Why a bad website is like a car boot sale

One of my clients used the best metaphor for bad, organisation-focused websites the other day: a car boot sale. I was so struck by the comparison, that I had to write about it.
An illustration of people browsing at a huge car boot sale

For anyone not familiar with this great British tradition, at weekends we load the tat we want to get rid of into the back of the car, drive to a muddy field, lay it all out on a trestle table, and try to sell it all. The toiletry gift set you got at Christmas from Aunty Pat and were grateful for but didn’t use. The exercise machine that became a clothes rack after two uses. The toys the kids don’t play with anymore.

To enjoy a car boot as a buyer, you need to go without a shopping list, and with plenty of time and cash in small denominations. If you go hoping to find a specific thing, you’ll likely be disappointed. And if you do find it, it will take a lot of hunting through piles and piles of other random stuff to get track it down.

And a lot of the time, that’s what a bad website is like. A bad website is a random, unstructured, chaotic collection of stuff that organisations want to sell, but users don’t necessarily want to buy. It’s somewhere you only have small chance of stumbling across what you’re looking for.

I love car boot sales, junk shops, charity shops and the like, for the slow pace of sifting through the shelves and rails, and the thrill of finding that amazing thing I didn’t know I needed. But crucially, it’s only enjoyable when I don’t have a specific thing that I need and when I have plenty of time on hand.

But that’s not what your website experience should be like. It’s extremely likely that your users will have a task in mind, that they want to complete as quickly as possible. For some kinds of organisation, you may well have users who want to browse, but even then, they’re going to want a structured, well-organised experience to help them explore.

So what does good content look like in this metaphor? I think it’s a market. There’s different stalls with different purposes, and you can tell which one sells bread and which one sells fruit at a glance. Things are stacked up neatly and it’s easy to see what’s on offer. The things you buy every week are always in the same easy-to-reach place. Seasonal items rotate in and out as necessary. On a weekday, you can run through quickly on your way home from work and grab the essentials. At the weekend, you can take your time and browse – if you want to.

So save the serendipitous chaos of the car boot sale for the weekend, and look to your local market for inspiration for your website:

  • Think about what your users want from you, not what you want to push on them
  • Lay things out in clear, distinct categories
  • Don’t make people work hard to find what they need most often: put it front and centre

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