Nightly Bile Beans – Design tips from adverts that last 150 years

By Matt Cornock

One of the stand out signs in York is that of the ‘Nightly Bile Beans’ on Lord Mayor’s Walk. For over a century (I’m guessing), this simple advert (pictured below) has informed millions and made the brand a household name, at least in York.

Nightly Bile Beans - Keeps you healthy, bright eyed and slim (old advert painted on the side of a house)

The advert is as straight forward as it can be, declaring that the beans make you ‘healthy, bright-eyed and slim’. Now whilst any one with common sense would assume that eating bile beans every night and only bile beans, is not likely to make you healthy, if we were to repeat the advert these days we find adverts with a string or two of woven together small print which would say ‘terms and conditions apply, see instore for details, must be taken as part of a healthy calorie controlled diet, 72% of people agree (survey of 53 people taken a decade ago), copyright 2010, no liabiliities… Etc’. This is because advertisers have to cover their backs and over-load end-users with small print and information. However, in web design and also instructional design, less is always more.

What can we learn from the Bile Beans?

  1. First of all, we are in no doubt what the product is. Likewise, for a website, the user should be in no doubt from the outset what the website is for. If I user cannot identify whether a site is ‘right’ for them in the first few seconds of looking at the page, they will go elsewhere.
  2. The key selling points are highlighted. Just like the bold text at the bottom of the advert, your site should show clearly what makes it stand out from the crowd. What are the reasons for the user remaining on your webpage? Show them and don’t clutter these unique qualities with generic filler.
  3. These particular selling points ‘health, bright-eyed, slim’ are attributes which the majority of people have a need for. When we talk about ‘needs’ we often refer to ‘Maslow’s Heirarchy of Needs‘ of which ‘safety’ (health) is just one up from the bottom. What sorts of needs does your site relate too, can you exploit ‘needs’ in the base of the heirarchy?
  4. The superfluous words are practically unreadable, and few in number. Users don’t read filler text or ‘intro blurb’, they immediately want to see identify something that is relevant to them and if they can’t, they will go elsewhere. It’s interesing that the advert itself obscures the ‘fluff’ text so much by using italics it’s difficult to read, forcing the person to look at the big, bold brand and selling points: in web terms this means only put on the page what your users have a need for.
  5. A final top tip from this advert is the way that ‘you’ appears underlined. Clearly, underlining on websites should be reserved for links, but the fact that ‘you’ has been used is relevant. ‘You’ is an important word for use in websites as it connects immediately with the user viewing the page. Compare these two sentences: a) You will find when you drink tea, your whole day will be lifted. b) When people drink tea, their whole day is lifted. It’s clear that the sentence using ‘you/your’ has more of a connection with you (wink) than the one with a more objective tone.

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