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

Does 'what you do' drive your visitors to Wikipedia?

Here is a challenge: read the following description of a mystery company (identified below), which is taken from the About Us section of its corporate website, and then try to guess any facts about it - name, industry or what it does to make money:

‘Information revolution – happiness for everyone. Becoming the corporate group needed by most people around the world.’

Does that clear it up? The section continues:

‘We're looking to the next thirty years and beyond with a vision for innovation and growth. Since its establishment, (company x) has consistently operated under the vision of becoming a company contributing to people's happiness and joy, and to the future of the world, not only pursuing the profit of the company. This vision is a driving force for (company x) as we continue to pursue growth.

Still stumped?

It’s SoftBank, a company that may indeed provide happiness and joy, but the main thing it does is run mobile and broadband networks. I learned this not from their website but from Wikipedia: ‘SoftBank Group Corp. is a Japanese multinational telecommunications and Internet corporation… It has operations in broadband, fixed-line telecommunications, e-ecommerce, internet, technology services, finance, media and marketing, semiconductor design, and other businesses.’

I often find myself on Wikipedia, frustrated at how bad some corporate websites are at answering the simple question, ‘Who are you and what do you do?’ The case of SoftBank is doubly awful because the clearer Wikipedia description actually cites the SoftBank website as one of its sources. Wikipedia manages to cobble together a useful description from facts scattered around the site, something the company was unable to do for itself.

If I’m frustrated, how many more audiences – actually important ones such as journalists, jobseekers, investors – are getting a bad first impression and grumbling as they leave the site to get a meaningful overview elsewhere?

Few company descriptions match SoftBank for sheer impenetrability. Most bad ones fail less spectacularly – being merely vague or using too much marketing speak.

For example, AbbVie: ‘At AbbVie, we have the expertise of a proven pharmaceutical leader and the focus and passion of an entrepreneur and innovator. The result is something rare in health care today – a global biopharmaceutical company that has the ability to discover and advance innovative therapies and meet the health needs of people and societies around the globe.’

OK, but if I were a journalist I would probably head to Wikipedia to fill in a few details.

The word ‘leading’ crops up a lot. Meaningless without context, it almost always begs the question, leading what? And according to what criteria? For example, on Schlumberger’s site, ‘leading’ mars an otherwise clear description – ‘Schlumberger is the world's leading provider of technology for reservoir characterization, drilling, production, and processing to the oil and gas industry.’

Or AB InBev, ‘We are the leading global brewer and one of the world's top 5 consumer product companies.’

Better to just state exactly what the company is ‘leading’ (if it actually is leading anything) – biggest market share, highest market cap, most revenues, etc. Such as ExxonMobil: ‘ExxonMobil, the largest publicly traded international oil and gas company, uses technology and innovation to help meet the world’s growing energy needs.’ Specific and clear.

Some companies make the mistake of letting an internal change - a reorganization, strategy reset or the dreaded brand refresh – dictate how the company describes itself to the outside world. These can result in descriptions steeped in mystery, and not in a good way.

The GE corporate website, for example, on its home page, says it is ‘The world’s premier digital industrial company: Transforming industry by connecting the physical and digital.

Sensing, predicting, and responding to make the world work better.’

Clicking around, I could not find a simple overview of the business – sector, lines of business, revenues, market position, number of employees, number of countries of operation, a sense of the competitive landscape, etc.

Meanwhile, on Wikipedia: ‘General Electric (GE) is an American multinational conglomerate corporation incorporated in New York, and headquartered in Boston, Massachusetts. As of 2016, the company operates through the following segments: Power & Water, Oil and Gas, Aviation, Healthcare, Transportation and Capital which cater to the needs of Financial services, Medical devices, Life Sciences, Pharmaceutical, Automotive, Software Development and Engineering industries.’

There is a ‘Who we are’ section hidden away under the ‘Digital’ section of the GE website, but this turns out to be a description of GE Digital, which is a parody of corporate waffle, starting with a quote from the CEO: ‘If you went to bed last night as an industrial company, you’re going to wake up this morning as a software and analytics company’ and gets worse as you scroll down the page.

Maybe GE thought it was too complex to describe succinctly and factually?

Except that Siemens and BASF, two companies of similar complexity, manage it.

Here is Siemens: ‘Siemens is a global powerhouse focusing on the areas of electrification, automation and digitalization. One of the world’s largest producers of energy-efficient, resource-saving technologies, Siemens is a leading supplier of systems for power generation and transmission as well as medical diagnosis. In infrastructure and industry solutions the company plays a pioneering role. As of September 30, 2015, we had around 348,000 employees in more than 200 countries. In fiscal 2015, they generated revenues of €75.6 billion.

No need to elsewhere after that.

BASF starts unpromisingly with a slogan but then moves quickly into useful facts and detail, and succeeds in staying on the right side of the line between useful facts and sloganeering.

‘We create chemistry for a sustainable future: In line with our corporate purpose, around 112,000 employees contribute to the success of our customers in nearly all sectors and almost every country in the world. Our broad portfolio ranges from chemicals, plastics, performance products and crop protection products to oil and gas. In 2015, BASF posted sales of €70 billion and income from operations before special items of approximately €6.7 billion…’

One of the rules of political campaigning is ‘don’t let your opponent define you’. A similar principle applies to corporate online messaging – describing who you are and what you do should be a fundamental task. The most effective descriptions will be immediately clear to someone who does not work at the company and may have only just heard of it. Forcing visitors to go elsewhere needlessly surrenders control of the message and diminishes a company’s credibility.

Jason Sumner