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

BC tip: Nintendo - Pokémania pitfalls

A Japanese video game maker’s careers page fails to take advantage of American enthusiasm for Pokémon Go.

The Site

Pokémon Go – an ‘augmented reality’ game in which players try to collect virtual characters in real-world locations on their smartphones – was the most downloaded app in the US last week, and has added £5.4bn to Nintendo’s share price since its game debuted on July 6th.

The Pokémon craze, aside from inspiring increasingly bizarre stories in the media, is likely to have got many more Americans interested in working for Nintendo. Searching ‘nintendo jobs’ on Google leads visitors to the ‘Career Opportunities’ page, which can also be reached via links in the footer of

Here they will find a notably rudimentary and old-fashioned site, with links to the history, jobs, FAQs, etc; and a left menu including ‘Manuals’ and ‘Health & Safety Precautions’.

The Takeaway

Japanese companies traditionally do not prioritise corporate communications, but this is the most extreme example we have come across of a missed opportunity to impress a core audience online. The opportunity cost is multiplied in this case because of the spike in publicity for Nintendo, and the ease with which Pokémon hunters can switch from the game to the jobs page on their smartphones.

Searching for jobs on a corporate website can probably never compare in excitement with collecting virtual creatures in the real world. However, Nintendo’s careers page, which could have been designed in the 1990s, does nothing at all to enthuse career-minded Americans.


Digital bla bla

I've just had an email from a PR person that starts "Even Her Majesty is jumping on the bandwagon and hiring a digital engagement specialist to 'consistently spark interest and reach a range of audiences' ... The Royal Family are keeping up with the times. But the real question is, are you?" There follows a list of people speaking at a 'digital engagement conference', with titles that include heads of digital development,  digital, digital & content, and digital & social media.

I have several questions about this:

  1. Is 'jumping on the bandwagon' a good thing?
  2. What is digital engagement?
  3. How does it fit with digital transformation (See my colleague Jason's post)
  4. How does it fit with existing online communications efforts (corporate websites and stuff)?
  5. How closely do these digital marketing heads work with digital communications heads?
  6. Is (or are) the royal family singular or plural?

My answers are:

  1. No, usually a very bad one. Do things because they make sense, not because everyone else is doing them.
  2. No idea
  3. No idea (see Jason's post)
  4. Probably doesn't (See Jason's post)
  5. Probably don't know they exist (I hope I'm wrong)
  6. Singular

David Bowen

If we ignore ‘digital transformation’ will it go away?

If Bowen Craggs did a ranking of irritating business clichés, ‘digital transformation’ would be a strong contender for the top spot. When I first came across the term (probably in a McKinsey article but I can’t remember) I thought I’d better read it because we are in the digital communications business, and they must be related, right?

 Several articles later, I’m none the wiser about what digital transformation actually means. I could come up with my own definition, but I’m not sure it would be the same as anyone else’s. That is why it’s frustrating – to transform digitally can mean what you want it to mean – sometimes it seems to be about redefining internal processes, or maybe mobile sales channels or marketing 3.0, 4.0, etc. And rarely have I read anything about where digital communications or corporate websites fit in.

Then I started to wonder (whisper it): do they need to have anything to do with each other at all? It was comforting to have my doubts confirmed in a recent talk by a digital comms manager from a large multinational. Chatham House rules applied so no names will be used or dirty laundry aired, but the lessons this manager learned are worth sharing more widely. It was especially helpful to have a concrete example, given how vacuous digital transformation can be.

At this particular company, the ‘transformation’ meant (and I’m paraphrasing but hopefully not over-generalising): a transition to more digital marketing and the digital ‘user experience’ for customers transacting with the company online; and on the internal side, utilising the data and analytics (yes, it’s that other cliché, ‘big data’) on customer activity for business development.

So, in simple terms, very customer-focused. The initiative had its own implementation committee, chaired by marketing and not involving comms. Our digital comms manager spent months thinking about what the digital comms team should be doing about all of this.

