3 Reasons Your Site Sucks

I had the great fun of doing what amounts to speed dating at Shop.org‘s annual summit. I was one of a few industry experts who ran one-on-one sessions called “The Doctor Is In,” and met with companies for 20 minutes each, helping them diagnose what was wrong with their sites. Over two days, I met with almost 30 companies.

Many had very similar problems, and I thought I’d share a few major ones. The sites included: B2C e-commerce, B2B e-commerce, nonprofit organizations, government sites, and B2B service companies. These observations are applicable to any type of site.

Navigational Hell

So many sites abuse navigation schemes. I’m all for inventive navigation. But either be inventive, or stick to the tried and true. None of the sites I saw had anything but a traditional navigation, and they used it in the wrong way.

For starters, decide if your primary navigation is on the top or on the left (assuming one of these is what you use now). It should only be in one place: either the top or the left. Don’t duplicate your navigation on the top and the left.

If you have both a top and a left nav, there’s traditionally a hierarchy implied. The left nav in this case is the child of the top nav. The user expects to select high-level categories on the top, and then subcategories on the left.

If you don’t have a top nav, then the left nav is responsible for both high and low-level categories, unless you have a very clear visual design that somehow shows that the top nav is a child of the left nav. I have rarely seen that done effectively, though it certainly could be with enough finessing. Usually, though, the hierarchical relationship starts at the top of the page and works its way down toward the content. Thus, the left nav is almost always going to be a child of the top nav.

One company had a typical top navigation for categories and a left navigation for subcategories. But then when you clicked on a subcategory (to get to a product listing page), the left nav disappeared and didn’t exist on the subsequent pages.

It’s imperative you allow the user to browse your site. Taking away the navigation randomly obviously renders the user incapable of browsing, backing up, or moving laterally within the site. The site had a breadcrumb at the top of the page, but that isn’t enough – especially when the user’s eyes are on the navigation (or at least, where it used to be on the previous page).

Keeping State

I should be able to look at any page on your website and tell you at first glance exactly where in the site I am. For instance, if I’m looking at a product-listing page for portable GPS units, I should immediately be able to say, “I’m at the product listing page for portable GPS units, which is in the subcategory navigation, which is under the automotive category.”

I need to clearly see on the current page:

  • The sub navigation with the current subcategory clearly selected.
  • The primary navigation with the current category clearly selected.

So many of the sites I looked at gave no visual clues as to where I was on the site (in terms of the site’s name, type, and hierarchy). If you don’t help your users figure out where they are and how to navigate, you’re asking them to get frustrated and leave. If this is your browsing experience, it’s no wonder your search feature converts more users – they can actually find things via search.

The Designer vs. the 12-Year-Old

Many sites I saw had huge branding issues. The worst were sites that clearly used some off-the-shelf shopping cart and never bothered to customize anything. Of course they have a problem attracting and converting customers: their site is so generic that it’s almost a scary proposition to buy from them. This is especially true when the product is a commodity and I could go to a “safer” brand like Amazon (which I already know and trust).

It’s also scary when I’m familiar with the company’s offline brand, but the online (non-) brand makes me wonder if it’s really the same company. Maybe a hacker is just using the domain name. I mean, if it’s really the company I’m used to in the offline world, wouldn’t they have put more effort into the site’s look to make it match the offline brand or the catalogue brand?

A couple of the sites had nicely designed home pages. I remember telling one how excited her home page made me, because I loved the color scheme and felt like it presented a young, hip sensibility, and I was eager to dig into the site.

Then I dug into the site. And got depressed.

The artistic and creative flair that was on the home page wasn’t carried through to the rest of the site. It was as if they hired a designer to create the home page, and a 12-year-old with programming skills to do the rest of the site.

So Many More

I only had room today to discuss the first couple of prevalent issues involving general navigation and design. We didn’t even get into category pages and product pages. That would require a whole other column. So, if this kind of thing is interesting to you (due to schadenfreude, perhaps), let me know and I’ll write more about the other issues I saw on many of these sites.

Until next time…


Jack is off today. This column originally ran on October 3, 2008 on ClickZ.

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