Amazon Gets Tablet-Friendly, Finally Leaves 1995 Behind

Amazon's redesign of its Web site is clearly intended to support its forthcoming color Kindle, but the changes mark a more significant shift in E-Commerce. They could mean the beginning of the end for the idea that E-tail sites should depend on PC standbys like keyboards and mice—as well as the notion that an E-tail site can afford to be a lot more cluttered than a brick-and-mortar store.

It's not just that the new homepage is cleaner and more open to make it easier to browse (and buy) from a tablet. The same changes—bigger buttons, less clutter and small print—will make the site much friendlier to other customers, too. That could force other E-tailers to throw out the rulebooks for their own aging Web site designs—most of which probably seemed like a good idea in 1995, but haven't been completely revamped since E-Commerce became serious business a decade ago.

The new Amazon site is reportedly being tested with a small number of customers, but snapshots of the homepage have shown up in The Wall Street Journal and TechCrunch. The two versions aren't identical, but both eliminate the left-side rail of departments that is a mainstay of many E-Commerce sites, as well as other spots on the page where clusters of links are hard enough for a customer to navigate with a mouse—never mind with a human finger.

Amazon says the new design will be how both PC and tablet users see the site, with a simplified version for smartphone users. There's currently no announced date for a public unveiling, and it may yet be tweaked.

But the design principle that appears to drive the new Amazon site is that nothing is uncomfortable to use on a Kindle or other tablet. Mice and external keyboards have been specifically designed out of this site.

One consequence is that the site can't afford to be cramped. Never mind the big blank white spaces on the sample homepages—what's more important is that even text links are fat-finger friendly. There's generous space around them, which makes them both easy to poke and easier to read in the first place. It's the equivalent of widening the aisles in a store—it's simply easier to navigate.

The row of products along the bottom of the screen? Each item is nice and square—it's hard for a customer to miss the item he's trying to select. The stack of items on the right side (only visible in one of the two screenshots)? Even the smallest of them are easy to hit. (And yes, there is still a list of departments—but it's a drop-down list, safely out of the way until it's needed.)

Compare that with the traditional left-rail department list.Compare that with the traditional left-rail department list. Forget fat fingers—it's often hard to hit the right selection the first time with a mouse, especially on a laptop or netbook screen. That's the result of a decade of trying to pile more and more onto the screen that customers see when they first arrive at a site. The result is an incomprehensible jungle of sales pitches—and too much noise for any of them to sell effectively, even on a big screen.

There are plenty of reasons E-Commerce sites are laid out that way, one of the biggest being inertia. But there really was a time when underpowered PCs had a hard time supporting exotic features such as drop-down Web site menus. Clicking through to a new page took time a customer might not be willing to invest. Cramming the homepage with every possible link made sense in 1995, when the design factor was a 1024-by-768 PC screen driven by a dial-up modem.

Replacing that design factor with a broadband-driven tablet screen makes a lot of sense, even for retailers who aren't trying to support sales and direct delivery of music, movies and e-books. Instead of thinking of a tablet as a smartphone on steroids, the tablet becomes the more portable baseline for PCs. If an E-Commerce site plays nicely on a tablet, it probably works well on a PC, too.

And while Amazon looks like it has pushed hardest toward the tablet, some other major E-tailers have adopted at least part of that tack. Target's recently revamped site has a similarly open, tablet-friendly feel—although the homepage is so long that any tablet user will spend a long time working her way through the endless list of departments to get to the bottom of the page. The Macy's and Nordstrom online stores also have more than the average amount of space between selections, which makes them easier to navigate on a tablet.

On the other hand, even E-tailers who have cleared away the jungle to let some light and air into their homepages still typically have a briar patch at the bottom of the page. Almost everyone still crams in too many informational links in too-tiny type at the bottom of their homepages—links for careers, investor relations, team member services, terms and conditions, and typically dozens of others. In 1995, PCs didn't have the horsepower to fold these into drop-down menus. Today, any tablet can do that easily.

Let's see if Amazon can convince the rest of E-tail to clean up that mess.