The answer, it turned out, was to do nothing. Or at least do nothing new. Instead, digital comms would double-down on what it did already and try to do it better: focus on communicating with core corporate audiences – media, jobseekers, investors; focus on improving content, including a shift to video; and a website relaunch to reinforce comms role as the company’s reputation and brand guardian. It was also important to define what they would not do. For example, they would not involve themselves in local customer websites or customer apps (apart from branding). Two things the team did work on augmented the brand and traditional comms role: a company-wide digital style guide and a centralised careers website.

The above approach has the advantage of being clear, but it is company-specific. Other digital comms teams going through a similar process (ordeal?) might find carving out a similar ‘safe space’ for comms won’t work politically. Certainly other companies we’ve seen facing the same issues have decided to get on the transformation bandwagon, for example, by ‘transforming’ the corporate site into a sales channel; but, we think, at a risk of ignoring the ‘group-level marketing’ role that comms has always had – selling the company as a place to work, to invest in, to write positive things about.

- Jason Sumner

Tales of the too expected

Once upon a time there was business trend called "storytelling".

Corporate web managers quickly made friends with it, using journalistic and film-making techniques to try to make their case studies and other online material more engaging.

Some were successful. Look at SABMiller’s punchily written and elegantly illustrated beer “stories” for one example. Or visit the new Shell global site’s absorbing Our Major Projects section for another.

But soon too many people jumped on the "storytelling" bandwagon, and it began to creak.

Some corporate web editors labelled things "stories" when they were in fact merely press releases.

And corporate "storytelling" became a not altogether wholesome industry in its own right, with "experts" of various kinds trying to crowbar the concept into areas where it does not really fit. This recent article, for instance, rejoices in the headline "Stop Conflict At Work Now With The Power of Story".

Not everyone will live happily ever after.

The end.

- Scott Payton

Rise of the 'digital transformation' guru

Though I left the world of journalism some years ago, I still get emailed lots of press releases.

One arrived this morning, about a new handbag company that claims to be a business ‘disruptor’.  

‘How?’, you might ask. ‘We are a luxury handbag brand disrupting the market with timeless designs that, unlike those of our competitors, do not feature excessively ostentatious branding,’ reads the first paragraph.

Every company seems to want to position itself as a ‘disruptor’ at the moment – even those doing things as decidedly non-disruptive as making handbags with subtler-than-average logos.

This got me thinking about a related buzz-phrase – ‘digital transformation’.

Numerous people who were running around the conference speaker circuit a few years ago claiming to be ‘social media’ gurus have now reinvented themselves as ‘digital transformation’ experts.

Cynics might suspect that they’ve done this not because they’ve suddenly learned a new discipline, but because they’re following the money.

Just as these people once proclaimed that if companies don’t ‘get’ social media they will perish, they’re now declaring that businesses must ‘digitally transform’ themselves or die.

It’s not just superannuated social media gurus getting in on this act – the big global management consultancies are focusing on it too, as subscribers to McKinsey’s email newsletters will well know.

Yet there’s nothing new about either the concepts wrapped in new ‘digital transformation’ packaging, or the idea that ‘traditional’ businesses will collapse if they don’t embrace them. Indeed, such ideas were discussed endlessly during the dotcom boom almost two decades ago. eBay will bring an end to auction houses. Amazon will spell the death of the bookstore. And so on.

So why is all this making a comeback now?

For one thing, a new wave of genuinely ‘disruptive’ businesses – from taxi firm Uber to lodging rental company Airbnb – has given digital transformation ‘experts’ a fresh batch of case studies with which to fill their PowerPoint presentations.

For another, there is a certain breed of conference-hopping guru who needs a Big New Thing to peddle. Social media is simply not that new any more – and ‘digital transformation’ sounds impressive.

Is ‘digital transformation’ a load of old nonsense?

