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Running a restaurant profitably may be one of the toughest challenges in business. But according to a scathing review of restaurant websites written by Slate's Farhad Manjoo, finding a good restaurant website may be even tougher.
In surveying a variety of restaurant websites, including some of the most notable in the United States, Manjoo came to a disappointing conclusion: they are, by and large, "horrifically bad."
I haven't ever seen an explanation for why this industry's online presence is so singularly bruising. The rest of the Web long ago did away with auto-playing music, Flash buttons and menus, and elaborate intro pages, but restaurant sites seem stuck in 1999.
The problem is getting worse in the age of the mobile Web—Flash doesn't work on Apple's devices, and while some of these sites do load on non-Apple smartphones, they take forever to do so, and their finicky navigation makes them impossible to use.
As Manjoo notes, the "general terribleness" of restaurant websites isn't the result of a lack of money available for investment. The restaurants whose websites Manjoo uses as case studies of web design worst practices, such as Masa and Chez Panisse, are some of the fanciest and most acclaimed in the U.S. And he notes that all of the extra toppings (Flash, music, etc.) internet users so fiercely hate typically cost more to create.
So what gives? In Manjoo's opinion, a big part of the problem is designers who are "either too unscrupulous or unsophisticated to disabuse [restaurateurs] of their [design] ideas."
It's a criticism of designers that some might argue is overly harsh, but it raises an interesting question about web design today: are the days numbered for designers who can't do more than just design?
On one hand, a good designer can collaborate with clients to deliver what they want. If a restaurateur has his mind set on an extravagantly annoying Flash website, there's only so much you can do to talk him down.
On the other hand, a designer who has some knowledge of strategy and best practices is usually better capable of educating even the most difficult clients and helping them understand the importance of building an effective website.
In the context of restaurant websites, Manjoo suggests that the restaurateur's desire to entertain leads him to believe that his website should be entertaining. This is despite the fact that potential customers are generally far more interested in finding out what's for dinner and how much it's going to cost. Sitting through an audiovisual atrocity beforehand? That is hopefully not on the menu.
At least amongst the websites Manjoo reviewed, designer and client apparently didn't discuss goals, target audiences, the importance of cross-channel compatibility, etc. Which led to an unfortunate outcome: the designers delivered their clients the work product they may have wanted, but they didn't really deliver a solution.
More sophisticated clients, of course, know that the web produces greater ROI when it solves a problem. Which is why they're far more likely to engage with vendors who can understand their businesses and produce work product that meets a real business need.
Some of the world's most successful restaurateurs may not be there yet, but they'll get there, and when they do, the designers that serve them had better be prepared.