It was a really simple question from a journalist at one of the major auto shows: “Don’t all cars look the same these days?” He was posing the question to one of the lead designers from a big auto brand who, in a nutshell, said, “Yes, cars these days do all look the same.”

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His explanation for this phenomenon focused on the science of designing cars. Raw materials and aerodynamics of cars are basically fixed, the designer explained, because there is a proven optimal overall design, and everyone is following it. To ignore the science means less efficient cars compared to your competitors, resulting in fewer sales.

Presto! All cars start to look the same.

Outside of the obvious brand differentiation challenges this poses for carmakers, it got me thinking about the parallels with Web sites. The science of website design came of age with the practice of information architecture, and over the last few years has really driven a convergence of similar looking Web sites.

This isn’t bad mind you, as the science is driving more usable, relevant Web experiences for customers, while simultaneously proving that a good Web site isn’t a subjective matter. Usability can be quantitatively measured and compared against a competitive set.

Case in point is the latest e-business rankings of tech companies’ Web sites. It measures usability across 2,000 different site elements (the list of measured variables is something I enjoy forwarding to people who utter the phrase “I don’t like your site design”). 😉

When you look at the list of companies, you’ll immediately note the similarity of a lot of their Web sites. Alas, like cars, we’re all starting to look the same.

What’s interesting though is the companies in the top 10 aren’t improving their rankings because of new designs. Their success is coming from the science of Web site usability, where imagery becomes a hygiene factor and what matters are intuitive navigation elements, onsite search, fluid video rendering, quick page load time, personalized content, embedded social and servicing features, etc.

So that’s all fine (and frankly, perhaps a little boring for the pure designers out there). But where do tech Web site designs go from here?

To answer that, I went back to the car show article where the same question was asked to the lead automotive designer: “If all cars now look the same, what’s the next step in designing a much better car?”

The answer, wonderfully, was “the interior.”

While the outside remains static take a look what is going on inside cars: touch screens, night vision, Bluetooth, heads-up display, remote car management through mobiles, etc. These are the elements that are selling cars today. And the reason you buy Car A instead of Car B is because one makes it easier to connect your iPod.

And if you get that, then you also know the Web strategy being pursued by the most successful tech companies. You’ll see the next 12 to 18 months focused on the “interior,” where Web functionalities, in lieu of new designs, will seamlessly integrate live events, promote user-generated content, provide new rich media approaches, deliver unique individual experiences, drive social servicing and most importantly, work flawlessly regardless of mobile device.

Watch this space, because as we’ve learned from the car industry, what’s going on inside is a heck of a lot more interesting than a new coat of paint!

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    1. Shawn BURNS Post author

      Great question! All websites are purpose-built, and you can imagine vastly different requirements depending on supporting basic information needs or ecommerce or customer support, etc. The best rule of thumb (and hardest to execute) is to do function FIRST and design LAST. If you obsess around the functionality your customers need, the design takes care of itself.

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