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The web as a physical space – why your website is just like Home Depot

We all know that the internet is not a physical space. It’s a series of tubes, of course. Just kidding. But seriously. We have no walls, floors, corridors or rooms to walk into. The visual cues we’re given on a website that guide us in the right direction are much different than those of, let’s say, Home Depot. However, there’s something to be said for the comparisons that can be made between a warehouse and a website.

Making the web a physical space

Even in the simplest terms – think of how we describe the way we use the internet. Action words such as browsing, surfing or cruising can all apply to physical actions offline, but have also become closely linked to internet use. Additionally, links can even be described as ‘taking’ you to another page, not ‘loading’ another page. And how have we begun to describe online storage? Cloud computing. All these files are in the clouds, obviously.

We can compare offline and online activities in three different realms: navigation, frustration and location.We find ways to connect our internet usage with physical things. Just with these simple words, we have found ways to make the internet a more tangible idea. This can be easily attributed to the fact that most people are just more comfortable with physical ideas and concepts. Besides the terms we use to describe our internet usage, we can compare offline and online activities in three different realms: navigation, frustration and location.


Asking for directions

In Home Depot, friendly store clerks are ready to assist us in finding what we need, and they offer to help as we walk by. Many of us will kindly reject their help and continue walking anyway, as if we know where we’re going. Only until we walk past the same store clerk 5 different times, do we immediately find a clerk who hasn’t seen us yet and ask for directions. On the other hand, if you are a female, you might gladly accept help from the start and be quickly directed to what you need.


SearchThe search box is the web’s equivalent of asking for directions. When you enter a search term, you are asking the site to find where that particular content can be found within the site. Just as in person, many of us will prefer to guess and check by clicking on some of the navigation links first. Only after we decide we have hit the back button one too many times, do we fill in the search box..We are more likely to go straight to the search box if:

We are more likely to go straight to the search box if:

  • A website looks overwhelming or noisy. The search box provides a familiar method to find what we are looking for.
  • If we’re in a bigger hurry than usual (we are always in a hurry).
  • If we have an inkling that we might not be able to find what we’re looking for in the first place.


It is human nature to quit every once in a while. A main cause of giving up is frustration, which can be applied to both offline and online activities.

Whatever Home Depot, I’m going to Lowe’s

So let’s say all the store clerks are playing a prank on you, and refuse to tell you where the lawnmowers are. Ignore the fact that they’re all pointing and laughing at you, and let’s think about what’s frustrating here. First, there are big signs above every aisle telling you what you can expect to find there. Sometimes you’ll find more or less related tools, but for the most part the descriptions are pretty accurate. If you were to walk down an aisle that said ‘lawn care’, and still couldn’t find any lawn mowers near by – that would be poor usability on Home Depot’s part.

Why would that aisle be called lawn care if the relevant tools were not there? Second, this place is huge. It would take quite some time to cover every square foot of this building, and our lawn is growing FAST. Finally, we don’t know if Home Depot actually has lawn mowers. Maybe they ran out. Or maybe it’s the middle of December, all the grass is dead, and nobody understands why you are looking for a lawn mower.

Giving up online

We are exponentially quicker to give up online than we are in person.Calling it quits on a website is slightly different than in a store. The time invested in driving to Home Depot, walking around aimlessly, and driving home is much greater than the time invested in clicking a link and going to a website to buy a product. So what does this mean? We are exponentially quicker to give up online than we are in person. And what does this mean? Your website better be the easiest, most usable service compared to your competitors.

For starters, your links should be named appropriately. If you are selling computer hardware online, and you have a link titled “Motherboards”, it better not bring me to a list of stupid mouse pads. It should bring me to a list of motherboards for sale. If there is any discrepancy between the link title and the page you are bringing users to, think twice about why, and whether or not it will confuse users (Most likely, it will. Would someone tell me why there are no lawn mowers in the lawn care aisle?).

Apple does a great job of maintaining consistency in titling across their site:


Apple has titled their help section ‘Support’. Likewise, the landing page for that link brings you to a page called Support, with left sidebar links that also reference support. Notice there are no inconsistencies in titling here.

Additionally, since we are not in a physical space online, we don’t know how large the site is. It’s difficult to tell how many pages we have to wade through before we get to the one we want. Prevent this from becoming a problem with a quick search bar or site map. It will act as a great shortcut for users and will immediately let them know if you don’t have what they’re looking for.


Home Depot

When you walk into Home Depot, you know you are in Home Depot. You had intentions of going there, you drove to your local store and you walked in the entrance.

How do you know where you are? What are the visual cues? We are constantly looking for visual cues if we’re not sure where we are.But that’s too easy. Instead, let’s say that some crazed, lawn-loving neighbor kidnapped and blindfolded you, drove you around, and put you in the middle of Home Depot.

Your mission: buy him a lawn mower. How do you know where you are? What are the visual cues? For starters, you may have been there before and may recognize it from previous trips. If, however, this wasn’t the store you normally go to, you still have many recognition points. You are familiar with the cement warehouse floor, the high ceilings, and the aisles full of tools. It is easy to determine, or at least narrow down, what kind of space you are in.

World Wide Where??

Recognition points are equally as important online. We build online brands and consistency into our web pages for a reason. So users will know where they are, and what they’re doing there.

It’s not uncommon online for an external link to bring you right smack-dab in the center of some other website, maybe three levels down the navigation hierarchy. When this happens, it’s important that your users know where they are.

A common convention used these days is to place an identifiable logo and tagline in the upper left or center of the page, so users can always see where they are. It has also become best practice to link this logo to the home page. No matter where a user is in your site, if they are floundering around in a stupid mouse pad section when all they want is a lawnmower motherboard, they can always start over by clicking on the logo. This provides a home base for your users that they can always track back to if they get lost.

Ok, enough comparing our work to a warehouse

You get the point. With all of these similarities, let’s also make sure we remember the two main differences between a physical space and a website:

  • There is no sense of scale: We don’t know how large a site is until we start digging through it, and even then, we might not have a full understanding.
  • There is no sense of direction or location: There is no physical north, south, east, west on the internet. We can’t physically take shortcuts to pages unless the developer has provided us with them.

As developers, we must accommodate for these differences and ensure that we can keep our users from getting frustrated. Remember that we are much more likely to give up online than in person, so our first impressions and ease of use are the most essential elements of a good web design.


What about you? Any other usability comparisons you can think of? Let us know by commenting below!

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