Design lessons from the retail industry

Written by Adrian Holovaty on September 18, 2002

"Inconspicuous Consumption" is a new Boxes and Arrows article that draws parallels between Web design and the design of retail stores. The first in a three-part series, it offers two "lessons" from the retail world, which has several more decades' worth of evolution under its belt. Some comments on both tips, and their relevance to news Web sites:

The first lesson, "A morphing medium," suggests Web sites should prepare for constant change in consumer needs but retain a clear focus all the while. This advice is particularly relevant to news sites, which have worn many hats and followed many trends in their short history -- from the shovelware approach (which failed) to the portal site approach (which failed) to the large-scale projects approach (which is practically failing). Take a look at sites that haven't failed, and you'll see they've retained a clear focus and built upon it. This is an important thing to keep in mind: Maintaining a core goal is, in itself, a core goal.

The second lesson, "Make 'em walk for what they want," isn't as helpful. In fact, I'd say it's downright harmful. The article points out how supermarkets put the essentials -- milk, bread, etc. -- in the back of the store so that shoppers are forced to walk past things they might not have noticed otherwise. This, of course, leads to impulsive purchases of non-essentials such as The National Enquirer.

The implication is that Web sites should "[direct] visitors past non-essential content on the path to 'must-have' content" in order to help boost traffic to those lesser-visited sections. But this strategy, however valuable to the food industry, is severely detrimental on the Web. (In fact, I'm quite surprised that Boxes and Arrows, which strives to promote good information design, would endorse a technique that encourages "slight detour"s in accessing content.) On news sites especially, getting in users' way will only annoy them -- because any other site is a simple click away. A better solution is to have a narrow-enough focus so that you're almost always able to insert an array of links to "related content."

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