If there was one perfect website that embodied all the features engineers care about and offered nothing else, what would it look like? Probably a lot like McMaster-Carr's site.
Some of you may already know McMaster-Carr from its 3,500-page paper catalog. The company sells a staggering variety of goods needed to maintain and repair equipment and facilities. That list includes its share of janitorial, lighting, and plumbing items. But it also includes process control, instrumentation, machining, clamping, and measuring products that would entice any engineer who actually designs and builds machines.
What really works about mcmaster.com is that it doesn't violate the engineers' cardinal rule of website design: It doesn't waste valuable time. You don't have to jump through hoops to find the information you need. As a measure of just how well-organized this site is, consider that it offers more than 420,000 products. None of them are more than two clicks away from the home page.
And once you get to the actual product's data, which is essentially a page from the company's printed catalog, you'll see links to related products. For example, the company's page for a sheet metal brake has links to the clamps needed to hold it to a bench.
Of course, the site has a search engine too. It supports keyword, part number, and even specification searches for some materials. It mostly works as expected—with a couple of glitches. For example, typing in "brake" didn't bring up results for that "sheet metal brake." Entering "machinist" brought no results, while entering "machinists square" brought up levels rather than squares. And often you have to do some scrolling on the pages returned by the search results. But these are just quibbles.
In fact, users of this elegant site may not have to rely on its keyword search function as much as they would when using more complex sites. The reason why boils down to the contents of the site's home page, which contains no fancy animations, distracting graphics, or any other form of corporate messaging. Instead, almost all of its real estate is devoted to a text-only list of the products the company sells. Large headings correspond to groups of related products while smaller text corresponds to individual products. I found what I was looking for faster by interacting with the list rather than the search window.
The site gets other things right too. The portion of home page space not occupied by the product listing and the small search window is dedicated to building and displaying the current order. The site also lets users bookmark frequently visited pages, email pages, and choose whether to display product information in HTML or PDF.
It's true that most of McMaster-Carr's offerings may appeal more to the kind of engineer who gets his hands dirty once in a while. The site also offers products rather than addressing engineering topics. Yet the site's organizational flair could be put to good use on other kinds of engineering websites too.
That's what a diverse group of design engineers said last year, during a series of round-table discussions hosted by Design News. Though these discussions focused on finding materials data on the web, engineers from different industries and parts of the country held up McMaster-Carr as their gold standard, in essence saying, "Why can't other engineering sites make it as easy to find the information I need?"
Maybe you agree with them. Or maybe you think there are better ways to organize a website that contains engineering information or products. Either way, let us know what you think. We'll share some of your feedback in a future column.
Reach Ogando at firstname.lastname@example.org.