Recently, BUILD was working through the details of a very nice residential project. It’s a higher-end, modern home that will feature prominently on our website and be covered in detail on the BUILDblog, with hotlinks to all the great products we like to specify. Basically, it’s the sort of project that manufacturers and suppliers love to be featured in. Along with selling their products, they get free promotion, we supply them with finished photos of the project and they foster their relationship with a design-build firm that has another 20 years of projects ahead of them. No problem; any manufacturer with a good product should be able to take advantage of this prospect, right? Well, actually, it depends on one rather significant variable. In our experience, the major hurdle between a manufacturer/supplier and success is their website.

Manufacturers that don’t consider their internet and social media presence to be of utmost importance are shooting themselves in the foot. For the most part, physical catalogs are dead; they clutter the office and become obsolete too quickly. And while showrooms serve a meaningful purpose, there simply isn’t enough time in the workday to visit a showroom every time we need to research a product. To be thorough, timely and up to date, websites are king.

Which brings us to the point of today’s post: website usability. For a company that has a well-functioning website, it’s a home run and everybody wins. The homeowners get a great product, the architect can swiftly specify products with confidence, and the sub-contractors have the appropriate resources to obtain the products and install them properly. But it constantly amazes us how many name-brand manufacturers out there have failed to build sites that we can actually navigate, let alone collect the resources we’re looking for. This is the single most important factor that determines whether or not we specify a certain product. It just doesn’t matter how great a product looks, if we can’t find its technical information online, it will never get specified at BUILD.

Here are five important tips for manufacturers and suppliers on website usability (coming from a team that researches and specs products every day):

1. You absolutely, positively must have a search bar at the top of the site that actually works.
It is astounding to us how frequently we type in the exact product number only to get the dreaded message: No Results were found for this search criteria. As soon as this happens the manufacturer is dead in the water because we know we can go to a well engineered site like Kohler and find exactly what we’re looking for (Kohler’s search-bar is top notch).

1a. Cover the options. Most products (be it a faucet, a light fixture or a dishwasher) have variables associated with the product number. For instance, many appliances tack-on “SS” to the end of a product number to indicate that the model is Stainless Steel. Make sure that all of these variations are searchable.

1b. Take precautions for mistakes. Extra points for a search bar spell-check that provides a few alternative product numbers if we’re off by a digit or two.

2. Describe the different options within a particular model. Nothing drives us nuts like finally finding the right product and realizing that there are five different variations (and subsequently five different product numbers) without a clear description of how they differ. Receiving a dishwasher with a stainless steel face panel after we thought we specified a model with an integral panel to match the cabinets is an unnecessary time-suck. A quick description of how one is different from the others is all we need to make an accurate selection or present some correct options to a homeowner.

3. Provide a specification sheet for each product.
A link to the appropriate specification sheet should be located directly on the product overview page. Many sites require the viewer to go back into a “Resource Center” which then requires an additional search for the product number. This is the equivalent of speaking with a salesman and having to walk across the street to the warehouse only to have the same conversation all over again just to obtain the spec sheet.

3a. Bonus points for a spec sheet that can be easily printed in a clean format.

3b. Bonus points on top of bonus points if you have 2D and 3D drawings/models that can be downloaded right next to those trusty spec sheets.

4. No pop-up windows or scrolling galleries please. Website features like this distract from the important data and make it difficult to print the page. They also remind us of 2003. Stick to a simple format with the images embedded within the text.

5. Dimensions are a big friggin’ deal. Clearly label the Height, Depth, and Width of the product. Better still, provide a diagram that shows exactly what is being measured (e.g., does the overall depth include the handle?). When we give the dimensions to our cabinet maker and tell them that we’re not sure whether the 23-9/16” is the width or the depth, we look like idiots. We tend not to use websites that make us look like idiots.

5a. Only drug dealers and scientists use the metric system in the States. If you’re promoting your products in the U.S.A., please show the dimensions in feet and inches.

A manufacturer’s website that can nail those five categories has already surpassed most of the competition and is well on its way to becoming a favorite brand among architects. There are some darn near perfect examples of manufacturer/supplier websites out there and if you’re in the business of selling products to architects, designers and builders, you’d be foolish to ignore these five sites (in fact, we recommend thoroughly studying them):

McMaster Carr: Maybe the most thorough and precise website in the industry. A website this functional speaks volumes about how this company is run and the products they represent.

Kohler plumbing fixtures: Nearly every one of our projects includes Kohler products; largely due to the coherent and accurate online experience of their website. It’s no coincidence that a manufacturer of highly functional, beautiful products takes the same approach with the design of their website.

Sub Zero Wolf appliances: The PDF spec sheets on this site are everything they need to be and nothing more. Each spec has a big beautiful image of the product to woo your clients with, product numbers are indicated clearly at the top of the page, and all of the relevant data is organized onto two clean sheets. It’s always a pleasure to show these spec sheets to clients.

Lightology light fixtures: The site provides a clear method of navigating the overwhelming variables involved with lighting design. Price ranges are displayed prominently so that you don’t waste any time pursuing models that don’t meet the budget.

Sugatsune hardware: The straight-forward information combined with thumbnail photos of the product options allows us to find exactly what we’re looking for and print accurate spec sheets. No bells and whistles, just brass tacks.

Let us know what your website criteria is and if you’ve got any favorites.

Cheers from Team BUILD