Is this thing on?

English: Large image of telephone switchboard.... (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of my favorite scenes from Mel Brooks’ 1987 film Spaceballs takes place when a radar operator tries to summon the commander by intercom but a poor connection renders his voice muffled, electronically screechy, and basically incomprehensible. The commander goes over to the radar operator and takes the mic away from him, only to discover that the intercom was actually fine; the guy’s natural voice was muffled, electronically screechy and incomprehensible.

Which, of course, brings us to the subject of websites.

You might think consulting firm websites would be paragons of communication, crystal-clear cathedrals of well-organized information displayed intuitively, seamlessly, with perhaps just a hint of entertaining marketing dazzle sprinkled in. And some are that way. Some aren’t. Most aren’t, if we’re honest.

We have to begin by asking what a website is for. Is it for information, for transactions, for client communications, for impressing shareholders/ investors, or recruiting, for keeping analysists informed? (Always remember the analysts!) Any given firm may assign each of these (or other) interactions with web viewers various degrees of importance and design their website accordingly. But let’s be honest – many websites have evolved over time, incorporating different functions Frankenstein-style along the way, to the extent that only experts can find information on them. There are some major consulting firm websites it is easier to do Google searches for than trying to wander their labyrinthine menu trees. I’ve had partners admit to me they do the same for their own websites.

And then there’s been a trend in the last couple years in web design that has swept the consulting industry, among others. This is the UI (User Interface) pattern approach to web design that has been proliferating recently. It is reportedly driven by Millennials, who are used to scrolling on their mobile devices. It is a very visual style that follows a story linear plot, literally often following a line, forcing the viewer to scroll, scroll, scroll downward through different color segments, each of which represent some part of the “story” – the firm’s story. There are the three horizontal line “hamburger” menus discreetly stuffed up in a corner for those of us who prefer a more traditional list menu approach. But for those with a hardy scrolling finger, what were once menu items are now displayed in Windows 10-style “card” layouts, clumped together by subject. Repetition, pattern, rhythm, as web design sites emphasize.

I believe Accenture was the first (in the consulting world) to go this route, followed quickly by many others – Deloitte, AlixPartners, Roland Berger, etc. I’ll be honest – I’m not a fan. This design’s purpose is to try to put the firm more in the driver’s seat, drawing viewers towards certain outcomes. I feel herded, and it seems like I have to do a lot more work to get to the information I want. I understand that this web style helps firms appear more dynamic, but it favors flashy visuals over transparency and simplicity. It’s like trying to have a meaningful conversation in a loud disco. (Does that ever happen? Do discos still exist?)

But some consulting firms have also taken the opportunity of this redesign, especially with the UI pattern’s distractive visual overload, to reduce the amount of information about themselves they make available on their website. Some have maintained the same level of disclosure, but restructured the pathways to details. A few of the larger S&O firms have gone this latter route.

That is a choice, and again, it goes back to each firm’s particular website strategy. Who are they engaging, and why?

Regardless of style or strategy, a website is a form of communication, and all communications should be clear and concise. Every website visit is a conversation between the site viewer and the firm. Ease of navigation is important, and being straightforward by intuitively structuring your information reflects well on a firm. A well-designed website focuses on functionality first, and appearance second.

Like the proverbial doctors-as-patients, I’m hoping consulting firms take note.