Cotton Bureau 2.0

N.B. design has been modified since publication.

Make new home pages, but keep the old; one is silver, the other, gold, is, to the best of my knowledge, how the saying goes.

Last week we soft-launched the new Cotton Bureau home page. It (finally) has touch navigation for product images. It looks incredible on mobile, tablet, and most other devices. Each shirt has custom colors, copy, and big, full-bleed images. The designer gets his or her name in lights, and we have a live countdown so you know the last possible second before the design goes away. You can even buy a shirt without leaving the home page. Go look at it right now. We’ll wait.

Now that the design is live, we naturally have some things to say. To start, I want to quote my partner Jay from this week’s email newsletter,

If you’re a service (which we are), a homepage is supposed to promote your benefits and entice people to sign up. If you’re a shop (which we also are), it’s supposed to feature the best/newest/shiniest products your brand has to offer. On any website, it’s supposed to act as a traffic cop, directing people to the content they’re looking for. If we’re being frank, our previous homepage, well…it did exactly none of that. It was the least we could get away with when we launched almost three years ago, and we’re embarrassed to say it hadn’t changed much since.

It took us months of painful conversations to decide what we wanted this page to do. The dam finally broke a few weeks ago. We couldn’t be more excited to have the new home page live and feel confident in the direction of the site.

A home page is a window into a vast world which necessarily means you can’t show (or do) everything. What you see now when you come to Cotton Bureau is the tip of the iceberg rather than (as before) the iceberg itself. When you arrive, you’re greeted by a testimonial from just one of the heaps of happy people we’ve worked with. If you scroll, you’ll see the main navigation and then five of our favorite shirts from the nearly 100 shirts that are available for sale on any given day. Three tightly focused areas checking the three boxes we had assigned for ourselves: pitch the service, provide essential navigation, promote shopping. Boom, nailed it.

Since launching, however, many have gently and not-so-gently pointed out some of our more glaring omissions. The huge focus on soliciting designs can be off-putting to customers. Viewing at it on a 5K iMac is, uhm, intimidating at best. We even forgot to show prices and size charts on the featured products.

Look, this isn’t our first website. We knew it wouldn’t be perfect out of the gate. Little stuff like that is easy to correct. What disappointed us most (we’re human, we were hoping for an enthusiastic response) was that what was so obvious in our heads was being misinterpreted by what felt like… pretty much everyone. Even for people as headstrong as Jay and I, it hurts to feel you’ve dropped the ball.

We may be stubborn (okay, we’re definitely stubborn); we hope we’re not blind. If it took us that long to find a home page solution we were excited about, we know we can’t expect you to feel the same way overnight. So let’s start again from the top, looking at each section and seeing if we can’t find where we went wrong and where we need to double-down.

If you’re not familiar with Cotton Bureau, when you first arrive at the home page you may be asking, who is Cotton Bureau and why should I care? If you’re a designer and you want to work together you may be wondering why you can’t just submit a design directly from the home page. If you’re one of our many regular customers (thank you!) who enjoy the giant wall of shirts, you are most certainly wondering where they all went. No matter who you are, it’s natural to want the thing you’re looking for to be the most obvious thing on the page. When it’s not, that’s a frustrating experience. It’s our job to speak to the right people at the right time. We tried to be clever and in-your-face with this design. If that came at the expense of clarity and usefulness, we need to try again. This new home page is a step the right direction, but it’s only a step. We clearly still have some work to do.

When we launched Cotton Bureau in 2013, the home page we built looked more or less the same as the home page you would have seen if you had come to the site last week and what you can still see if you go to the Shopsection: a message at the top followed by a grid of all the shirts we have for sale right now. The message has periodically changed—submit a tee, check out this shirt, kids tees are here, we’re running a sale, etc.—but the block has always been there. It’s a (good) convention when building websites to use the hero / above-the-fold area to promote your most important stuff. The new home page keeps that idea around. When we updated the home page last week, it was our belief that we needed to speak to designers in that area. We did that by showing testimonials. Based on feedback we’ve gotten, we think that was a mistake. We should instead speak first to people who don’t know who and what Cotton Bureau is, whether that person is a potential designer or someone just interested in buying shirts.

