Fashion and good navigation can work together. Maybe.

Anyone who follows our thoughts will know that we’re not big fans of the current trend towards minimalist navigation on corporate websites. We can see the attraction of clearing left menus out of the way, and for simple sites it’s quite fine – but for more complex ones usability always suffers. Or at least it has everywhere we have looked. Apologies if you’re bored with the whole subject, but there may be a way out.

The trend is overwhelming. A few sites have relaunched in the last couple of years with left nav – BP, Total, NovoNordisk come to mind – but they are many times outnumbered by those that have taken the minimalist route. While we would be quite happy if everyone headed back to menu-land, that isn’t going to happen. So let’s keep looking for a compromise.

We have an expression – the navigation challenge – that is all about finding that compromise. Can anyone create a complex site that mixes top usability with ‘no left nav’ on a full size screen (the sort used by most visitors to corporate sites)? We run tests with realistic journeys. For example a jobseeker in the careers section checking out a company’s environmental credentials and history. Or a financial journalist looking first at quarterly results, then the annual report, then the latest press releases. These require horizontal movement, perhaps deep within the site. And that’s tricky when you have got rid of a nicely visible set of links alongside the page.

A few companies do not acknowledge the problem. ExxonMobil makes you click and scroll like anything, especially in an area like Investors that does not have a dropdown menu. But most make at least some effort to tackle it. Big dropdown panels are the most common technique – the best, as used by Barclays, allow you to drill down into the site; and so by extension move across it when you are already deep in it. But you always have to click again to see the panel, and unless there is a breadcrumb trail as well, you cannot see easily where you are. Shell does have a trail, but the panel only goes down one level, so it is hard to avoid scrolling and scanning to move around. A fashionable spin on this is to have a mobile-style ‘hamburger’ menu to display a panel – though I don’t really understand this as it removes the option of having a different panel for each main link.

Other ideas have surfaced. Daimler uses the hamburger thing, but also changes the top menu as you move from the first to the second level: it could be clever, but I find it more confusing than anything. Qualcomm and ABB both use narrow strips down the left – click on different elements and panels pop out with more options. These look elegant, but have the same disadvantage as dropdown panels – you have to click them each time you want to do something.

Then last week we wrote up a particularly promising one in a BC Tip: Verizon’s ‘triple deck’ approach. Double deck menu bars used to be fairly widespread in the old days, though always in combination with a left menu – they were one way of keeping that menu shorter on a deep site. But the triple decker approach is designed to replace a left menu, and it works pretty well – the top two menus are in view when you are at the second or third level, so you can get around a fair bit without having to open up a new menu. But the third level menu does not stay in place when you are looking at a page down there – see for example the quarterly results page. That’s a drawback.

So can there be an answer to the navigation challenge? I think the Verizon approach could come close, with a bit of modification: keep all decks of the menu in view at lower levels, squeeze them together to free up viewable space. Maybe add a fourth deck. ‘Stick’ the menu to the top of the screen. If the links being used are highlighted, you will have a de facto breadcrumb trail. Then see how easy it is to move around. Of course minimalist purists will scoff because lots of links will be in view. Let them I say: it’s the users I care about.

Not all fashion is bad

We may not like what’s going on in navigation, but a trend we do rather like is for ‘looping videos’, particularly on home pages. They bring gentle life to what can otherwise be rather dull pictures – JK Rowling thought them up for her Daily Prophet newspaper, but here they are flourishing on Muggle websites. We wrote about some of them last year and were not enthusiastic, saying that ‘they can be headache-inducing’. But we were talking then about the very short, and thus inevitably dull, Vine videos – seeing the same thing again every six seconds is likely to have you reaching for an aspirin.

But the new generation videos are longer and subtler, with ‘joins’ that are hard to spot. There are several, stacked, on the home page of Verizon’s corporate site: the drone at the top is fun, though I think the low profile videos of kids in a classroom, or even a lady whose head moves a little, work particularly well. If you want more examples, try TNO, Siemens’ current home page, and Tetrapak’s innovation section. There will surely be more; no aspirin needed. 

David Bowen

If you pay your taxes, why not shout about it?

