When Good Restaurants Do Bad Websites
Maybe it's just me, but there seems to be a higher incidence of user-unfriendliness among restaurant sites than on the web (or at least among commercial sites) in general, and I haven't really figured out why, beyond possible attempts to convey "ambience" through (over)design. I'm generally sensitive to interface design, which for me is a corrolary to prose style, something I'm very passionate about. Just as I'm turned off by opaque and obfuscatory prose (which I've consumed in large quantities, given my many years of academic pursuits), bad web design just plain sticks in my craw. I'm even more attuned to web design at the moment, as I'm currently taking a class in Information Architecture and Interaction Design at the Pratt Institute School of Information and Library Science (a mouthful indeed). A brief presentation I gave the other night on a basket-case gelateria site inspired me to write this. Don't worry, I'm not going to get too technical.
First of all, I must say that there's no correlation between the quality of the site and the quality of the food. In fact, the examples I'm going to use are all from restaurants I'm quite fond of.
One of the characteristics that many restaurant sites share is the splash page, basically an introductory screen that gives little information and usually requires you to click somewhere to enter the site. Of course I want to enter the site, dammit. That's why I typed the url or followed a search-engine link. I thought I was turning the key to the door, or at least knocking, but I'm left standing in the cold. Knock, knock, please let me in.
So what happens next? Well, sometimes the site starts playing music you haven't asked for and were totally unprepared for. Let's say you're in your office, goofing off, surfing the web, salivating over tonight's dinner prospects. All of a sudden music starts blasting out of your computer, and you can't figure out how to turn it down. Mr. Spacely, your boss, is startled out of his managerial stupor and rushes into your cubicle, apoplectic. As you're feverishly trying to eradicate the music you hear the boss's words over the din: "You're fired!"
Once you figure out how to turn the music off the real fun begins. A lot of restaurant sites like to play a game called "let's see if you can figure out how to get any information out of me." Sometimes links to content consist of unnamed icons that do not reveal their identity until you position your mouse over them. Sometimes the names, or labels, are completely inconsistent or confusing. Sometimes the links dance around the page.
Restaurant website designers love to use the infernal Macromedia Flash. The result is websites full of flash and filigree, signifying nothing. Flash sites are the particular bane of food bloggers, since we can't copy and paste quotes or menu descriptions. In addition, they usually take a bit of time to load. Once you finally do get to some meaningful text, plan on getting carpal tunnel from the scrolling you have to do if you want to read more than a few sentences. More often than not I'll find the restaurant's entry in Menupages much more informative and user-friendly than their own website.
Here are some examples. I can't even give links to specific pages in many cases, since Flash-controlled sites don't allow it. For consistency, I'll link to the home page, and you can fiddle around from there.
I love this Hell's Kitchen Northern Italian place. In fact, a couple of weeks ago I was back there for lunch when my esteemed former coworkers took me out to celebrate my escape from the clutches of the Latke Monster. Roberto Passon's website didn't get me fired, but it could have, since it's one of those sites with startling, uninvited music.
You click "enter" on the do-nothing splash page and the music starts, and it isn't good music either. While you're trying to figure out how to turn off the music, a bunch of yellow shapes start dancing around the blue screen until they turn into a little oval with the restaurant's name. There are several other little ovals in the middle of the page, with labels like "About Us" and "Menus." But if you click on one, the joke's on you. Nada. It turns out that at the bottom of the page are a bunch of teeny-tiny circles with completely illegible microscopic text. Under these circles is the word "NAVIGATION." Aha! Meanwhile, under the navigation menu is a little audio meter that's moving to the music. Hmmm, maybe if I click on that it'll turn the music off. Bingo!
If you place your cursor over one of those little buttons at the bottom, an oval dances to the center of the screen to tell you what the link is for. So that's how it works!
Let me try "Menus." Click. I get to a page with the default "Prix Fixed Lunch Menu." (I must have seen a dozen misrenderings of the French Prix-Fixe in the past year alone, though the most common seems to be Pre-Fix.) When I look at a menu I like to get a global overview, a map from which to make my choices. But on this site, as on many, I have to scroll to read the menu. Off to Menupages I go.
