Planting new vineyard: getting ready for more Mourvedre, Grenache Blanc and Vermentino
Vineyard Photos of New Growth

Usability Lessons for Winery Web Sites

I come at Web site design a little differently than most winery principals.  My background is in high tech; before moving out to Paso Robles in 2002 to help manage Tablas Creek, I was a Senior Training Manager and Curriculum Director at WestLake Internet Training, which developed and taught classroom-style training courses on Web development, Web design, and database management.  Near the end of my tenure there, we started focusing on some of the softer skills associated with Web development projects, including information architecture, project management, and writing for the Web.  The experience of researching and writing these classes has unalterably colored the way that I view Web sites.

The concept that we felt was of paramount importance for the success of a Web site was usability.  Usability may be an ugly, inelegant word, but the concept it represents - that design needs to be focused on helping the end user complete the task for which he or she has visited the site - is crucial.  This may seem obvious, but very few Web sites (in any field) really think about usability. The creators of Web sites have a story they want to tell, and far too many of the sites focus on that story instead of the needs of the site's visitors. 

Much of the blame can be laid at the feet of graphic designers, for whom Web design is often a secondary job after print design.  Look at the Web sites of graphic designers:  too many are totally unusable, full of design for the sake of design taking up space and download time, and missing or cryptic sign posts to crucial information (what is this designer's message?  how do I contact them?  who are their clients? what are their prices?).

The same story is true of too many winery Web sites.  Many appear to have taken their model from a print marketing piece, where information is presented in a linear fashion, and without enough attention to the concerns that too many large or high-resolution images inhibit anyone using the site.  Or, the site may be created to satisfy the story that the winery wants to tell.

I'll list some of the cardinal sins of usability.  These are ones that I encounter most often, and tailored to the specifics of wineries; there are plenty of other mistakes to be made, and the lessons are applicable to any business seeking to market itself and ultimately sell a product:

  • Splash pages. These introductory pages, often produced and animated with Flash, take time to load and make users wait to even start their search for the information they need.
  • Sound files on the front page. Many viewers may be visiting your site in a work environment, and presumably don't want this fact called to attention when their computer starts singing.
  • Hard-to-find contact information. Most studies suggest that over 25% of visitors visit Web sites for no other reason than to get a phone or fax number, an email, or a physical address for the business.
  • Too much unnecessary photography.  I'm certainly not suggesting that Web sites be text-only, or that photography does not have a place on winery Web sites.   Still, photographs are memory-intensive, and take far longer to download than text.  Only half the US population has broadband access at home.  Don't force people to wait to download big files just to get the answers they want.  Put your larger photographs in archives in well-marked locations and let the people who want to explore them do so without impacting the usability for everyone else.
  • Out-of-date information. Out of date information has two problems. First, as with typos or ungrammatical sentences, you compromise your credibility as a legitimate business.  Second, people expect the Web to be constantly up to date.  If your site is not, and you force people to go to a second source (calling, for example) to get current information, you give the impression that your Web site is of lesser importance and reduce the credibility of the rest of the information contained there.
  • No search option.  You may think that your navigation is clear, but different people filter information in very different ways.  Having a search option helps unite visitors with their specific need and reduces frustration.
  • Lack of backward-looking information.  Many sites replace older vintages with information about newer vintages.  What about your customers who have an older bottle and want to know about it?  Remember that you're making a product that people may return to any time over the next few decades, and do your best to maintain (and, even better, update) the information on these older wines.
  • Missing or inaccurate page titles. Page titles appear in the title bar of your browser and on the tabs of tabbed browsers.  They also are the primary information displayed by search engines and contribute enormously to search engine rankings.  A good page title is a headline that describes what the page contains.  A great page title also gives you information about where that page sits in the site's hierarchy.

As I can figure it, there are a handful of discrete questions that might lead people to a winery's Web site.  The site has every interest in making the answers to these questions as apparent as possible.  How well does your site do?

  • How do I buy a wine I had and enjoyed?  Most wineries have order forms where consumers can go to order wine direct from the winery.  However, it's important to remember that many people don't live in states to which wineries can ship, and you may also have restaurants and retailers (or importers) interested in buying wine through the appropriate channels.
  • I have a particular wine.  Is it ready to drink?  What should I serve it with?  Should I decant it?
  • How do I visit the winery?
  • Who is behind this winery?  Who is its winemaker?  Where do its grapes come from?
  • How do I contact a real person to answer a specific question?

One technique that is always illuminating in analyzing your site's usability is to take someone not already familiar with your site and give him or her a set of tasks to complete.  Sit and watch (and take notes on) how he or she clicks around the site, but don't offer advice.  If it takes several clicks before he or she finds the information, note that issue.  It's amazing how little we analyze the sites that we're familiar with, particularly ones that we've helped create.  Watching someone else struggle is illuminating and humbling and a great source of ideas.

A few other resources that you may find helpful:

  • Winery Web Site Report.  Mike Duffy has a company that focuses specifically on helping wineries design and analyze their Web sites.  I haven't used his services, and have no affiliation, but he maintains one of the great industry blogs in which he shares lots of good information for free. 
  •  Jakob Nielsen is the leading guru of the usability movement, and on his Web site he publishes weekly articles focusing on Web usability.  He's so extreme in his advocacy of usability over design that his Web site is very bare-bones, but his research is the industry standard.
  • Web Pages that Suck.  This venerable site has been highlighting the worst of the Web for 12 years, and its content and approach are still fresh.  Check out their worst-of-the-year lists.

So... I hope this has been helpful. I'd love any comments on particular wishes people have for winery Web sites, or anecdotes of particularly good (or bad) emphasis on user-focused design.