I can't see how the tax spat between Apple and the European Commission is going to leave either side looking especially pretty, but it does show that tax payments are now a big issue. One perhaps that companies that pay up like good boys could exploit? 

The Financial Times carried a story yesterday headed  'Only one in five large large companies in the UK say tax avoidance is acceptable'. Why? Well, some top managers must actually think their employers should pay their taxes; and many more think the risks of avoidance outweigh the benefits. Either way, it's a matter both of reputation management and of its virtuous cousin, social responsibility. Two things for the corporate site, surely.

I started looking around to see what big companies were doing. I began with Apple, and yes, its European home pages link to a compelling letter from Tim Cook explaining why it is Right and the Commission is Wrong. Good reputation management, but there's nothing else I could find on Apple sites about tax. It is not being, to use one my least favourite words, proactive.

I wondered what other companeis were doing, and found a fair bit - but none of it is presented as effectively as it could have been. For example:

  • ExxonMobil, according to Forbes the biggest US payer of tax, has a 'US tax and payments' page under Current Issues. Easy to find from the dropdown menu, but it is very out of date - the headline talks about 2012 payments. Almost embarrassing.
  • Barclays produces an excellent PDF 'Country snapshot', giving a clear breakdown of where and how tax has been paid. You can reach it from this page. But the title gives no clue that it is about tax, and it is well and truly buried in the Reports and Publications bit of the Citizenship section on Barclays.com. It's almost as though the bank doesn't want people to find it; odd. 
  • Shell has a page in its Sustainability report called Tax and transparency. Clearly written, but actually rather light on facts (certainly compared to Barclays), and again well buried - it's in the Working together section. Who'd have guessed to look there?

If all this had been put somewhere more obvious - and in the case of ExxonMobil brought up to date - it would be powerful stuff. 'We are decent' is, we are always being told, one of the most important message to get across to potential employees, shareholders, even customers. So if you are, why not shout about it?

David Bowen


Brexit: the online communications challenge

The web is awash with comment, analysis and downright hysteria about UK voters' decision to leave the European Union. But how, I wondered, are companies at the potentially sharp end of Brexit using their corporate websites to explain the implications and calm customers' and investors' nerves? I had a trawl to find out...

Barclays:

This UK-based bank takes an unflashy but clear and effective approach - devoting the top half of its global home page to Brexit (see the screenshot below). The headline is clear, while a crisp standfirst includes a quote from Jes Stanley, the group CEO, designed to assure clients that Barclays is unruffled.

A clear call to action button - ‘Read more from Jes Stanley’ – leads to a cleanly laid out extended statement from Stanley, plus a short FAQ covering Barclays’ Brexit planning and its potential impact. Good - though the images on both this page and the home page are rather pedestrian.

Goldman Sachs:

Like Barclays, this investment banking giant also puts Brexit centre stage on its home page. But rather than promoting an article about it, Goldman Sachs invites visitors to listen to the latest edition of its regular podcasts, in which the firm’s chief European economist is interviewed in depth about the implications of the UK referendum.

While Barclays’ communications priority is reassuring customers and investors about Brexit, Goldman Sachs’ goal is to show off its knowledge and expertise on the implications for the global socioeconomic environment. The audio interview format works well here.

HSBC: 

Thanks to an embedded Twitter feed, visitors to this banking behemoth's global home page (and News and Insight section landing page) are presented with quotes from chairman Douglas Flint on HSBC’s willingness and ability to steer itself and its customers through the post-Brexit world. But during our visits on June 29th, there was little other prominently signposted material on the topic.

RBS:

Visitors to this UK-based bank’s home page looking for reassurance about Brexit will be disappointed: there is nothing at all about the issue. Users must visit the site’s News and Opinion section to find relevant material. But even here all they’ll initially find – buried below the scroll line on a standard desktop monitor – is a comment piece on the impact on the economy at large: nothing on RBS’s response, or the implications for customers. Scrolling down even further is a two-sentence June 24th press release assuring customers that daily banking won’t be affected. But as of June 29th, no more detail than that. Poor.

Lloyds Banking Group

This bank takes silence on the EU referendum a step further than RBS – there is nothing at all on the home page, or in the Media & Resource Centre.

As it has among politicians, it appears that last week's referendum result caught some online communications teams unawares. 

- Scott Payton