:: Web design

Note: This rant dates from 2003, when Habitat's website was very different to how it is now (it's now a great deal better).
The inaugural member of our rogue's gallery of appallingly designed websites is British furniture and houseware retailer Habitat. Once independant, Habitat is now largely owned by the same folks as own scandinavian furniture giant Ikea. Habitat's product is positioned as an upmarket, design-conscious alternative to its bigger brother, but Habitat's website betrays its "design is good" ethic utterly. It's the worst kind of masturbatory flash hijinks that makes ignorant executives happy, and frustrates users in ways most don't understand but still viscerally despise.

It's ironic that Habitat's parent, Ikea, has a pretty good website. It's not as pretty as Habitat's. It lacks little animations which run during the interminable delays while it loads stuff - not least because it doesn't have those internminable delays. Ikea's website seems to have been designed with some sensible user tasks at hand (duh, like buying furniture). It's coded in HTML, and has all the advantages that does over flash.

Fundamentally, Habitat's page has two underlying problems:

Ego-centred design

It's a universal tenet of modern user-interface and website design - that designers should produce a "user-centred" design. Roughly, that means the designers are supposed to figure out what tasks users are going to try to perform on the website (ideally by asking those users) and then making sure the website supports these activities easily. Lastly, the designers are supposed to test their completed site with users (lots of users, ideally) to make sure the site does indeed easily enable the tasks (and to make sure there's no obvious things that a user might want to do that the site doesn't let them do).

For a site like Habitat's, these tasks might include

In fairness, Habitat's site lets you do most of these. But it does all of them badly. Considering just the above examples: Rather than get this stuff right, our friends over at Habitat have instead put in endless "lifestyle" stuff (which would be fine if the basics worked) and information about their "philosophy". Super.

Flash vs Function

Back in 2000, usability guru Jacob Nielsen posted a damning review of the state of user interfaces designed using flash. Saying Flash: 99% Bad, Dr Nielsen pointed out some of the elementary user interface design mistakes that seemed to plague almost every website that used the technology. Regrettably, Habitat's designers seem to have taken this as a "to do" list:


Now, how can a (plainly very expensive) website end up in such a state? How can a team of plainly very skilled designers and engineers produce something so deliberately bad? The answer is simple - they don't care. The design is plainly designed along the thesis that 95% or so of users are able-bodied windows 98+ PC users running IE5 or IE6 (it's a correct thesis, but a morally vacant one). They plainly think that supporting everyone else (by actually doing their job properly) isn't worth the effort. Moreover, they've missed the point entirely about what a company website is for. They seem to think the web is paper, so they've designed a cute animated brochure, but it's oh so pretty vacant.

p.s. Don't let this rant make you believe that I think flash to be instrinsically bad - it's not, but seemingly 99% of its practitioners are. Of the places where it is used, particularly for vectorised animation (e.g. HappyTreeFriends, HowStuffWorks), it's great, and does the client-side things that Java applets were supposed to be able to do, but never quite delivered on. HowStuffWork's excellent animations of the workings of hearts and engines just couldn't be done as well any other way - and the HowStuffWorks folks know that not everyone can access the flash, so they have static images and lots of well written text too.