I truly love Summerfest.

For 10 blissful days at the end of June, “The World’s Largest Music Festival” plays host to scores of the music industry’s hottest acts along Milwaukee’s gorgeous lakefront. Say what you will about rival music festivals like Bonnaroo and Coachella, but Summerfest is one of a kind. For the ridiculously low price of only $21.00/day, you literally get it all. Dub step, blues, rock, country and every genre in between. You can literally watch rock legends like Jethro Tull on one stage, and then walk a few feet away to catch white-hot rappers like Lil Uzi Vert.

So what’s not to love?

Well, there is something — the Summerfest web site.

Since its debut in the late ’90s, Summerfest’s web site has consistently hamstrung fans from finding their favorite bands  thanks to a dizzying array of glaring usability issues, poor UX design, buggy programming and sloppy content architecture.

Nevertheless, I visit each year desperately hoping that a new ad agency or change in personnel will finally get it right, only to find that things are getting worse or are just stuck in the mud … again.

So what makes the Summerfest web site so bad?

1) Fans in Search of Artists

The best web designers ask themselves two questions before writing their first line of code:

  1. Who is our audience?
  2. What are they looking to accomplish?

Answering those questions is often quite complex. Some companies, for example, need to service multiple end users (potential customers/existing clients/dealers, etc.), each with specific task goals and content expectations. The responsibility of the web designer is to discover the right presentation and structure to foster positive outcomes. Having built several extremely large sites for newspapers and high-profile non-profits, I can assure it’s more than a daunting task.

But, Summerfest isn’t burdened with that challenge. Its audience comprises two end users: attendees and potential attendees. Their common goal is to find which of their favorite bands are playing, where they’re scheduled to play and on what day/time.

A Simple Usability Test

Knowing that, take a look at Summerfest’s navigation bar below and ask yourself where you’d find info about where/when blues legend Buddy Guy is playing.

Summerfest Navbar

(I’ve actually enlarged the default type size, because it was virtually unreadable on the desktop site using a 1280×800 laptop display.)

In my own informal usability testing, my three test subjects first tried to click on “Lineup,” only to discover that it wasn’t linked to a page, forcing them to choose 2018 Lineup from the accompanying pull-down menu. Once on that page, they found Buddy Guy’s play date using a complex search engine that filter results by stage and day. Not too hard a task, because I told them to search for Buddy Guy. For the rest of Buddy’s fans, who likely don’t know he’s even playing, the search engine becomes a slot machine. Type in his name and see if you’re a winner. It’s the equivalent of going to a seafood restaurant without a menu and asking the waiter if they serve clam chowder.

Search success was also tied to the precise spelling of the performer’s name.

A fan of DJ phenom “Marshmello,” wouldn’t know that he was playing if they thought “Marshmallow” was the correct spelling of his name. (They actually up their odds if they just type in “Mar,” which does yields his performance info.) So, fans are left to play a guessing game at the keys, or abandon their search for a time-consuming journey through the schedules for each of the festival’s 13 stages, which are listed under the Stages’ pull-down menu. That task is equally frustrating, because performers fall off the list on any given day as their time slots expire.

Colossal Mobile Fail

Most critical, though, was the failure of the search engine on mobile displays. Think about it: thousands of patrons travel to Summerfest from other cities, so it makes sense that they’d do quick mobile searches along the way to see what artists are playing on that day. In iOS tests with Google Chrome, Firefox Mobile and Safari, you can’t even enter a performer’s name into the search field, because it literally freezes on the first letter entered. A test with Google Chrome on an Android phone produced the same result. If the designers were attempting to “gamify” the site’s artist search, they did a great job of creating a game that you can’t win. How this escaped testing is at best a mystery or, more likely, sloppy design.

Ready-made Solution

Ironically, the festival’s official app offers a platform agnostic solution: an A-Z listing of artists. Not all festival visitors will download the free app, so adding an artists index to the desktop/mobile site would not only streamline access, but also reveal other artists of interest that could turn one-show visits into longer stays, higher concession revenue and additional ticket purchases. For inspiration, the design team should look at Coachella’s lineup page.