Below the testimonials area we hoped to move people as quickly and easily as possible to the major site destinations — shop, submit, kids, archive. We like that design and approach, but it has become clear that the navigation is, despite our best efforts to create a quiet space in what is admittedly a loud and busy design, getting lost. We’re going to fix that soon.

The major change, however, and the one I want to discuss in depth, is intended to speak to people visiting Cotton Bureau for the first time: the grid is gone. Say hello to the stream.

The Stream

Streams and grids are UI patterns we encounter every day on the internet. They each have their strengths and weaknesses, and they are very much notinterchangeable. Grids are great for seeing a lot at the same time, applying filters, scanning quickly, hunting. Streams are designed for consuming content linearly. That doesn’t mean they aren’t scannable, but they do force you to slow down and see each item individually. Streams are friendlier to beginners; grids, to experts. Streams are one-dimensional; grids, two-dimensional. (Don’t take my word for it, check out this David Galbraith post on the history of visual bookmarking.) A stream can be well designed or poorly designed (as can a grid), but it is still necessary to choose the right tool for the job. We love the grid. It bears repeating: you can still see all the shirts as a grid right here. Not only is the grid not going away, moving it to /shop allows us to begin adding features like searching and filtering that would have been cumbersome at best on the home page. But let’s get back to the stream, we’ve acknowledged it’s less efficient than the grid, so why use it?

The answer is simple: we want to provide a different, more accessible, more attractive (to some people) experience. To understand where we’re coming from and why we’re trying to provide that experience, you need to know how Cotton Bureau works on a fundamental level. The vast majority of sales come from individuals bypassing the home page and visiting a specific shirt page, almost entirely through word-of-mouth. Let’s call this group of people “visitors”. Visitors are more than happy to use Cotton Bureau to buy the thing they came to buy. Sometimes they take advantage of a feature like the reminder emails to buy the thing they came to buy at a later time, but rarely do they venture beyond the product they originally came to purchase. Sometimes they do, and when they do, you might say they become “users” of Cotton Bureau. A user may click a related product, create an account, sign up for the newsletter, browse all the available shirts, interact with us on Twitter, or even submit a design. When we design and build the site, we do the best we can to encourage visitors to become users—and we constantly ask ourselves how we can create more users, whether by converting visitors into users or by attracting more visitors to Cotton Bureau in the first place.

As part of the mission I described previously, we are very interested in 1) staying in business and 2) enabling great design. Sales of any given t-shirt are not highly correlated with (in our subjective opinion) the design’s merit. Shirts sell for many reasons—interest in the design content, familiarity with the designer, identification with a community, quality, price, color, perceived scarcity, time of day/week/month/year, number of exposures, and dozens of other factors, some within our control, many not. The design itself, unfortunately, is often one of the least important considerations, which brings us back to why we built the stream: we see too many great designs fail to find an audience.

We want to elevate the best designs to give them the greatest possible chance of succeeding. Whether you’re a new visitor or an old hand, we’re hoping to bring everyone together on the home page to rally around—and potentially even disagree about—smart, sophisticated, funny, thoughtful, beautiful shirts. We want Cotton Bureau to be a destination for t-shirt enthusiasts and design junkies. We want to create demand for shirts where demand otherwise didn’t exist. We want to build and cultivate a community. We want to connect designers and their designs in a way the site has not done to this point. Being featured in the stream is a badge of honor, something to be strived for. We want to direct the firehose of home page attention as much as possible at these particular tees for going above and beyond. Designers whose designs make it into the stream deserve to be rewarded for excellence.

The stream isn’t perfect today, we know that. We can and will design opportunities for people to exit the stream to see the most popular tees, the most liked tees, tees about sports, animals, and space, more tees from the same designer, or kids tees. We’ll tweak the design as necessary to work as well at grotesquely large sizes as it does on mobile. Community features aren’t baked in yet, but they’re coming. (Sign up for a Cotton Bureau account now if you haven’t yet.) Most importantly, we are listening. Tell us what you think. Leave a comment. Vent to us on Twitter at @cottonbureau. Email if you want to say something privately.

In the meantime, we want you to know that stream isn’t going anywhere and neither is the grid. They’re both vital aspects of Cotton Bureau’s personality. Browse the grid, get lost in the stream, and, whatever you do, tell a friend about Cotton Bureau, eh? Great design doesn’t market itself.