that point, I had just written two newsletters in a row about similar issues—simplicity and attention in web design—so those themes were very much on my mind. But I never published this post because something just wasn’t working about it. Anyway, time got away from me and it sat in “preview” mode in our CMS for almost a year and a half. I went through it, made some tweaks, said, “why not?” and hit publish.

One thing about blogging is that you can’t be precious about this stuff…

So, back to the original thought:

Why do we over-design webpages? I’m constantly seeing new websites launched that are just crammed with visual details and information, that, if you look long enough, are obviously unnecessary. Particularly with consumer product sites. I’m sure there are many things behind this—design-by-committee, for example, tends to produce sub-par work—but I do have another idea as to why this might happen…

That idea has to do with how design tells a story, and how complex that story actually is. Think about airplane dashboards. They’re necessarily complex, putting within arm’s reach of the pilot every control necessary to maintain the flight of this massive metal tube—hurtling, hundreds of miles per hour, tens of thousands of feet above the surface of the Earth, in rebellion to every known law of physics that would like nothing less than to bring it crashing back down. While the story a pilot might tell about flying could be distilled down to a very simple one (i.e. “We took off, we flew, we landed”), the story the dashboard must tell him cannot be reduced without jeopardizing the safety of every passenger aboard the plane.

But what story does the “consumer” need to hear in order to invest in a product? I think consumer stories are pretty simple. Simpler than pilot stories, anyway! Ultimately, aren’t they as simple as “you’ll enjoy this” or, “this will help you”? Yet, the design of most product websites (at the time I began writing this, Mark and I were reviewing a recent launch of a shoe company’s new website which definitely fit in with my rant) seem to want to tell a much more puffed up story, as if the complexity of a shoe might approach that of a passenger jet, and the weight of the buying decision as significant a responsibility to the web page as the cargo of human lives is to the dashboard.

But seriously, it’s a shoe.

The story behind buying a shoe is about as complex as, “it’s comfortable, stylish, and (maybe) conducive to athletic form.” End of story. Buy or not. So why do so many product sites take on the trompe l’oeil aesthetic of a dashboard? The shoe site I was looking at may be beautiful, but unnecessarily complex. It’s as if the designer, or maybe even the brand, is trying to compensate for something.

This gets at the second reason: There’s really only two possible explanations for why we design overly complex sites to tell simple stories: either they are the result of an editorial failure on the level of the story itself, or they are the result of intentional manipulation—the inflating of the story to seduce buyers with all kinds of data they can use to rationalize their decision to buy a shoe that is probably too expensive, stylistically not long for this world, and made for activity that they are not likely to engage in. So glomming on to a data/analytical aesthetic puts the consumer in the mindset of that kind of decision making, even though it’s likely to play out differently. After all, the consumer is probably not making a pros/cons list for the shoe. They probably think it looks cool and like the brand. But the hint of all the techie nonsense makes them feel smarter for buying this particular shoe. Manipulation!

Anyway, I’ve griped plenty about the need to simplify the design of content-focused websites, but I haven’t touched on the same issue for consumer product websites. But it’s just as much of an issue, even though the results are slightly different.

What do you think?

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