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A look at NASA’s website, 50 years after Apollo 11

9th September 2019, By Finn | Design

One small step

NASA put man on the moon just over 50 years ago. Sure the Apollo program was a bit rushed, but it was the Space Race. NASA is now looking at going back and hopes to step foot again by 2024. They’ve had 50 years to perfect their science to infinity, and beyond what anyone thought was remotely possible in 1969. Anyway, back to why you’re here, Apple and Nike are both universal companies with websites I’ve analysed before and am a fan of. If anything, NASA brings a whole new meaning to the term ‘universal’, going where no man has gone before (or is that Star Trek?) So why, oh why, have NASA not got a website that reflects that? What happens when Thanos intercepts the Voyager 1 probe and does a quick Google? He’ll snap his fingers, twice, that’s what. Houston, we have a problem…

Sci-fi and pop culture jokes aside, the 50th anniversary of humankind’s greatest achievement seems like the perfect opportunity to give NASA’s website an in-depth review.

Predominately, NASA’s website is a news site. It provides updates on missions, latest imagery, videos, live streams and all manner of resources from eBooks to ringtones. While function will often come before form on sites like these (think BBC, Sky News), they can still look slick, stylish and modern (Vogue, National Geographic). The Soyuz spacecraft (albeit Soviet-built, not NASA) does its job tremendously well but still looks stylish, despite being no Millenium Falcon.

Let’s start with their homepage. I’ll give you my opinion; it’s dull and boring. My first impression isn’t that this is the site of a space agency responsible for groundbreaking technology and research. Instead, my first thought is “have I come to the right place?” You just expect so much more.

The header on the website is a sticky element, fixed at the top of the page. We have the main navigation, which is clear and concise and we also have a secondary navigation bar. This feels quite dated with the grey background and white text. I’d also question the need for it. These aren’t the main links, they could easily sit in a drop-down or hidden side menu. The search bar is also of a dark grey with the ‘search’ text only being slightly lighter and barely legible on top. Sure the main navigation links are going to guide my journey into deep space the website, but what if there is something specific I’m looking for? The search box isn’t quite obvious enough, it is only just saved by the search icon at the end of the box.

Get the basics right

Card-based web design is a fairly common concept now, and you’ll see it on most websites. NASA however, they can figure out space travel but haven’t quite grasped this simple web design concept. Take the first news block as an example, there is way too much text here. This wouldn’t be right for a news listing page, let alone the homepage. There should be a short snippet of text introducing the article, no more than 3 or 4 lines (if any). Unless you have a genuine interest, gained from the image or title, you’re probably not going to bother reading through all that.

Where that main article fails, the smaller one next door succeeds. Image, category, title, works perfectly. However, we’re then let down by the ‘NASA Events’ block. Again, it’s just dated and dull. The text sits in a box with little consideration given to spacing, typography and design in general. Further down the page, the smaller card-based articles are repeated and start working well alongside one another, building the page. We then see the Twitter feed. Sure, they tweet regularly, but the design of this hasn’t been updated in a long time. We live in a world with custom social feeds, this looks like a Twitter default. Following all that we are greeted by a very, very, very wide button, which loads more stories. These extra stories load on the page and are displayed in a masonry grid, a layout which I’m definitely a fan of.

While the general layout of the NASA homepage is adequate, it is lacking design style and flair. They’ve played it safe with the black margins left and right, reducing the responsiveness required, and yet again the design is just dated. The sans font works for the NASA brand and suits the website, but I’d definitely look at bringing paragraph text up in size a little. And imagery… NASA has fantastic images, which just haven’t been used right on the homepage. The black background to the page is disappointing and could definitely be replaced with an image of space, which is hinted at in the header with the white dots around the NASA logo and behind the text links.

I mentioned NASA has fantastic photographs, they’ve got galleries to show them off. This gallery design; I’m not amused. I really don’t want to overuse the word, but it is dated and generic. The solid grey background really adds nothing to the design. Then we have the title ‘NASA Image of the Day’. Why does this look like a button? For a company where buttons and instructions are of the utmost importance, they should really follow through to the website.

One more page I’m going to take a look at is the ‘About NASA’ page. It’s deceptive (there is a joke there about Decepticons and Dark Side of the moon in there), it’s not your typical About page. Instead, this is a page of links and calls to action. Again, the masonry layout features for these and doesn’t do a bad job. The left column features page links and social media account links. Is there such a thing as too many social channels? NASA is pushing the limits. This left column is controlled by a scroll bar, which looks like your generic old Internet Explorer scrollbar. Where is the creativity? Make this a Soyez rocket, stylize the bar, do something different! If Spotify can make the progress bar on a John Williams score a lightsaber, I’m pretty sure NASA can do better!

So what does all of my ranting come down to? The site is dated, boxy and generic, that’s what. Where is the futuristic, technological, or even sci-fi approach? Ok, ok… it does what it needs to and functions properly, but Buzz Lightyear didn’t just fall, did he? No, he ‘fell with style’. Sure the user journey is well mapped out, but it is on any well thought out piece of information architecture / UX design. I wouldn’t suggest NASA need a complete website redesign, more of a reskin, tweak some layouts, apply some worthy styling, but keep the core elements in place. Just take the leap NASA. It’s a small step in comparison to your achievements. On another note, they won the Space Race, and while I’ve slated their site, in my opinion, en.roscosmos.ru is staggering behind.

I really hope this doesn’t ruin my chances of going to space…

9th September 2019, By Finn | Design

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