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Why ARE Restaurant Web sites so bad?

December 27th, 2010 · 76 Comments

On Twitter, my friends Shani and Erie are engaged in a bit of time-honored kvetching about the legendary and general awfulness of restaurant Web sites. Who thinks it’s good idea to blast annoying music at people going to your site? Why do they so often rely on Flash, which doesn’t really add anything to the experience, when half the time people are looking up the site on mobile devices to get basic information? Why this bizarre preference for menus in PDF format?

The really strange thing to me isn’t that restaurants would make these mistakes initially. These are, after all, mostly small brick-and-mortar businesses whose Web presence is pretty peripheral to what they do. The truly baffling thing is that people have been complaining about these exact same things for years; they’re universally acknowledged to be errors by anyone with a lick of design sense. But you find them replicated even on the sites of fancypants restaurants that have obviously thrown at least a moderate amount of cash into site design recently. Is it just that nobody tells them, that the folks in charge of commissioning these things are somehow still unaware that the superficially glitzy bells and whistles are actually annoying obstacles to usability? Or is there some deeper reason they’re purposefully sticking with bad design?

Update: I guess it’s lazy to pose the question without at least trying to cook up a few hypotheses. One possibility is that there’s an unfortunate feedback loop in effect. Lots of restaurant sites made these mistakes initially. The people commissioning the sites are probably general managers who don’t have a lot of time to spare thinking about Web design, and so they rely on a heuristic of seeing what other sites are doing and expecting their designers to come up with something similar. The designers may know better, but they realize that precisely because the site is peripheral, they’re going to be able to charge based on the superficial glitziness of the site’s appearance, not its actual usability—and indeed, given the suboptimal equilibrium, they’d likely have to burn time and energy explaining to the client why a more functional, better-designed site didn’t look like all the others.

Another possibility is that there’s an attempt at signalling going on. All you’re realistically going to need from a restaurant Web site is a few pages worth of basically static information, and maybe some reservation functionality, which is probably outsourced to OpenTable anyway. People probably aren’t going to be interacting with the site for more than a couple minutes. That means there’s limited ability to cue the user via the site that this is a higher-end joint, if that’s what you’re trying to do. (Design still works surprisingly well as a status marker, I’ve noticed—compare even a relatively kludgy major publication site with something like WorldNetDaily.) So you end up with a sort of Veblenesque “conspicuous consumption” on the splash page—lots of sound and graphics that actually detract from the functionality of the site, but broadcast that you’ve got money to burn on your Web presence. The people who just want directions or a reservation will end up using Google Maps and OpenTable anyway, so semiotics trump usability.

That’s a guess, anyway. It’d be interesting to talk to someone who actually makes these decisions at (or does Web design for) a higher-end restaurant to see what the actual thought process looks like.

Update II: Apropos of the aforementioned kvetches, consider this catalog of things never said about restaurant websites.

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