Design & UX
By Alex Walker

Do You Need Cake if the Icing is Amazing?

By Alex Walker

A little over a year ago I reported on Andy Budd’s talk at Web Directions UX08 and his ideas on assessing and measuring the user experience.

He also talked about adding value to some of the empty, mundane but necessary web site processes (that is, load screens, error messages, user instructions) by injecting some fun, soul, and even humanity into them.

Examples we talked about included:


The Picnik load screen

  1. Picnik‘s loader screen, which is accompanied by progress commentary: “spreading out the blanket … picking blueberries … floating kites … making sandwiches …
  2. Innocent Smoothie’s packaging, which includes the simple
    sentence "Stop looking at my
    " printed on the base of the box.

Both are copybook examples of better user experiences because they flatly refuse to follow the standard charmless convention and instead dare to inject a touch of warmth.

But what happens if “warm fuzzies” is ALL you deliver to the user? Is it still a win?

I’ve been thinking about exactly that question after a friend sent me a "Hey, you gotta see THIS!" link to the HEMA web site. For those unfamiliar with the brand name, HEMA is a large Dutch department store chain.

Check the site out for yourself if you like (assuming you’ve yet to come across it before — it’s been online for at least 18 months).

The HEMA site doing its thang

Otherwise, here’s the executive summary: the site renders as what appears to be a garden-variety, IKEA-like online store: navigation tabs along the top and popular products displayed in a grid. Yawn. yawn.

That’s when reality seems to break, and strange and wonderful stuff start to happen.

It all begins when a plastic cup tumbles over, bumps the sticky tape, and a domino effect is set in motion. The tape then crashes onto the stapler before squishing the cake, noisily sliding down the xylophone, and knocking over the fluorescent pens like skittles.

This chain of slapstick events continues, drawing ironing boards, blenders, yo-yos, coat hangers, and kettles into the growing maelstrom before eventually breaking out into parts of the site navigation and text.

By the time this sequence of events has all played out, the tabs are torn and frayed, the navigation text has collapsed into a puddle, and confetti flutters about from above. Very, very cute.

Now, let me say straight up, this is a wonderful idea beautifully executed. It breaks boundaries, delights, shakes you out of your surfing stupor, and triumphantly shouts "HEY YOU! Y’know what? We are different!"


The only problem is, that’s where I believe the relationship stops for most users. This is no easter egg or practical joke overlaying a standard online store. Though HEMA has a rather extensive web site, there’s no obvious link between it and this popular online practical joke. The logo is unclickable. The site navigation and text links appear to be clickable, but, in fact, aren’t.

Whatever warm and fuzzy feelings you might be left with after the show, outside of forwarding to a friend, there are few ways to show your love.

The HEMA User Experience

Andy Budd talked about plotting the user experience as a graph along a time line. We might assume that users begins their HEMA site experience in a relatively neutral emotional state. As the experience continues they’re perhaps first surprised, then delighted and entertained.

But, what if you wanted to:

  • tell HEMA how awesome their site is?
  • visit HEMA’s About page to find out what sort of
    firebrand, thinking-outside-the-box company would do such a crazy thing?
  • locate the nearest store to purchase one of their charming and zany
  • investigate the opportunities for employment at what appears to be a
    fun company?

Well, you’d probably be out of luck. Short of editing the address bar, when the gag finishes, the show is over.

And the greatest irony? The HEMA joke web site has been so wildy popular with bloggers and on social networks that it outranks the genuine HEMA site in almost any general web search. In Googles eyes, HEMA is a purveyor of fine jokes.

Now, no doubt web dev types like us have been sharing this link and "oohing and ahhing" forever. In truth, most of us would love to be offered this kind of fun work.

But as sublimely clever as the animation is, I have to wonder if this project, and the buzz it created, has translated into anything particularly useful for the HEMA business.

What’s more, I wonder how many users have ended up feeling disappointed, frustrated, or confused by being unable to find some of the "bread and butter" basics like locating a store, giving feedback, or asking a question. They may feel like they’re at the right place, but no-one wants to talk to them.

What do you think? Is this marketing brilliance or a wasted opportunity?

From SitePoint Design View #63.

  • Ryvon Designs

    I’m going to agree with your questioning whether this has translated to more traffic to their true website, or any sales. Were you inspired to go to their actual website, or explore the company and their offerings? I was not.

    It was a fun show, but so are youtube videos. As a webdesigner/developer I can appreciate the website but do many outside of this profession appreciate it in the same way? Or is it only another fun web-based amusement, viewed then forgotten?

