It’s Black Friday, and you have read all the great reviews, enjoyed the plentiful buyer’s guides, and now you’re ready to pull the trigger a freaking laptop. Only when you go to the website of Dell, HP, Lenovo, or nearly any other laptop maker, you find yourself in a hellscape.
These websites are clunky, crowded, and usually have too much, or far too little information. They’re hard to navigate, and it can be difficult to find things on them. It’s only when you go to the Apple website that you’re struck by just how bad the other sites are.
I have to use all of these websites a lot. When I am reviewing a product, part of the job is tracking down its page on the manufacturer’s website so that I can link to the exact build of the device I am reviewing. I am both very familiar with the layout of these sites and with the products I am looking for, and yet, I inevitably struggle to find the right page.
On the Dell website, it takes me around 5 to 6 clicks to get to the Dell XPS 13, and even then, there are two versions, the 9360 and 9370, and no clear notes on the site for the difference between the two (the 9370 is newer, has more features, and a smaller battery). If I use the search function found on the front page, it is faster, but Dell also helpfully offers choices from previous years, with no clear note that they’re older beyond that laptops cost less. A person who isn’t paying attention might easily buy an Dell XPS 13 with last year’s processor and not realize their “deal” is actually marked down old stock.
On HP’s site, it takes fewer clicks to reach the Spectre 13, but HP has a LOT of laptops with the words Spectre and 13 in the model name. This means the results are cluttered, and if you don’t know exactly which Spectre laptop you’re looking for, you will have to hunt through many tabs. Do you want the Spectre 13, Folio, or 360? Be prepared to click on each if you don’t already know!
Look at how many different ways I can search for the same information. No wonder it takes me a few tries to click the right series of links to get to the Yoga devices I’m looking for.
Which leads me to this page.
Now I need to choose between the Yoga 900 series or Yoga c Series. One is the correct choice, and the other will take you to older laptops that are neither the Yoga c930 nor the Yoga Book c930.
See? It’s confusing!
These companies make devices that are extraordinary feats of engineering. They build computers that can recognize your face, or turn into a tablet with a twist, or pack a few thousand dollars worth of silicon into a chassis only a few millimeters thick. How can these companies be so clearly accomplished in design, and yet have such shitty, shitty websites?
I’d cooked up all nature of personal theories to rationalize atrocious user experience, ranging from “companies are evil and hate us” to “I am an idiot, and so is everyone else on the internet.” Curious to know what was true, I reached out to HP, Dell, and Lenovo, the three largest laptop makers, and asked why their websites were so...complex. Dell and Lenovo are still looking into it, but HP let me speak to Carmen True, the Head of Digital Experience at the company. She oversees the design of HP.com.
First, she noted that users inform the design of HP.com. “All of it’s based off of user interactions data and information,” she said of HP’s design. See? I told you. Humanity is the problem. According to True, laptop manufacturer websites are trying to cater to everyone at once. Of the people who come to HP.com, she noted, “we have to serve them differently without necessarily always knowing where they’re going.”
A claim supported by Jefferson Howell, a Senior UX Designer at Artefact, a design firm in Seattle. Howell told Gizmodo via e-mail that “Navigation needs to provide paths to hundreds of products, across a range of subcategories, from multiple entry points, for a multitude of audiences. Any solution will have drawbacks; laptop sites generally seem willing to prioritize volume of conversion opportunities at the expense of visual design.” That’s web designer speaker for “a lot of people and products have to find each other and that’s hard to do while keeping things pretty.”
Which, okay, fair. Of course these websites would be a labyrinthine nightmare if they’re trying to cater to the labyrinthine nightmares in a regular customer’s mind.
Each of us comes to a website like HP.com with a different goal in mind. I pop in because I need the specific page for a specific laptop. You might come by because you heard how much Gizmodo likes a particular device, or you’re just curious to see what your favorite laptop maker has cooking. Our needs are very different, as is how we might want to navigate towards a solution, so the website designers have to take into account all the different ways people might think about a product. They have to imagine the journey for you and me, and also some IT person looking to buy a fleet of laptops, and my mother...who still can’t click on that damn link I sent her in Apple Messages.
Which is also one reason why Apple’s website seems just a little less awful. “Having fewer products is the most effective way to reduce navigation complexity,” Howell said. Apple simply has less stuff to sell. I like to complain about the lack of diversity in Apple’s laptop line up, but it also means that it doesn’t have to offer a laptop suggestion for business and one for college kids and one for gamers and one for families. It can just say MacBook. Or Air. Or Pro. The end.
So these big companies that have such awful websites—they’re doing the best they can. Short of some incredible innovation in user interface design we’re going to be stuck with the cluttered and difficult-to-navigate websites.
The upside is that you don’t have to have a particular plan of action when navigating these websites. There’s no secret true path. There are just dozens of weird and painful ways to get to the results you’re looking for. No path is wrong—they all just suck.