When fashion is the default mode
Websites that look and function like apps and social media channels are the trend for 2012, but are they the future of online communications, Scott Payton asks.
|Goldman Sachs||Eni Investor Relations|
|Cisco’s ‘the network’||ITV News|
|BBC News mobile website|
As in the fashion industry, designs trends come and go in the world of the corporate web. So which websites represent the ‘look’ of 2012? The answer, as uncovered by the sixth annual Financial Times Bowen Craggs Index, is those that take their visual cues from apps and social media channels.
Unlike other aesthetic web trends, however, this one is more than skin deep: a growing number of companies are not just building sites that merely look like iPad apps, Twitter feeds and Google+ pages; they are building sites that function like them, too.
Are sites that follow this trend more useful and effective as a result? Will the trend last? And is it an early sign of longer-term convergence between corporate sites, apps and social media channels?
Function trips over style
Let’s start by answering the first question: sites that try to emulate apps or social media channels are not always better for it.
Take Goldman Sachs’ new site. Owners of iPads are likely to find the home page familiar, because it is designed to look like a tablet app. Indeed, when it is viewed on an iPad, users can horizontally ‘swipe’ the screen to move between sections. The trouble is, the swipe function is replaced by a series of clickable ‘<’ and ‘>’ arrow icons when the site is viewed on a desktop computer. Using these icons via a mouse is unintuitive and distracts from the more conventional, logical dropdown navigation menus at the top of the screen. Conversely, and more problematically, visitors using an iPad will find the site’s dropdown navigation menus fiddly to use – because they are not optimised for use on a touch screen. In short, by trying hard to look and work like an app, the Goldman Sachs site falls between two stools: it is only partially successful as a website when used on a desktop computer and only partially successful rivaling an actual app when used on a tablet or smartphone.
Special effect follows effectiveness
Other websites are proving that app inspiration can deliver excellent results. Italian energy company Eni, for example, has incorporated app design elements such as tablet/smartphone ‘home-screen’-style icons into its navigation system. More radically, it provides a customisable investor relations section landing page, on which users can drag and drop panels into their preferred positions – just as they can with home screen icons on a tablet or smartphone.
Why has Eni succeeded where Goldman Sachs has failed? Because the app-style elements employed by Eni are as intuitive, useful and effective in the context of a website as they are in their native tablet/smartphone environment. Indeed, Eni’s site previously offered customisable landing pages in other sections as well as investors relations – but has replaced with more conventional, static pages those that did not prove useful.
How about corporate websites that take their design and functionality cues from social media channels? Some of the most successful experiments here, perhaps unsurprisingly, can be found in news and media sections. Cisco’s elaborate news microsite, ‘the network’, is a good example. With its ‘feed’ layout, rolling updates on number-of-views for each news item, ‘Most shared’ search filter and ‘dashboard’ structure, it features a multitude of elements from a range of social media platforms, from YouTube to Twitter. It works well because its designers have carefully chosen to incorporate elements that each do a very good specific job in the world of online corporate newsrooms.
Interestingly, some news organisations have gone as far as to create websites that are almost indistinguishable from, say, a Google+ feed: look, for example, at UK broadcaster ITV’s news site, launched earlier this year. The new BBC News mobile site also draws heavy inspiration from social media, as its Twitter-style time stamps (for example, ‘15 minutes ago’) under news story headlines demonstrate.
Here to stay
Will the trend to emulate social media channels and apps endure in the realm of corporate websites? Broadly speaking, yes, for two reasons – one related to social media the other to apps.
First, a website that incorporates a large amount of social media content and functionality can be a symptom (though, crucially, not a cause) of close, coherent integration of a company’s communication activity across all online channels. This is a good thing – and something that we can hope and expect to see more of in the future.
Second, the arrival of HTML5 increases the likelihood that more websites will take on many of the features and functions of apps. Why? Because the increasingly popular new markup language standard makes it possible to provide ‘natively’ via web pages functions (such as videos, customisable charts and other sophisticated interactive tools) that were previously only viable via Flash or other plug-in technologies. Put simply, apps can do things that websites built using older versions of HTML can’t – but that websites built using HTML5 can.
However, as Goldman Sachs’ app-style site demonstrates, website designers need to remember that if they are motivated by looks alone, drawing inspiration from other digital channels can result in poorer online experiences as well as richer ones.
First published on 16 May, 2012