2) A Homepage In Search of a UI Designer

Summerfest Home

Homepage design is both an art and a science, and over time specific homepage design guidelines have become standard practice among professional web designers. Sure, vivid photography and illustrations are critical to capturing the end user’s attention, but true success is contingent upon a page’s ability to direct users to content that satisfies their immediate goal(s), or at least puts them on the path to finding desired content.

Wasted Real Estate

Summerfest certainly isn’t lacking for impressive imagery to promote top acts in its homepage slider, but the rest of the page fails to connect with the end user’s primary goal of discovering artists and scheduled performances.

My test participants were anticipating that they’d find a link or button for “Today’s Schedule” somewhere on the homepage. Not finding one or in the Lineup pull-down menu, one frustrated participant, who’d visited the site before, simply scrolled to the bottom of the page and downloaded the festival’s PDF brochure to find stage/artist info. Would others scroll to the footer or even know that the brochure has each stage schedule listed? Not likely, because in eye tracking research published by the Nielsen Norman Group, 80% of users’ spend their viewing time above the screen break on any given page.

The solution is an easy 5-second-fix that simply uses the area housing the schedule of amphitheater acts (far left in image above) to provide a link to the A-Z index mentioned above, and/or adding a pull-down menu to sort the day’s acts from a simple database by stage/genre.

Go Nowhere Buttons

Buttons are universally understood as calls to action by end users, and, especially on a homepage, designers use them as prominent calls to action to connect users with high interest content. Summerfest’s homepage fails in that regard by wasting button choices on secondary entry points (e.g., “Pepsi Photo Contest”) or mystery choices like the “Level Up Deck,” which is a special promotion that applies only to performances at the Miller Lite Oasis.  Alternatively, the existing button slots might improve end-user success by featuring outcome based calls to action like these.

Summerfest Buttons

Of course, there’s still plenty of room left for a second row of buttons promoting secondary content, but the first row must put function over pointless promotion.

3) Experiential Designers Apply Within?

Summerfest used to market itself as “The Big Gig,” but in its 20+ year history its web site has consistently failed to introduce and immerse web site visitors in the sights, sounds and smells of the festival’s 10-day run. With over 1,000 performances, 40+ local food vendors and 766K visitors, you’d anticipate a jam-packed Summerfest Blog with rich photo galleries, daily highlight videos, social media embeds and more.

Think again.

It’s little more than a repository for lackluster posts by guest contributors, and hardly provides a reason for a fence-sitting music fan to get excited about committing their concert/vacation dollars for a trip to Milwaukee.

Social Snore, Fan Neglect

Equally lackluster is the festival’s social media presence. Summerfest’s social media team certainly knows how to post photos of select performances to their Facebook, Twitter and Instagram pages, but the rest of their social media strategy (if there is one) is just promotional, or neglected all together.

Summerfest’s social media ball drop is consistent with a fatal flaw in its design strategy across all platforms: fan neglect. With its crowds and artists skewing younger and younger, the kids should take center stage, but they’re rarely, if ever, asked to contribute their thoughts or personal content to Summerfest’s social platforms. In fact, it almost feels like they’re simply taken for granted. (Contrast Bonnaroo’s Instagram page where fan feedback and contributions are actively encouraged and celebrated.)

Summerfest’s incompetent handling of social video puts this center stage. Video is a hot marketing execution, and given the emergence of young pop performers whose fan bases likely discovered them on social media platforms, it’s utterly dumbfounding that Summerfest overlooked the critical importance of video to its digital marketing to the millennial and Gen Y demographics. In a perfect world, its YouTube page would be a hub for the Summerfest experience, but it’s a virtual wasteland of dated videos with a few curated music vids for the festival’s headliners.

Where are fan shout-outs?

Quick interviews with featured artists?

Where’s the food tour video?

And what about live video streams like those sponsored by Toyota for music festivals like Firefly, Life Is Beautiful and Voodoo? All Summerfest did this year was posting a single highlight video  — after the event!

The Last Word

There are so many more critical issues that I could expand upon, but the bottom line remains the same: Summerfest’s digital presence is in desperate of need of an overhaul. As a proud Milwaukeean, is it too much to ask that “The World’s Largest Music Festival” also have the greatest web site and social media?

Pat McKenna

Pat McKenna is a digital strategist, social media manager, web designer and founder of MojoWeb Productions, LLC. in Milwaukee, WI.

MojoWeb Productions