If you own a restaurant, chances are your website is frustrating the customers who visit it. Restaurant websites on the whole are so bad that it’s actually become a bit of a joke in the user experience community (you know, those of us who design and build websites for a living). In fact, Matthew Inman over at The Oatmeal has done a pretty bang-up job describing what he (and most people) really want (and don’t want) from a restaurant website.
Sure, it’s easy to point out the flaws, but I think it’s important to figure out why these sites are failing, and what we can do to fix them. Aside: I think the notes below apply to almost any industry, but I’ve isolated restaurant websites because they tend to be so bad.
Restaurants have limited budgets, so they’re more likely to try to get their sites on the cheap. This isn’t to say that an inexpensive website is going to be a bad website, but it does increase the odds that you’re dealing with novice user experience professionals.
Your website shouldn’t be an afterthought. It’s a critical part of the experience you’re providing your customers and, because it’s often the first point of contact, it better be good. If you can, think of your website just like any other fixture in your business, and try not to skimp.
One thing you can do is find restaurants in your area that have good websites (based on the concepts I outline below) and ask the owners who did their site; sometimes the sites even have links to the web design agency. Alternatively, you can look up good but small local user experience and design firms; often they’ll take on a smaller project if it interests them, and restaurant websites can be great portfolio pieces.
Skip the ambiance
Restaurant owners (and their designers) often hope to re-create the dining experience on the website. They use Flash which requires a third-party plugin, isn’t great for mobile devices, reduces search engine optimization, and makes it harder for users to print out key information like directions or menus. They add music or other distractions that slow the website down and create a fussy, intrusive experience. They provide menus in PDF format, which takes longer to load and isn’t as easy to review in a Web browser. In short, they put form ahead of function, decoration ahead of useful information.
Believe it or not, your customers aren’t as interested in ambiance as you might think they are. They want basic information like location, hours of operation, contact information, and menus. Sure, your site should be attractive and match your brand; it should support the final experience you want your diners to have. But it’s important to remember that when people visit your website, they’re not actually in your establishment. They’re at work, at home, or on the go. Your website needs to work in those venues, not the other way around.
Preview the experience
Okay, so this might sound a little contradictory to the point I was making above, but bear with me: people visiting your website do want to know what your restaurant is like. They want to get a feel for the place, they want to know if it’s what they imagine for their date, or if it will work for their kids. In other words, they want to get a sense of the place.
One of the best ways to do this is through photography. But instead of creating giant Flash slideshows that clog the browser and slow the experience, provide a gallery that’s easy to find, with useful captions and a logical structure. And, hire a professional photographer (see my point above about hiring professionals). You might think you’re pretty handy with your iPhone camera, but a professional photographer is light years ahead of you; they will know how to shoot your space so the images are meaningful and inspiring to your customers.
People often make dining decisions on the fly, so it’s not surprising they’re going to be visiting your site on a mobile device. Nonethelss, very few restaurant websites are designed to work well on mobile devices. Instead of getting a simple site that loads quickly and gets them the information they need, users are presented with scrunched up websites broken up over several pages or, worse, a broken Flash plugin symbol.
But you have options: you can provide a website that degrades gracefully from its full glory on a desktop PC to a much simpler, more streamlined version on a mobile device, or you can simply provide two websites — one for desktop users and one for mobile visitors — and rely on technology that serves the appopriate website to your customers depending on what kind of device they’re using.
In either case, it’s important to remember that mobile users probably want information prioritized differently than desktop users. Whereas a desktop user might expect a more traditional experience with a home page and sub pages, mobile users might appreciate a one-page design that presents location and contact information first.
Taste before serving
Every decent chef knows you don’t send food out to your diners without doing a taste test first, and that you modify your recipes over time to suit the changing tastes of your customers. The same is true of your website: launch your site and get feedback from customers about what works and what doesn’t, then make adjustments. Over time, plan on updating, improving, and possibly redoing the site entirely. If you want your restaurant to stay fresh and current, your website needs to come along for the ride.
Restauranteurs are often entrepreneurs taking big risks; adding a website into the business plan can result in unwanted stress and anxiety. Nonetheless just as the best recipes are often the simplest recipes, made from basic wholesome ingredients, I believe the same is true of websites. If you’re worried about doing it right, just keep it simple: focus on the information that matters most, present it in a way that’s easy to understand, and don’t get hung up on adding seasoning that will just muddy the taste.