If You Need More Darned Clutter on Your Site ...

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clutter rules on your website

You've probably heard this one before: When you're trying to get a visitor to your site, you should be screaming for attention. While they're on your site, you should quietly let them shop.

The shouting stops at the entrance. Nobody wants a bazaar while browsing. At least, in theory, nobody wants a bazaar.

However, is this something we should all take a closer look at? After all, nobody will ever, ever, accuse eBay or Amazon.com of being quiet or clutter free, but they are go-to web experiences for millions upon millions of people. At some point, even people who are trained in usability ask:

  • Why is that?
  • When is it acceptable not to have quiet experiences online?

When Navigation Isn't Critical

We're big proponents of keeping things quiet while people are on your site, minimizing the cognitive load. That's also something the biggest usability training firms like Nielsen are keen on. Within usability communities, this is going to be fairly common practice, fairly widespread advice.

However, that advice does not apply to YouTube. YouTube can, and does, get pretty cluttered, and plenty noisy. Yet people flock to it just the same. The obvious answer is that the YouTube brand is so strong that it's synonymous with viewing videos online, and that's a valid point. But there's also something else that at work — nobody navigates to find their video.

The second most used search bar, after Google, has been YouTube for quite a while. When search is the most commonly used tool, the primary navigation elements and the page content can afford to be noisier. That's certainly the case for eBay and Amazon. Their categories pretty much cover anything and everything, so having zero navigation clutter may be too much to ask.

Key takeaway: If what you're selling is more targeted than what eBay and Amazon are selling, which is true for just about everyone, your web experience shouldn't be as noisy as theirs.

Which brings us to the second point ...

When Search is Pretty Close to Perfect

Search is tough. Not only are rock-solid on-site search engines expensive, tagging your content with metadata (e.g., price, availability, category, etc.) for good search is time consuming. Creating good search experiences can be daunting.

That's exactly what you need to spend more time on if there's more noise on your site. If your top and left navigation elements don't list distinct categories that immediately make sense to visitors, more people will turn to search. They certainly do on eBay and Amazon, where those companies can afford to continually fund the improvement of search capabilities year over year.

Key takeaway: On-site search is important even for e-commerce sites with minimal clutter. Some people just naturally like search boxes. However, if you do have more clutter on your site for reasons you may or may not have control over, you need to work on improving site search and making your search box more visible. More people will need it.

When Testing is Part of the Site's DNA

Not all noise is created equal.

If you doubt this, just go to Amazon's product pages. We've featured one page while discussing the persuasive product page. On it, there are 17 pages worth of scrolling to get through! Talk about the opposite of a quiet experience.

Amazon, like Google, is known for extensive testing. Not only does it get the emotional design of a page right, it's actually added smart elements to the page that will only work when you have the kind of data it does.

Amazon's recommendations, for instance, are tested, and tested, and tested again after that. We're talking about a company that's investing so heavily in research that it reports almost no profits annually, despite its size.

Now, you may not take it to that level. You can count the number of retailers that do that using your fingers. However, if you suspect you're adding clutter, you need to step up your testing game.

Key takeaway: If you're adding elements on your pages outside of limited navigation elements, relevant images, short descriptions and calls to action, you need to either run split tests or multivariate tests to make sure you're adding value.

Clutter is Expensive

All e-commerce sites need good on-site search and testing strategies. This is true even if your site is relatively small, and even if you decide to avoid clutter like it's the plague.

However, some sites need it more than others. Having clutter on your site is expensive.

When you have more, you need to run more tests that solve for the added noise, more tagging for the better search experience. It's usually cheaper to get the navigation and page elements right than it is to beef up your on-site search to the degree that you need when your pages are a mess.

So when it's possible to clean up, it's best to clean up. When it's not possible, like when your CMO tells you that he or she really needs those elements to be there, you need to be sure you're compensating for the user experience hit elsewhere. Testing and on-site search are great places to start.

This article originally appeared in Tim's Retail Online Integration column March 27, 2015

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