It Doesn’t Pay to Innovate in Web Design #69 #cong17

By Alastair McDermott.

It doesn’t pay to innovate in web design

Nor in automotive controls.

Innovators disrupt, creating new technologies, creating and destroying entire industries. Innovation has an important place in our world. 

I’d argue that its place is nowhere near traditional business websites.  

Time out for a minute. Let me ask: have you ever driven a Bentley? 

Me neither.

But take a minute to imagine getting behind the wheels of a proper old school Bentley, maybe one built by the original designer, W.O. Bentley sometime in their heyday - the 1920s (just before the company got hit by the Great Depression and had to sell out to Rolls-Royce in 1931). 

You might be imagining one of the large racing Bentleys, maybe the famous “4 1/2 Litre” – one of the last true Bentleys ever built - perhaps shining in British racing green. 

Of course you would need to be careful driving one of these, since in 2017 it would be worth well over $1 million! You’d probably be driving very carefully if you take it out on the road, you might even be a bit nervous and hit the brakes earlier than usual. 

The problem with that of course is that in an emergency you’d probably hit the accelerator, not the brakes. Muscle memory and years of instinctive driving modern cars would make you instinctively hit the middle foot pedal, looking for the brake. But in this Bentley the right hand pedal is the brake. The middle one is actually the accelerator – the opposite of modern cars. 

That could be a costly mistake. 

Never mind driving, most people today probably couldn’t even start a Model T Ford without specific training. And driving it - well consider that reverse is selected with one of the foot pedals, and hitting the clutch actually engages the clutch (rather than disengaging it) – again opposite to what we expect. 

The automobile industry started to standardise controls in the 1920s - the modern pedal layout was introduced by Cadillac in 1916. 

But many production runs of older designs like the Model T didn’t end production until 1927 so it took decades for them to get standardised across the entire industry.

And people died because of the lack of standard controls.

In web design, the user interface tends not to be quite so life-and-death (although it’s certainly possible that there are instances where web applications are used in medical environment). 

For the most part, website design probably won’t cost you your life. But for business owners, it might cost you your livelihood.

I mentioned in last years’ post for Congregation that there are a lot of patterns in web design. These patterns are to web design what standardised controls are to the car industry. 

You probably know most of them already - the website logo is on the top left, and if you click it you’re taken to the homepage. There’s a top level navigation menu near the top of the page. If you scroll to the bottom, you should see contact and legal information in the page footer. If you’re on mobile, clicking an icon made up of 3 horizontal lines (known as a “hamburger” icon) will bring up a navigation menu.

You might be so familiar with using websites that you haven’t ever thought about these things, but you intuitively know them to be the case on most sites. 

What we usually mean by intuitive user interface is actually what we've already experienced and learned how to use.

Of course there are some user interfaces that are considered completely intuitive, for example there are a lot of videos online of toddlers who are able to use iPads (which may not seem like a big deal now but this was incredible when they first came out as technology has a reputation of being somewhat user unfriendly). The legacy of Steve Jobs.

But for small to medium business websites, staying clear of innovative new design and following the road more trodden is the shrewd business decision.

Website visitors are prospective customers, and they expect that brake pedal to be on the left. They don’t care about your desire to be different from everyone else, your personal preference for the logo to be on the right, or your dislike for website footers. 

What your visitors care about is what they want to do. They want to find your opening hours, or your phone number, or check if you stock a particular product.

Get out of the way and let them do it. 

Do not innovate in your user interface. There are plenty of other places you can innovate - in your business model, in your supply chain, in your R&D lab. But for the sake of your user’s experience on your website, and ultimately for the sake of the sales that will result from that, I urge you to follow the beaten path in your website design.

Recommended reading: “Don’t Make Me Think” by Steve Krug.

CongRegation © Eoin Kennedy 2017 eoin at congregation dot ie