Web Sites and Buildings

Design solves complex problems

Design is a process of solving problems. This is true whether the process creates mechanical tools, neural networks, brands, maps, typesetting, roads, spacecraft or web sites.

The purpose of Visual Design is to solve communication problems to enable effective information transfer.

Design problems need to find a solution that fulfils multiple success criteria. For example:

  • A printed circuit board must perform the correct logic, fit into the product casing, and interface with other components.
  • A paper coffee cup must be watertight, provide insulation to keep the drink warm and protect the consumer, display the company identity correctly, and be cheap to produce.

Web sites are complex design products

Web sites are complex design products, because they aim to meet multiple objectives and interface directly with human beings.

Web site design incorporates a high degree of experience design: you want visitors to have fulfilling experiences and meet their personal goals. Because your site can be used by different groups of people, it may need to support a wide range of experiences.

Some visitor goals require a very active experience, which is optimised for speed and accurate transfer of hard information. Other goals are achieved through more passive experiences involving soft information on the emotional level.

The site owner often has additional goals for the user’s experience.

Sites may need to collect data from visitors. They may also aim to promote brands, products or services – which requires adding richness. In order to deliver any of these experiences successfully, they need to be sufficiently fast, usable and accessible – which requires optimisation.

So are buildings

Buildings of all kinds create spaces where people can perform tasks and have experiences. These experineces and functions are designed at every level, from the architecture to the interior design. How well the design process understands and interprets the end usage affects how well the built solution performs. Let’s look at two examples.


Supermarkets are a good example of optimised building design solutions. They operate in a highly competitive space, and need to balance several important experiential and operational factors in order to compete.

Your local supermarket has to let you achieve your goal of getting home with your weekly shop, feeling that you’ve got what you need and satisfied with your result. This means you need to have a smooth and painless experience right through from finding a parking space to leaving it.

However, your supermarket also wants you to buy as much stuff as possible, which involves ‘up-selling’ you higher-price alternatives, and ‘cross-selling’ you stuff you didn’t originally go in for.

It must also be architected to enable extremely efficient delivery systems, stock-filling, customer parking, checkout, and associated services.

The conventional supermarket layout is the result of a long evolutionary process of design. The product of the process is approaching an optimal win-win solution, where the consumers feel they’ve done a good shop and are likely to return, and the store has sold as much as possible as quickly as possible.


For example, aisle-end promotions are now a convention. They don’t have to be there. Their purpose is to sell you stuff on impulse that you didn’t know you wanted (cross-selling). They are positioned in high-traffic areas, to maximise exposure.

Products arranged by type

Also, consider why supermarkets arrange products by type, rather than any other criterion.

If groceries were arranged by price, it would be very convenient for a lot of us. We’d just go straight down the ‘Cheap’ aisle, pick up one of everything we need, and be on our way really quickly. My shop would be quick, and I’d be out quickly and happy, but the store would be less profitable.

But that wouldn’t suit the store’s goals. They want us to spend more, so they arrange products by type. So when I’m looking at bread, I notice the budget loaf for 40p, and I may also be tempted by the organic nutty farmhouse loaf at £1.60. If I can’t afford the pricey loaf, I won’t buy it, but if I may be able to afford it, I might just pick it up in preference to the budget option.

I feel like I’ve made a happy consumer choice, but I’ve also helped realise the store’s goal of maximising its profits.

Feeling of shopping quickly

The dispersed layout shows another way supermarkets trick us into serving their goals while feeling like we’re just serving ourselves.

In my supermarket, milk is in the first corner of the store, while bread is at the opposite far corner. In order to do a basic essentials shop, I need to cover most of the floor with my trolley. That means I’ll be exposed to a lot of products I didn’t come in for, and pass a lot of aisle-end promotions.

Supermarkets could have an ‘Essentials’ section right by the entrance, to let top-up shoppers grab the basic stuff they came in for, and be out in 2 minutes. But they don’t. They’re after a win-win. They want you to feel like you’re getting round as quickly as possible, when in fact they’re getting you to walk 2 miles of displays.

The supermarket experience

Exploring these few design solutions gives us some insight into the scale and complexity of grocery store architecture and point-of-sale design. Consider a few of the basic design experience factors, and compare them to another retail design solution – a high-class clothes boutique.

Supermarkets must appear:

  • Clean (to help us trust their quality standards)
  • Brightly-lit (to make the products look appealing)
  • Well-stocked (to suggest good value for money, and we’ll always find what we want when we come here)
  • Fast: smooth, wide aisles (to help us feel like we’re covering our 2 miles quickly)

These factors are delivered through a combination of architecture and interior design at every level.

The clothing boutique experience

While also retail, a designer clothing shop offers a completely different experience. Its layout and interior design are crafted to produce a more passive, enjoyable, slower experience. In this way, we are more likely to have a passive emotional connection with the brand, and respond to products on an emotional level (which we need to do if we’re going to spend premium price).

  • Instead of clean, shiny linoleum, it offers carpet and soft furnishings, in order to make us comfortable and want to stick around.
  • Instead of bright universal lighting, it uses soft lighting to increase comfort, and uses highlights to pick out key items.
  • Instead of piling products floor-to-ceiling, it presents only a few items to promote the sense of exclusivity and quality.
  • Instead of straight, wide, smooth aisles, the boutique is more organic and provides seating where we can rest.

The web site analogy

The problem space of web sites can vary as widely as the requirements of supermarkets and clothing boutiques.

A brand-driven web site can aim to give a rich experience that communicates soft information on the emotional level. (See my reviews of Harvey Nichols first and second generation web sites).

A low-margin online retailer needs to grab attention and compete on price, which is hard information. It needs to fight hard for search engine links, transfer data rapidly, and provide a solid purchasing experience.

However, like buildings, all sites need to enable people to carry out their typical tasks in a way that feels satisfying. The personality-led web site needs to make contact information as easy to find as the retail site. The retail site must ensure that consumers have a safe and satisfying shopping experience, so that they come back next time.

The process of creating buildings and web sites involves design at every level:

  • Analysing the problem space and business objectives.
  • Analysing the user populations requirements, goals, usage patterns, preferences etc.
  • Architecting the space so that all goals can be reached, in the correct balance.
  • Designing navigation to enable people to find their way around with confidence.
  • Designing the environment to create the right atmostphere and brand experience, and presents the contents in the most appropriate way.
  • Designing the contents to maximum effect.
  • Ensuring the right construction methods and materials are used to support the architectural and interior-design objectives.
  • Testing the design at every stage (both before, during and after construction) to ensure it will be effective.

These stages (including their many finer points) describe a multi-faceted, complex discipline.

While in retail design, each function can be provided by a specialist, web designers are often expected to cover many functions.

Whether in a standalone or team role, everyone involved in the web industry will benefit from appreciating the breadth and depth of the Design process.

In that way, each discipline can get due respect, and work together so that we more rapidly evolve to the maturity level of other professional design industries.

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