Don’t Think Too Different

Have you ever tried driving in a country where the steering wheel and gear stick are on the “wrong” side and traffic is on the opposite side of the road from what you’re used to? Many of us have had this awkward experience. You probably recall an instant of fear that struck when you realized you didn’t know where to look, how to react, or which way to turn.

The foreign traffic experience has a parallel in our seven years of Net experience. On the Internet, as on the road, we follow habits, obey fixed guidelines, and instinctively respond to unarticulated rules. We habitually expect a Web site to have a “contact us” function, an “about us” icon, and a privacy policy. These have become standard.

What happens if you break with the standards? What happens if you want to redefine your interface to match with your brand’s profile?

Disney has tried this. Visiting Disney.com, I felt I was driving on the opposite side of the road. The home page is beautiful, a remarkable achievement considering Disney’s purview includes everything from hotels, film studios, theme parks, and cruises to magazines and merchandising. You name it, Disney’s probably into it. This expansive set of interests has to be accommodated by one simple screen: the home page. The result is a Disney World type interface, with each division separated by well-known Disney icons, such as Cinderella’s castle, Goofy, and the Disney Store. Cute. But, is it smart — and does it work?

I remember a study conducted a long time ago by a major toy manufacturer. The study argued kids absolutely hate structure: grids and columns of data. Grownups, however, were found to dislike a mess of products not categorized into a logical order. The toy company’s challenge was to find a way of appealing to both audiences. Its solution was to include both approaches by creating a catalog “environment” packed with products on the left and a categorized presentation on the right. I mention this because Disney obviously wants to differentiate its Web presence from the average site, which 99.9 percent of the time is designed according to a grid-like structure. Disney’s solution is a city-like navigation panel.

Does this type of alternative navigation panel work? In this case, no. The site is the Web equivalent of altering traffic conditions without notice: changing signals and altering colors indicating rules for travelers.

In preparation for the Sydney Olympics, a blue line was painted along miles of the city’s streets. It marked the marathon route and is still there as a souvenir of the Games. But it causes problems. In Australia, drivers are used to white and yellow line markings. For visitors to the city, this extra blue line has caused confusion and increased accidents. Motorists misunderstand the blue line’s function and try to interpret it in the context of their own road-rule literacy. They find themselves in trouble.

A new tool may look great, signal its own significance, and not even bother those familiar with an environment, but for everyone else, new visitors to a city or a site, the confusion caused by the unfamiliar can be nightmarish.

The guidelines for good navigation were established in 1995, when the World Wide Web appeared. Since then, most sites aligned their navigation styles according to an established norm. Almost every site greets visitors with the same structure. You’d think it would be good branding to integrate your brand with your navigation panel, as Disney has. The results are counterproductive. Yes, kids might love it, according to the old study I referred to. But their parents are likely to give up on it. Disney’s laudable intention of bringing joy and fun to the surfing experience may never see fruition.

People want to be able to find what they’re looking for. Extraneous noises, superfluous icons, and a navigation environment foreign to what Web users are used to cause irritation. They get in the way of what visitors want to find. Disney’s city-like environment doesn’t meet the expectations of a visitor trying to book a holiday trip to the Caribbean.

This is not an attack on Disney. I love the company for doing something different. But there’s danger in difference for difference’s sake.

Branding is as much a matter of following consumer expectations as about innovation. Standard navigation practices make consumers’ lives easier and their visits to your site more productive. I’m not suggesting you develop a cookie-cutter Web site, but I do urge you to reflect on the advantages of navigation habits the world has already learned rather than reinventing the wheel as Disney did. Save your creative resources for functions in which you know your consumers will expect creativity and difference —
and where you know they’ll enjoy every minute of it.

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