One of my oldest web sites is for Arlington Frame Company of Canning, NS. It has been a pleasure, and very encouraging through the years, to have provided an essential component of this business’s operations. We have learned and grown together.
The website drives the business. It’s not an e-commerce site – it can’t be, because the product is not something you can pop in a shopping cart and sell online. We’re talking houses. Dream homes, usually, or retirement homes, which clients research and plan for years before buying.
Since the decline of dial-up modems, Forrest Rand, the owner, frequently finds himself on the phone with prospective clients on the phone, pointing out features and examples on the website. So he knows what works and what’s awkward, what is hard for clients to find on the page and what appeals to them. This kind of usability feedback is a web designer’s dream.
Having recently redesigned Arlington’s sister web site, Timberframe Houseplans Ltd., I used the same menu structure for the new Arlington design. However, Forrest found that the new structure confuses people who were used to the old “gallery” format. So I’ve had to reinstate the old gallery page for the long-term lurkers, while offering the new menu for the newcomers. In time, hopefully, there will be fewer complaints, but the prospects who have been hanging around for a while are the ones who will bring in the business for the next couple of years, so we can’t afford to alienate them!
Those of us who spend a lot of time on the internet and are accustomed to constant change easily underestimate how confusing it can be to others. When you have learned to find your way around a website, it can be very confusing and frustrating if things change on you. The older you are, the more this is the case. And people building custom houses are older, on average, than people building websites!
It’s something we see on Facebook all the time; whenever Facebook institutes a design or functional change, some people complain long and loud. Facebook is very personal in nature, and is therefore highly vulnerable to such dissatisfaction. I think Google manages its perennially-increasing functionality well, maintaining the same simple, straightforward design while adding simple links that open up new vistas of possibility for the rest of us.
[2014 UPDATE: the rise of touchscreen devices is making this type of hover menu impractical. See recent post on designing for mobile and touchscreen.]