All in the <head> – Ponderings and code by Drew McLellan –

Supermarket Usability

It’s an undeniable fact that supermarkets are designed to make us buy things. The science of supermarket design is widely practised with the intent of guiding shoppers to purchase not only as much as possible, but the specific products the supermarket wants us to buy. From the positioning on shelves to the layout of the store, every effort is made to control the behaviour of the shopper.

This, almost by definition, flies in the face of what we might term supermaket usability or even consumer friendliness. The customer’s objective is to get into the store, collect the things they need, get to the check-out and leave as quickly as possible.

Organic Peas

An example – the other day I needed to pick up some garden peas. We try to buy organic whenever possible, so I was initially pleased to see a section labelled ‘Organic Vegetables’ in the store. The supermarket were trying to promote organic veg, and I had been led straight to it. The fact that there were no organic peas in that section caused me to hit a dead end. I’d been a good consumer, followed all the visual clues, and was rewarded with failure.

A shopper-friendly way to organise the section would have been to have a section labelled ‘Garden Peas’, containing all the different varieties, including organic. After all, my overriding need was for peas, not organic veg in general.

You and Me Against the World

And so it is with web sites. There has always been a tension between what the wants and needs of the user and what the marketeers want the user to want when it comes to architecting a site. In the late 90s the marketing aspect largely won out, leading to such atrocities as splash screens and whole sites being built inappropriately in Macromedia Flash. Thankfully, the balance has been addressed quite a bit as the medium has matured, and modern sites tend to place more emphasis on the needs of the user. It’s the anti-supermarket approach.

And here’s the rub. The supermarket industry is right up there as one of the biggest money spinners on the planet. Supermarkets make insane profits each and every day, and it doesn’t look like that’s about to change any time soon. These guys are putting their own interests in front of the interests of their customers, yet customers are still lapping it up seemingly oblivious to the raw deal they’re (we’re!) getting.

So what makes the web so different from grocery shopping? Both are providing the same set of consumers with a service, yet the tolerances are different for each. By putting the user first, are putting the cart before the horse?