Is interface destiny?

We like the breezy, confident, first-person style of Michelle Slatalla, who expounds on the familiarity effect of an amazonesque E-commerce layout for a baby-goods site:

As a shopper, the financial underpinnings of shopping sites don’t really interest me. But I was surprised by how much the new Amazonian touches on Babies R Us softened my attitude toward the merchandise. As someone who lost both the interest and the reason for purchasing diaper pails and crib mobiles some years ago, I expected to be bored silly.... But weirdly, the same merchandise that had left me cold on the old Babies R Us site now seemed intriguing. In fact, after about 15 minutes of studying the new design I had a disturbing thought: I wondered if I should replace my 3-year-old’s stained and dingy stroller with a new travel system in a snappy plaid.

The logical answer was no. Soon my daughter will be too big for a stroller. And yet, I wanted one. Badly....

It turns out that in the Web design business, my reaction is known as the McDonald’s effect. “The reason you go into a McDonald’s when you are in a foreign country,” said Kelly Goto, creative director at the consulting firm Idea Integration, “is you know what you are going to get, and you know how the french fries are going to taste. The reason you like a store to look like Amazon is because then you know how to navigate it comfortably.”

Yes. Indisputably. Standardization of user interface is fine. (E-commerce sites have long since standardized on the amazonian tab model, even if their content per se is threadbare.) So is innovation of user interface. We tend to root for the latter (first example; second), but unabashedly admit to relying on the former. (We can spot a search box in a tenth of a second.) We espouse standardization for the stillbirth known as digital TV.

OK. But hold the booster cushion, Mary. If the interface is familiar, why the hell would you start browsing for products that do not interest you and that you do not need? (“The logical answer was no. Soon my daughter will be too big for a stroller. And yet, I wanted one. Badly.”)

Is Slatalla telling us that an E-commerce site must look like an E-commerce site in order to attract a clientele? Even one who has no interest in or relevance to the products on offer?

Yes, we know. We know. You have to give people a reason to visit your site even when they aren’t going to buy anything. But will an Amazon interface mean that people will visit your site when they have no reason ever to buy anything?

We think not. Slatalla, in any event, is within the Babies R Us target market, her protestations to the contrary. Indeed, any middle-class woman even distantly related to children will shop at a site with Babies R Us. This assumes, of course, that the glory and magnetism of the Amazon interface can manage to cut through a nauseating pink-and-blue colour scheme. Gender stereotyping hits E-commerce.

Posted on 2001-05-20