I used to give interaction design candidates tests as part of the interview process. I would put a site on my computer screen, brief them against imaginary client requests and biases and then give them a half hour to analyze and respond to the brief.(*) Sometimes, I would pick a site that was related to their work or the client I was hiring for. But frequently, I would test them with the McMaster-Carr tool site.(**)
The virtue of the McMaster-Carr site was that is was almost perversely ASCII-Nielsen and, in many, many ways right to do so. The company has literally dozens and dozens of categories and subcategories of equipment and parts and the home page used to list them all in a spray of text with only titled line breaks to separate them into the highest level categories. And when I say sprayed, I mean that they weren’t even in table form. They were strings of links, like sentences without verbs.
It was right in many ways: it supported the CTRL-F behavior (which is faster than scanning any large list); the hierarchy and arrangement was familiar and unchanging; and it resembled the much more familiar tool catalog method of scanning. In short, text was efficient, and tables were unnecessary and even obstructive.
So yesterday, I’m talking to my boss about interaction design and described this test (as a way of illustrating taste and judgment in design). When I went to the site, I was shocked to find a new design!
Previously, the page would have had something like this:
Fastening & Joining Screws & Bolts, Threaded Rods & Studs, Eyebolts, U-Bolts, Nuts, Washers, Shims, Helical &Threaded Inserts, Spacers & Standoffs, Pins, Anchors, Nails, Nailers, Rivets, Rivet Tools, Staples, Staplers, Key Stock, Retaining Rings, Cable Ties, Lanyards, Magnets
But now they’ve added illustrations of the categories and pushed content lower. The illustrations still feel on-brand, as they have that grayscale line art feel of a big fat cheap paper catalog. But I’m not sure they’re adding any value. Does a seasoned contractor, craftsman, builder, etc. really need a picture of a lanyard? Isn’t he or she better served by that list that puts everything right in front of him and minimizes the need to scroll?
Part of the answer may come in a later, and very useful, screen:
Now when I say useful, I mean useful to me. Following my trip to MAKER Faire, I have gotten all middle-aged “Mister-Make-It-Fix-It-Tinker-I-Have-That-Tool-Guy” and am trying to fix anything that comes my way, including most recently, replacing a fastener on a new briefcase. During that repair effort, I got to use my Dremel(!) on a threaded rod(!!). I went to Home Depot with the fastener I needed to replace and the guy took me to a wall of drawers labeled threaded rod. I had no idea such things existed — a rod with threads! Not a screw, cuz that would have a cap. This was just a rod that was threaded. The picture above is a nifty guide for a reasonably intelligent, barely handy, person to solve problems, find products and get ideas.
So perhaps, this was a rebrand to help McMaster-Carr reach out to a new type of DIYer. That would make sense of the home page. Someone at my level or slightly higher might find it really useful to see a U-bolt labelled as such or the difference between an anchor, a pin, and a rivet.
Still, I’m sad to have lost my old test. It was great fun working at a hip shop like R/GA and asking people to evaluate a site so obstinately retro, yet well-designed. (Even more sadly, wayback doesn’t seem to have the old version.)
(*) Disclaimer: I’ve had plenty of interviews where I was the candidate and was asked to give comments on the current site and the interviewer would site back and reject every idea: “done that” “users didn’t like it” “breaks a part of the site that is no longer there” “tech can’t do it”. A fairly obnoxious dynamic to my mind — if someone can do better than you with a site that you’ve been managing for years, you must be incompetent or not paying attention. Anyway, I’m always very clear with the candidate that there are no right answers, but that I just want to have a discussion, see the thinking, and watch the organization of the case he or she makes.
(**) Not my idea originally, and not an original idea. I know several people who use the site as a benchmark of various ID philosophies and ideas.