This East Village bistro, whose name is the word for Basque country in the Basque language, is another favorite of mine. It's cozy and unpretentious, with excellent food and an amazing $19.95 three-course early-bird Prix-Fixe. Euzkadi's website, on the other hand, is neither cozy nor unpretentious.
This is another Flash site, and it shares some of the Passon site's problems, though one could make a case that it's much better designed from a graphic, if not usability, standpoint. Once again we come to a big door that we have to click to enter. Granted, we do get a nice picture of the restaurant from its open-front entrance. Next to the "enter" link the site tells us to "Have fun!!!" Uh oh!!!
When we do enter we first get a "loading" message, then the music starts, along with a slide show of photos and review excerpts, but no links to content, only a "skip" option. To tell the truth, if not for the music, I wouldn't mind this second "door," because the food photos are very seductive. But I have to skip ASAP, because there's no way to turn off the music on this page.
When I do skip, I am thankfully given the option to turn the music off. In the middle of the page I now have a group of six semi-inscrutible icons. I'm guessing the first one, which looks like a plate, is the link to the menu. Let's try it. How silly of me to think the plate led to the menu! It's the "About" page. What I get is some difficult-to-read white text on a non-solid, brown photographic background. Since I'm no masochist, I don't try to read it.
I go back to the prior page to try my luck again. Maybe that thing that looks like a frying pan will get me to the menu. No, that gets me to a section called "The Place," and some pictures from a wild and crazy party at the restaurant. And now that the frying pan is bigger, I think it's actually a magnifying glass.
There's also an icon of a wine bottle and a beer mug. That must be the drink menu, right? Actually, it leads to the food and drink menus. Once again I get white text, this time on some very sexy food photos. Couldn't they keep the text and the photos separate? I think I'll try Menupages.
Pam Real Thai
One of the better Manhattan Thai restaurants, one of the worst websites ever. First of all, it's ugly in a way I imagine could have only been imagined by someone with an obscure form of schizophrenia. The navigation is truly perverse. Basically, you move your mouse over this weird pattern, and different sections of the menu are revealed. But you can't move your mouse away, or you'll lose your place.
What kind of person would design such a web page? When I checked the page's properties, I learned that it was hosted by hyper-ballad.com. It's the site of a 25-year-old freelance web designer, originally from Thailand. So it wasn't designed by a schizophrenic after all, just a 25-year-old.
This is the basket-case website I mentioned earlier. Capogiro is an excellent gelateria in Philadelphia that I visited a couple of weeks ago (my Philly report is coming soon). Having been there on a prior trip to Philly, I wanted to get the address of the one near the Reading Terminal Market. Their site is rather pretty, but good luck if you want to find out where their shops are.
I'm sure you wouldn't be surprised if I told you that the first page you get is a splash page that you have to click in order to enter the site proper. And you probably won't be surprised to learn that it's a Flash site that takes a fair amount of time to load with a high-speed connection (I pity the poor foodie with dialup).
Maybe I'm weird, but I think it would be nice if businesses could display their addresses prominently. Capogiro does not list the store addresses on its main page. Luckily, there is a link called "Where To Buy." Luckily? Not quite. That lists vendors of their packaged products, not their shops. "How to Order" is for online ordering of packaged products. Let me try "Contact Us." I'm worried, though, because sometimes that launches Outlook Express to send an email. Oh, good, I get a page that lists "Our Locations." If the main menu had listed "Our Locations" in the first place I wouldn't have had to fish around.
The main page also has a link to "Flavors of the Day," which lists all the current offerings of gelato and sorbetto at their shops, some of the flavors quite interesting and audacious. But something's wrong with this picture. It is an alphabetical list, with no distinction between the gelati and the sorbetti. Imagine a wine list that looked like this:
You get the idea.
There are plenty of other problems with the site. See how many you can find.
[Note: Ali Baba's website has changed since this was written. PC 8/17/08.]
Well, there has to be an exception that proves the rule, right? As much as I hate splash pages, this one tickles me every time I go there, and I always sit through the whole catchy little ditty and look at the slide show. I especially like the fact that the owner has made sure that we get to see his mug several times. One good turn deserves another.
Update: I came across another excellent article on restaurant website design that covers many of the same points I have here, The Pitfalls of Restaurant Websites.