Today, I’m going to talk about a time when I first started in the web design industry, back in the late 1990s-early 2000s.
My very first website went live back in around 1998, and it’s still live now, albeit with a slightly different style. Now, my first “proper” job was as the web designer for GAME. At the time, I never really appreciated how lucky I was that it was my first job, because I assumed that all jobs were like that.
Basically, I’d muck around with web design and video game graphics all day, we’d get free video games to play and review, and I’d even get to go to launch parties of video games.
Now, when I worked at GAME originally, it was called Electronics Boutique. If you’re American, you will know this company as Electronics Boutique. In the UK, the company licensed the name from America, so it had to pay a percentage of its revenue to the American owner. Online, the UK company as called EB Games, as it couldn’t use the name Electronics Boutique in case people from America got confused and ended up buying a game from the UK site.
So, there was a disconnect between the store and the website. Anybody going into the store wouldn’t necessarily know that the site was for the same company, as it had a different name and a different logo. This meant the company needed to do something to make itself sustainable moving forward.
To do this, it bought the Irish company called GAME, which is what it is obviously called now. It purchased GAME, took over all of its stores and its website too. I was then in charge of the graphics and updating both the Electronics Boutique website and the GAME website, as the company wanted to keep the brand separate initially.
The company decided that it wanted the websites to look very different because they profiled Electronics Boutique customers and GAME customers and decided that they were very different. Electronics Boutique customers were parents who were buying games for their kids, along with casual gamers, so they needed it to be quite straightforward as a retail experience. GAME customers, on the other hand, were massive nerds. They were the kind of people with beards who would sit for hours or days on end playing online role-playing games, never coming out or seeing the sun.
The company wanted the GAME website to reflect that audience, meaning it was made deliberately different from the Electronics Boutique site. For example, I believe the Electronics Boutique site had navigation across the top, and the GAME website flipped it and had the navigation down the side. The GAME website flipped most aspects, including the layout of the product pages.
Now, the problem was, because everything had been moved purely to make it different, it affected the sales on the GAME website. I can’t remember the specifics, but I think it was something like the Electronics Boutique website was outselling the GAME website two to one, even though it was exactly the same product catalogue. The sites fed into the same system, had the same database powering them both, with exactly the same stock and pricing on most products.
It was at that point that a decision needed to be made, as the GAME website – I should stress that I didn’t build it; I designed it repeatedly over the years, but it was originally built by somebody who was outsourced – was being outperformed by the Electronics Boutique website two to one because of the changes made to the website design to intentionally make them look different.
So, the company decided that the change wasn’t working, and what needed to happen was that we needed to take the Electronics Boutique site and copy it as the GAME site. Then, we just needed to recolour it, making it the GAME purple, and put the GAME logo on it. For all other intents and purposes, it was to be identical.
I did all the graphics for it again and reskinned the site. It didn’t take that long to do, as you’re effectively just swapping pictures over and changing style sheet colours. It probably took about two weeks to do it.
When this new website went live, there was an immediate upturn in sales, like you wouldn’t believe.
The moral of this is quite straightforward – when you’re designing a website, building a site and essentially doing anything digital like that, don’t make changes to something purely to make it different and to differentiate yourself from your competition. This is because there are conventions to websites, certainly when it comes to e-commerce, that have to be the same.
Websites have certain aspects that customers expect to see, and if you make it different just for the sake of making something different, which some web designers will do, you will hinder the performance of the website.
As GAME was an e-commerce website and it was a high street store, the sales were dramatically different, and it was really easy to tell that there was a problem. A smaller business could have taken years to identify such a problem if it didn’t have something else to benchmark it to, or may have never even spotted it.
To further illustrate that point, I was on a panel at a social media event in Manchester a couple of years ago called SAScon talking about e-commerce websites. We were taking questions from the audience on these websites, and one person in the audience – I’ve always remembered this – put his hand up and said how Amazon was an example of really poor design because it was an ugly site that didn’t fit in with his ideal of what an attractive, nicely designed ecommerce website should look like.
While I can see the point – yes, Amazon isn’t the kind of website you would print out put in a frame – that is not why Amazon was designed. It wasn’t designed to look nice, it was designed with one goal, and that’s take sh*t loads of money from customers, and it is bloody good at that. It’s better than pretty much any other website are doing that, so everybody on the panel then had to explain, or rather argue, that while it could be prettier, that isn’t actually going to help it for the purpose it was designed for, which is taking money.
Don’t get confused with your website and what it’s being designed for. It’s not being designed for you, and it’s not being designed to win design awards or to look pretty – it’s being designed for a function. That function is whatever your business wants it to be, whether it’s to take orders, sell a product, book calls, take enquiries, whatever that may be, that is why it has been designed. All other functions are irrelevant – do not let the design, an idea or your insistence on having something creative get in the way of the purpose of the website.
This is the one message to take away from this article – your website is not for you, it needs to work. Otherwise, it’s what I call a beautiful-looking failure.
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