    You’ve raised great points. They have missed a great opportunity to redirect people back to their true website, or to allow a comment stream. I have a feeling after reading the review here, and comments, the next “joke site” someone makes might just address what HEMA missed out on. I’ll certainly be suggesting it to any client who comes our way wanting us to have so much fun (I can dream of that client, right? ^_^ )

    Pam @ Ryvon Designs

  • GrlNrd

    Absolutely agree with everything here, right down to the user-experience timeline graphic (which was a bit spooky to be honest).

    I personally think it’s a little from column A, a little from column B… it wouldn’t have taken much for them to make it possible to link to the real site, or even allow the user to click on some of the menu tabs along the top so that it wasn’t just a whole lotta fizz but no bang! It piqued my interest in the store but I lost interest after I couldn’t do anything more. Maybe if I was in Sweden I would already know how to reach their real site, but this could open up a whole lot of business if they put a little more thought into it at the start.

    If nothing else it may have given a lot of web designers out there something to think about with their projects.

  • :)

    You might want to check the second link for HEMA web site, it’s missing the h in ‘http’

  • In my opinion, the effort is not wasted. But it can do better, if after the show, it could have show a link to the main site. Anyways the box appears after the show is in Dutch language, so people like me may feel helpless and close the tab.

  • You might want to check the second link for HEMA web site, it’s missing the h in ‘http’

    Thanks. Fixed :)

  • Anonymous

    I think your general analysis of the phenomenon is right, Alex, but I’m not sure the fake HEMA site is the best example.

    It’s quite possible that the site was not actually created or endorsed by HEMA (which could explain the lack of linkage), but let’s say it was.

    The site does serve a purpose, helping to cement an already massive brand (in the Netherlands, that is) in the public mind, while making it look like they have a sense of humour as well as a clever flash designer.

    I agree the lack of links to the real site (or anywhere else, NB) flies in the face of one of the greatest features and advantages of the web: the ability to click on a link and go somewhere or do something. To that extent, it is indeed all icing and no cake. But it IS entertaining and makes HEMA seem a little more cool than it is.

    If HEMA was behind it, maybe they saw it as more of a branding exercise, providing watercooler fodder. Is HEMA a big enough brand that they don’t need to link or point towards their real web address? In the Netherlands and surrounding countries, it probably is (maybe not so much in Sweden). I would hazard a guess that HEMA’s online sales don’t come anywhere near those of the bricks-and-mortar stores, or at least didn’t in late 2007.

    Would a link to the real HEMA site be smart? Almost certainly (only “almost” because you do have to consider whether the expectations built up by the fake site could be sustained by ANY real site, let alone the actual HEMA site – if not, you’d be just as likely to lose customers as gain them).

    “Sell the icing, don’t worry about the cake” has been carried over by advertising agencies from print and broadcasting to the web (Coke ads in those media don’t tell you where to buy the stuff, do they?), and big brands may be less clever than they think in not following up on what the web can do for them and their customers (especially the customers they haven’t got yet).

    I suspect the site was put together either by someone who has no affiliation with HEMA either and just wanted to a very familiar brand to show off a clever joke, or by a HEMA-paid ad agency who saw it as an animated branding exercise – a short-sighted view, for sure.

    Disclosure: I’m Dutch. And Australian. And Frisian, but that’s another story.

  • reblevins

    Great article, and I agree with the premise of the article, that although it was a cute joke they probably didn’t get as much mileage out of it as they could have. Wasted opportunity? Probably. However, that doesn’t rule out the idea that it was also marketing brilliance.

    Let me explain. Here in The Netherlands, everyone knows Hema. It’s practically a household name. Almost every village of significant size has a Hema store. So, I can hardly believe that it didn’t have at least some impact on their brand and maybe even overall sales, even if it may have actually hurt their online presence in the short-term.

  • karlp

    Interesing post – I had a similar experience with sitepoint and wrote about it here.

  • Jasmine White

    Wow!!! It is a yummy blog about my favorite dessert pudding i wish to take every day in my break fast and the freezy cake of chocolate flavor i love most, I totally agree with all the post i have read…
    Great Job!!!

  • MichaelT

    I agree with the anonymous poster above, as I don’t think it’s a legitimate HEMA site—the background color is different than the “real” site’s, and the UI seems to have been modified a little. But I think it is a fun bit of amusement that could perhaps inspire some designers.

  • Anonymous

    Given that it lives at a subdomain of I think it’s genuinely a HEMA site.

  • Beyond even cake you need meat.

    If you have the meat, the audience may not care about the icing or cake.

    For example, on a blog about one of my sites:

    “Be warned, the site looks like it was designed using frontpage in the late 90’s by a 12 year old, [b]but the backend processing is awesome[/b], highly recommended.

    So, there you go.

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