“Engaging” “Interactive” Websites & The Pepsi Challenge

As a web designer, one of my jobs is to understand people’s design preferences before I put pencil to paper and mouse to screen. Looking at other websites as examples of design is important but provide misleading reactions when it comes to make decisions.

Using Example Sites to Guide Design Projects

Looking at examples of websites that a client likes and dislikes is one of the first and most valuable things I do when preparing to design a new site. It’s an exciting moment when the sky is the limit and I get to hear about their aspirations for their next website.

During that process, we often look at sites of peer organizations but also totally random sites including e-commerce sites, news sites, giant corporations, and unrelated nonprofits. Every site we look at is valuable and provides additional reference points for triangulating the ideal site design. One site might have an interesting navigation structure while another handles news items on their home page in a unique way. It’s all good info.

But when it comes to trying to find sites that are closest to the “ideal” site for an organization, I sometimes wonder if some example sites get in the way of that process.

One of the most common requests I get for new website designs is to make it more “engaging” or “interactive.” Pretty much every person who says this means something different, but that generally translates to large images, bold colors, big icons, and things that move or otherwise change as you scroll.

The “Pepsi Challenge Effect” in Web Design

And that brings us to the Pepsi challenge. An extended quote from Wikipedia is a good summary.

The challenge originally took the form of a single blind taste test. At malls, shopping centers, and other public locations, a Pepsi representative sets up a table with two white cups: one containing Pepsi and one with Coca-Cola. Shoppers are encouraged to taste both colas, and then select which drink they prefer. … The results of the test leaned toward a consensus that Pepsi was preferred by more Americans.

In his book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking (2005), author Malcolm Gladwell presents evidence that suggests Pepsi’s success over Coca-Cola in the “Pepsi Challenge” is a result of the flawed nature of the “sip test” method. His research shows that tasters will generally prefer the sweeter of two beverages based on a single sip, even if they prefer a less sweet beverage over the course of an entire can. [emphasis added]

I think this happens with websites too. We all love shiny things, and that especially includes big images, movement, bright colors, and other design features that look impressive or complicated. But if we use those techniques on our own websites, will they having a lasting impact with returning visitors?

Tokyo's famous Shibuya crossing lit up with ads at night
Fun for an evening, but maybe not the view you want out your bedroom window.

Sweet & Short Visits

These sites are obviously doing something right, since they make a good first impression. But do they actually help the visitor do what they want after that? When looking at example sites, we rarely stay on them long enough to find out!

As an example, sites with images and text that slide, fade, or pop into view as you scroll down the page often elicit positive reactions during this phase of project discovery. However, the Nielsen Norman Group found that this initial positive impression of scroll-triggered animations quickly devolves into annoyance and frustration:

Seeing a transition effect while scrolling down a long page might be a pleasant surprise once or even a few times; but seeing it multiple times on multiple pages quickly gets repetitive and wears down the user’s patience.

When you think about the visitors most likely to subscribe to your newsletter, make a donation, sign up to volunteer, or evaluate your nonprofit for a grant, it’s likely that they are returning website visitors.

Good first impressions are obviously important, but I just think we should pause a moment to make sure they don’t come at the expense of long-lasting positive interactions.

Don’t Propose on the First Date

There’s nothing wrong with casting a wide net for inspiration and examples. You never know what you might find. I just wonder what’s the best way to rein in those ideas to ensure the resulting design is a solid foundation for a lasting site that facilitates long-term relationships with your visitors.

That’s why I’m a web design conservative and caution nonprofits to choose their website role models carefully. I’d urge you to do the same with websites, but go ahead and drink whatever you want.

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