No, for two reasons:

  • First, it’s undoubtedly true that the likes of Uber and Airbnb, like Amazon and eBay before them, pose a real threat to their direct and longer-established competitors. And there are some useful lessons that firms in other sectors can learn from such startups’ ability to devise business models that incumbents failed to invent themselves.
  • Second, the ambiguous phrase ‘digital transformation’ has become an umbrella for a raft of activities that includes genuinely worthwhile efforts to get digital channels taken more seriously, and integrated more deeply, at all levels of – and across all areas of – an organisation. Indeed, Bowen Craggs has been championing these particular sorts of activities for years.

But the term ‘digital transformation’ is so broad that it can mean very different things to different people – and, like online technologies themselves, has very different implications for different companies.

So if you choose to hire a ‘digital transformation’ expert, make sure that their specific experience and expertise fit the needs of your organisation. And be very suspicious of anyone with ‘digital transformation consultant’ printed on their business card in the space that said ‘social media consultant’ a few years ago.

- Scott Payton

Zombie home pages

Is the corporate website site dead? Is content marketing ailing? Is Twitter dying? The world of technology journalism likes to pose such questions, usually in click-baity headlines, every now and then. Invariably, the answer is "no".

A few years back, it was the turn of the home page. "Is the home page dead?" asked the Columbia Journalism Review in January 2013. "The home page is dead", Quartz helpfully answered in a May 2014 headline.

As we pointed out at the time, while it was true that news websites such as the New York Times were seeing a relative drop in the proportion of home page visits, because more people were arriving deeper in the site (via links to articles from Twitter and Facebook, for example), this was not the case for corporate websites.

And it's not the case now, either.

As this chart from Bowen Craggs' latest Google Analytics benchmarking survey (which covers some of the world's biggest companies) shows, the proportion of corporate website visitors arriving via the home page remained sky-high and rock-solid - indeed if anything it went up a bit - between 2014 and 2015. 

Bowen Craggs Google Analytics Benchmarking Survey 2016

So what about news sites' home pages? Are they still dead? I can happily report that they are now back to being alive. I know this because I read it just yesterday in the technology press. See for yourself here

- Scott Payton

Backwards is forwards (ask Microsoft)

I've just upgraded my PC from Windows 8 to Windows 10. I've never been a big PC fan, but 8 was about as baffling and unintuitive a system as I have ever stared at. No start menu, you had to move your mouse to a corner (but which one?) to see anything. I never learned to do more than the basics, and I stuck to my Mac for day to day stuff. But I do need to look at PCs to see how much of the world (especially in big organizations) sees websites, so I have persevered, and clicked the Windows 10 upgrade button when it appeared.

And it's really much easier. There's a bar along the bottom with icons I can understand. The one to the left brings up a box with all sorts of useful and well labelled things, including something I used to rely on the old days - File explorer - but which was buried deep within Windows 8. At first glance it's a huge improvement - but it's been done it by going back to something less designed for visual effect and more for practical usability.

Does this remind you of websites at all? When I look at some modern ones - big fonts, big scroll, no navigation in view - it makes me think of Windows 8. But I've seen even more modern ones that are now taking much more care of their usability. They are designed for those of us who want to get around, not be impressed the amount of 'visible real estate', or whatever. Death to progress. Backwards is forwards. 

- David Bowen

I like optimists but ...

... the prediction by Investis that 'by 2016, 30% of visits to corporate websites will come from mobile devices' seems like wishful thinking. We track usage on a spread of corporate sites, and the numbers are nowhere near that - they cluster around 5 to 10 per cent. One crucial point is that we need a breakdown between tablet and smartphone - most standard sites can be read reasonably easily on a tablet (though there may be problems with things like dropdown menus), whereas on a  tiny screen you really do need something different. Another question is around growth - we have seen a doubling of both smartphone and tablet traffic - but the experience of companies that had mobile sites for several years is that usage flattens off. There's a simple reason for that - it's easier to look at complex information on a big screen, and most people in most countries have access to one. That's why we say you absolutely must consider the mobile user, but if you let your concentration on desktop users slip you will regret it - they are, for the most part, the same people. 

One of my colleagues says he will eat his iPhone if the Investis prediction is right. I will post the video if he does. That should go viral. 

- David Bowen