Mailbox: #48
I-Fan Chou
Design Critique Paper of Powell’ Website
17 February 2005
Professor Don Turnbull
INF 385F
Powell’ ( is a bookstore Website, which sells both new and
used books online since 1994. Unlike that sells almost everything, Powell’
primarily sells books only, including rare books, technical books, textbooks, kids’ books, and
eBooks. The book buyers who know exactly what they want can locate the specific book through
Powell’s search engine. On the other hand, some customers who are not sure what they need can
also browse different sections (subjects) to make their decisions, just like walking into the aisles
of a physical bookstore.
Powell’ is not only doing online selling, but also providing wealth information related
to the books and their authors, such as binding, dimensions, page numbers, synopses & reviews,
author interviews, and the writer’s almanac. In addition, because of the powerful database
function, Powell’ allows book buyers sorting the search results bases on title, author, price,
and book classes (new/used/sale/new arrivals/bestsellers) to facilitate their shopping process.
According to the viewpoints of information architecture, I will discuss some problems of
Powell’ as follows.
Structure & User Behaviors
The main taxonomy that Powell’ uses is that classifying all of the products with
sections (subjects), which can be easily noticed at the left side navigation bar. Each section has
two levels; for example, “Accounting and Finance” is the sub-section under “Business”. Bases on
this fundamental structure, Powell’ further groups these sections in several different ways
to help customers navigate within such huge amount of items. First of all, book buyers can focus
on content type of the books that they might be interested in, such as rare books, technical books,
textbooks, kids’ books, and eBooks. Second, they can always browse by book classes like
bestsellers, sale, used, and new arrivals. The most important point for Powell’s organization
structure I think is that these three classification systems (subjects, content types, book classes)
are interactive with each other. Users can click on bestsellers and find out bestselling either
technical books or kids’ books. Also, users can check out kids’ books section and see new arrival
Although I agree with Powell’ keeping the structure as shallow as possible, the first
level of sections concludes too many items. Beyond my imagination, Powell’ has more than
230 sections in the first level, and each of the first level has at least 30 sub-sections under it as the
second level. I suggest Powell’ to reduce the items listed at the first level, combining some
of the similar subjects together. This revision can also resolve the length problem of the
The other suggestion upon site structure I would like to discuss is adding the site map as
one of the customers’ reference tools. Rosenfeld mentioned in his book, “Sitemap could reinforce
the information hierarchy; facilitate fast and direct access to the contents.” Therefore, in order to
browse this humongous database without too much frustration, a well-structured site map can
significantly improve the usability of the site.
Powell’ uses the combination of global navigation bars (top) and local navigation bar
(left) to build the primary navigation system. Users can browse directly by subjects, or click on
global navigation first, and then browse local navigation within it. It is nice that Powell’
allows users to locate the same information with multiple navigation strategies. For example, the
number one bestseller “The Kite Runner” by Khaled Hosseini can be located via author’s name,
book title, and subjects (Literature/ Featured titles/Audio books). The customers also can choose
the book classes they prefer most, like sale, used, and new item. This navigation design will
decrease the frustration of book buyers, who just cannot find what they want.
However, the navigation of Powell’ still has something need to be improved. First, the
lack of bread crumbs at the top of the Web page causing confusions. For instance, if a user click
on “Textbooks” category and keep clicking on “Adult Education”, that means he/she is trying to
get a textbook for adult education. However, when he/she come to “Adult Education”, he/she will
realize that “Adult Education” is a sub-section under “Education”. The problem is that it is totally
out of textbook context, and the only to go back to “Textbooks” category is to click back button
of the browser. Apparently, there is a gap existing between global navigation and local navigation
systems. Therefore, Powell’ need bread crumbs to identify where customers are on the
Website, and provide a quick way of backtracking to previously seen pages.
Second, move “New arrivals” up to book class navigation bar (browse sections, bestsellers,
sale, and used) because “New arrivals” seems more like book classes not content type of the
books (rare books, technical books, textbooks, kid’s books, and eBooks). Powell’ should
group similar functions together to facilitate the ease of use upon navigation.
The third problem I would like to mention is the consistency of the homepage logo. The
logo represents the brand name and company so that it is necessary to keep it the same all the
time in order to be memorized by customers. On the contrary, Powell’ does use different
logos at different Web pages. Customers will find the logo at up-left side is changed when they
click on each individual book. It is no good to damage the consistency of Website design,
especially the brand name logo.
Labeling & Visualization
Rosenfeld has ever said, “A clear label works as a shortcut that triggers the right association
in the user’s mind without presenting all that stuff prominently” (Rosenfeld, 2002). This quote
clearly articulates that the good labeling should speak the same language as its user audience.
General speaking, Powell’ does an okay job on labeling, especially e-commerce terms, like
cart, your account, wish list, bestsellers, used, and sale. Nevertheless, in my opinion,
Powell’ still like to use some cool but barely-to-hear terms. Take “Other Voices” for
example, if there is no tiny explanation under it, no one could guess it is a column for timely
news and notes from the partners of Powell’ The same problem also happened on “Hosted
Bookshelves” and “Daily Dose”. The labels of them are too vague to lucidly express the content
of it. I will replace them with “Experts’ Recommendations” and “Daily Recommendation”. In
addition, Powell’ uses two different terms to describe the same function which is browsing
subjects. One is “Browse Sections”, and the other one is “Into the Aisles”. I suggest change those
two into one, “Browsing subjects”, because book subjects used more frequently than book
sections. Another quick thought is that keep “About” information out of “Help” page. In my
viewpoint, those two labeling do not relate to each other at all.
In the case of visualization, it includes colors, photos, fonts, and the layouts between texts
and pictures. As I think, Powell’ does a very good job on visualization, especially icons and
color design. The color scheme of the whole Website is neat and clean, and it uses different theme
colors to separate each content type of the books, such as red for rare books, blue for technical
books, orange for textbooks, green for kid’s books, and brown for eBooks category. For this idea,
I suggest Powell’ replacing those type links with color tags, which match the theme color of
Moreover, I still noticed some slight visual problems. First of all, the color of visited links
should be better changed from red to purple, which is the most common color used for visited
links. Then, Powell’ would be better enlarging the font and clickable buttons for the ease of
read. The last, I suggest to move the section banners, such as technical books or kids’ books from
the right side to the left side of the section page. The reason is that users can immediately be
aware of which section they are when they start to browse the first item of that section.
Powell’ has powerful search engine that allows users to search books by keywords,
ISBN, author, publisher, title, and section (subject). In addition, users can sort their search results
by book class, title, author, price, publication date, publisher, and bookstore location. The great
design idea about search engine interface of Powell’ is “Top search results”. It saves users’
time to locate more relevant items they are looking for. On the other hand, Powell’ combine
the search function with navigation system as well. Users can navigate by subjects or book
classes, and search within each sections they browse. This cooperative strategy make Powell’s a
lot easier to be used. The only critique I suggest is adding drop down menu to the search form at
the homepage, so that users can select what category they will apply to search.
To conclude, Powell’ still has some design problems to solve. Bases on the points
discussed in this paper, an alternative site is designed as the below.
1. Van Duyne, D. K., Landay, J. A., & Hong, J. I. (2003). The design of sites. Boston: Addison
2. Rosenfeld, L., & Morville, P. (2002). Information Architecture for the World Wide Web
Sebastopol, CA: O'Reilly & Associates, Inc.
Fig. 1: Current homepage (All of the content)
Fig. 2: Current Kids’ books section page (Partial of the content)
Fig. 3: Redesigned Kids’ books section page (Partial of the content)