To remain useful, maps are often revised to reflect changes in the actual terrain.
Last week a colleague sent me a link to Amazon’s Remodel, a beta redesign of Amazon’s site navigation. (The link might show you the same old Amazon -- the remodel may be only intermittently and narrowly available).
As the screenshot reveals, the big news is that tabs are history. Yep, the site that made tabs a ubiquitous e-commerce navigation convention is at least considering making them go away.
But of course, Amazon always used tabs incorrectly, anyway. Right? By coincidence, the morning I received the link to Amazon Tabless, I opened my weekly Alertbox email from Jakob Nielsen. The topic? Tabs, Used Right. Jakob’s review of the new Yahoo Finance Homepage commends the page for adhering to all 13 of his Tab Usability Guidelines.
Number One: It uses tabs to alternate between views within the same context (not to navigate to different areas — a common mistake introduced by Amazon.com).
I have deep respect and admiration for Jakob Nielsen. and I learn something each time I read his work. But it strikes me as a bit odd to insist that Amazon uses tabs incorrectly. After all, as Jakob has also pointed out:
Users spend most of their time on other sites. This means that users prefer your site to work the same way as all the other sites they already know.
I believe that Amazon is one (or two, or 70) of those sites your customer already knows. Amazon's reach gives them a voice that can set -- or recast-- convention. I’d suggest this means that for better or worse, Amazon's use of tabs is the standard. To return to and possibly massacre the original metaphor: To remain useful, maps are often revised to reflect changes in the actual terrain. And Amazon's big enough to rearrange the landscape now and then.
Does that mean that if Amazon's new design is rolled out broadly, online retail navigation will swing back to what in beta looks like a return to left product navigation? Maybe.
Some retailers will continue to mimic Amazon, with varying degrees of success. But the smartest retailers will find even more value by going deeper. They'll acknowledge Amazon’s impact on expectations, and then they'll test the evolving standards with a design process driven by their own customers. Customers may violate our expectations as well as textbook conventions, but when we listen, they can tell us what works.