Summary: Even small holiday decorations can increase joy of use and make websites feel more current and more connected to users' lives and physical environment. The key is to commemorate without detracting from your users' main reasons for visiting the site.
Holidays and special occasions, such as the Olympics, are an important part of people's lives and often impact their physical environment. It's common to see homes, offices, and public spaces decorated for major holidays and events, and increasingly common to see websites decorate their pages as well.
In late 2001 and early 2002, we surveyed a sample of 56 websites from the U.S., U.K., and Israel on each of seven holidays: Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's, Valentine's Day, Presidents' Day, Purim, and St. Patrick's Day. On average, websites commemorated the holidays on their homepage 21% of the time.
Major holidays were celebrated much more than this average indicates: Purim was celebrated on 83% of Israeli sites, and Christmas was celebrated on 47% of U.S. sites and 42% of U.K. sites.
Why Decorate for the Holidays?
Why do websites decorate for holidays? Even more interestingly, why do websites celebrate special occasions that are unrelated to their main topic? For example, many sites having nothing to do with sports featured special recognition of the Olympics, World Cup soccer, and other major sporting events. Having a sports site tell you who won the World Cup makes sense, but why would a non-sports site feature a soccer ball on its homepage simply because Japan and Korea are hosting some matches?
There are two main reasons for websites to recognize holidays and special events, and both reasons fall under the same general category: To respect users as human beings, rather than simply as "eyeballs" or a source of e-commerce transactions. Commemorating special events is a way for websites to connect to users and be seen as welcoming environments, rather than places focused solely on money grubbing.
More specifically, the first reason for a website to commemorate a holiday or special occasion is to appear current and up-to-date. Major holidays and special events are important to users, and they constantly see these special days reflected in the physical décor of their surroundings. A website that doesn't reflect what's currently topical and important to users will feel out of touch. Worse, it might feel stale, and users might think it's outdated in other respects as well.
"This is probably an outdated website since it doesn't show that it's Hanukkah now."
(Fourth grader from Israel, commenting on an Israeli website for kids in our report on how children use the Web)
The second reason for a website to feature holiday or event decorations is to increase joy of use. Even simple ornamentations like a Christmas wreath, a Valentine's heart, or a soccer ball can create a small moment of happiness for users as they're reminded of the greater happiness the holiday or special occasion brings. A user might be engaged in the dreary task of researching "enterprise solutions," for example, and be reminded that it's Christmas and a happy time of year.
Websites can also observe special occasions beyond traditional religious and national holidays. Sites can celebrate simple seasonal themes, like "summer" or "winter," for example, along with events such as major sporting competitions. Such events need not be directly related to your site's purpose, but you should ensure both that the occasion is time-dependent (as opposed to happening all year) and likely to be on the minds of many visitors to your site.
Low-Key vs. Extensive Decorations
Obviously, the more whimsical or unusual an event, the more advisable it is that you observe it in a way that does not intrude on users' main goals in visiting the website. Luckily, you can easily celebrate holidays and special occasions in ways that do not reduce usability or distract users, and yet still give a pleasant and welcoming feeling to people who care about the event.
Many of the holiday designs on websites are fairly simple, amounting to nothing more than the key placement of a small ornament. Examples include placing a snowflake over site headlines or a Santa's cap on the company logo. For most websites, such low-key holiday design will suffice, providing the dual benefits of currency and joy of use without disrupting users' experience of the site.
Some websites go overboard in their holiday celebrations, adding special, holiday-themed splash pages that users have to pass through before reaching the main homepage. Splash pages are almost always bad and should be avoided for holiday celebrations, except possibly on the actual date of a truly major holiday.
Websites can also recognize holidays by giving extra emphasis to headlines and other content that relate to the holiday. You can even rewrite stories to acknowledge special days, as weather.com did on February 14, writing that, "On a mainly dry Valentine's Day, winds turn gusty across the central U.S."
Site Genres and the Holidays
Corporate sites and information services tend to be more modest in recognizing holidays, whereas children's sites and e-commerce sites tend to have lavish holiday celebrations. News-oriented sites often fall in the middle. This distribution of holiday emphasis among Web genres makes good sense, but is not absolute: some corporate sites might benefit from extensive holiday content, whereas e-commerce sites that sell very "serious" products might be better off displaying minimal holiday decorations.
In the case of e-commerce sites, usability is often improved by designing a special holiday-themed substore that pulls relevant merchandise from across the site to a single location. Such themed areas reduce users' need to navigate and increase their ability to find specialized products. A holiday theme store can also provide inspiration for the harried, last-minute shopper.
Problems with Holiday Content
The biggest usability problems related to holiday celebrations come from misleading or outdated holiday content. For example, it does no good for an e-commerce site to have a holiday-themed area on its homepage if it links into generic site areas where holiday-related products are hard to find.
Also, the entire concept of appearing up-to-date and creating joy of use backfires when holiday celebrations are out of synch with the actual holiday. Once a holiday is over, the ornaments need to come down. That said, it's just as bad to be early: During Thanksgiving, U.S. users are typically preoccupied with that holiday, and sites that feature Christmas decorations can appear out of touch with their concerns.
Holidays and special events provide opportunities for websites to brighten up their design and connect with users on a more human level than that typical of daily business and transactions. There are a few pitfalls to avoid, and, even during the holidays, it's important to focus on supporting users' main reasons for visiting the site. However, when done tastefully and without usability problems, holiday celebrations are a great way of increasing joy of use and making the Web a more humane environment.
The full report from our study with 18 design tips for celebrating holidays on websites is available for free download.