How to Stop Web Shopper Flight

Design gurus offer advice on how to help online shoppers navigate sites and find the products they want to buy.

Most e-commerce sites rebuff at least 70% of the customers who visit them, passing up millions of dollars in potential sales. Even the best retail Web sites are doing only half the business they could be doing, researchers say.

The culprit: poor Web site usability.

"E-commerce sites offer a simple way to prove when you're [doing it] right: Measure sales," says Jakob Nielsen, co-founder of Nielsen Norman Group, a Web site usability design consultancy in Fremont, Calif.

Although software tools measure some Web site activities, nothing beats "watching people shop to gauge the failure or success of a site," Nielsen says.

"When executives of an e-commerce site see half their customers leaving because they can't shop, that's pretty compelling," he says.

Nielsen's report, "E-Commerce User Experience," lists 207 design guidelines based on usability tests of 20 e-commerce sites.

But even the experts don't agree on what makes a Web site great for customers.

"There are no guidelines," says Jared Spool, author of the report "Web Site Usability: A Designer's Guide."

"We've never seen a site that does everything right; no one even knows what that is. The best Web sites never get more than a 42% success rate," Spool says.

The best-performing Web sites, such as those of Seattle-based Amazon.com Inc. and San Jose-based eBay Inc., are mostly text, Spool says. "But no designer would make up a site with mostly text," he notes.

Well-designed graphics are no predictor of success, Spool says. "Graphics aren't intended to move people" through the site, he says. "If anything, they're intended to stop people and get their attention.

"Of all the graphic design elements we looked at, the only one that was strongly tied to user success was use of browser default link color," says Spool, founding principal of consultancy User Interface Engineering in Bradford, Mass. The color scheme that's most common—and most easily recognized by users—is blue for unfollowed links and purple for followed links.

As the nascent field matures, the following usability concepts are emerging as best practices:

TRUST. Customers must believe that a company will follow through on their orders, protect their private information and provide end-to-end transaction integrity. So the latest research focuses on how to foster trust through Web site design.

A recent study called "In Web We Trust: Establishing Strategic Trust Among Online Customers," from user interface expert Ben Shneiderman and researchers at the University of Maryland in College Park, looks for features that are best at inducing trust among online customers. "Web site designers should include extensive customer service information, provide phone numbers for technical support, clearly state the return policy and provide an address for merchandise return," the study says.

Designers should also include merchandise costs and shipping dates as soon as possible in the buying process, which Amazon.com does well, Nielsen says. Amazon may lose a few customers when shipping dates have to be extended, he says, "but because they're honest about it, you have the feeling that when you click to buy, you'll get the package."

Trust is "the ability to predict current behavior from previous experience," Spool says. "People don't care about privacy policies. In our tests, we found people didn't even read it, and those who did found it too arcane and confusing to understand."

Trust and transaction cost are the top concerns of online buyers, says Jungwon Lee, a researcher at Yonsei University in Seoul, Korea, in his report "Key Design Factors for Customer Loyalty User Experience in E-Commerce." For online stores, trust translates into profits, Lee says, because repeat customers spend almost twice as much per visit as new customers do.

Integrating back-office systems with the Web site promotes trust too, because then customers know what's in stock, Nielsen says. "If your existing system won't do it, put it on the wish list for updates," he says.

At both Macys.com in San Francisco and Lands' End Inc. in Dodgeville, Wis., inventory systems are tied to company Web sites—in real time.

"It's extremely tough to do," says Kent Anderson, president of Macys.com. "But when you're running 70,000 [items] through a Web site, it's important."

The integration was part of a July redesign. "Online sales through the fall season doubled," Anderson says.

CATEGORIES. To move customers quickly from the home page to the product page they want to see, the pages in between must be explicitly named and well differentiated.

To find sweaters at Macys.com, you have to know they're under the "tops" category, Spool points out. On LandsEnd.com, they're a separate listing. "Lands' End sells five times as many sweaters as Macy's," he says. "And it's because of the design of the site."

Examine your logs to see the words users type into your search engine. Users enter their "trigger words"—what they want to know or find—and those are the words to use as category names, Spool says.

SEARCH. Put the search box at the top of every page, Nielsen says. Make it tolerant of misspellings and accepting of common synonyms. And set it to automatically search the entire site.

Usability studies show that if the first search fails, odds sharply decrease that users will find what they want, says Nielsen. With a good search engine, people will buy twice as much because they can find what they want faster.

PRODUCT PAGES. The pages that sell the most products are the ones that show the most products and have the biggest pictures, experts say.

At Macys.com, shoppers can zoom in on product pictures to see a close-up of the fabric weave. "The trick is to capture the image at the appropriate density so it doesn't pixelize at the smaller size," says Anderson. "We spent a lot of time and effort on that."

One of today's prevalent myths is that if a page doesn't download within seven seconds, the customer goes elsewhere. Not true, says Spool. "People complain about the download time because they're having trouble completing a task," he says. Although faster is clearly better, when the content is something the user has asked for, studies show, that user is willing to wait. As proof, he points to companies that "made their sites faster but the complaints didn't go away."

Neither Nielsen nor Spool likes 3-D models, calling them difficult to operate and unconvincing. But Lands' End customers love the feature that lets them try clothes on a personalized model, says a Lands' End spokeswoman. "The average order value increases by 9% when a customer uses the model, and 15% of visitors launch the model," she says.

NAVIGATION. Designers must develop navigation and content together.

Many designers instead create a shell to give each page the same look and feel and navigational structure, no matter what content they pour into it. But shells require lots of generic links, Spool says. With generic links, users rarely get what they expect.

For example, people don't shop for sweaters the same way they shop for bathing suits, Spool says. "For sweaters, they want to see the fabric. Their concern with a bathing suit is how it fits on the body," he notes.

Lands' End handles those differences well on its swimwear page, he says, allowing customers to presort suits based on style, for instance.

Daily customer input helps shape the site, a Lands' End spokeswoman says. Profitable for the past four years, in fiscal 2002 the site surpassed the company's catalog in sales, she says.

Spool also warns that usability tests of navigational links show that too many links on a page or links that are embedded in text are counterproductive.

Glitzy Web animation is considered counterproductive too, but animation can be used to create dynamic forms that provide usability benefits. IHotelier, a Houston-based division of Webvertising Inc., uses Flash animation from San Francisco-based Macromedia Inc. to present a hotel reservation form on a single screen.

The only hard and fast rule, Nielsen says, is that there are no rules.

Lais is a freelance writer in Takoma Park, Md.

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Tips for Web Shopability


1
Show the full product cost as soon as possible.

2
Explain why you need to collect personal information.

3
Use opt-in rather than opt-out policies to give the shopper more control over data sharing.

4
Don’t overemphasize promotional products.

5
Cross-reference products.

6
Ensure that images are big and show features that are important to buyers.

7
Put the search box on every page.

8
Make “All” the search list default (so it searches the whole site).

9
Avoid jargon and clever or made-up names.

10
Have the customer select options before the product goes in the shopping cart.

11
Expect users to hit the Enter key when filling out forms.

12
Offer a toll-free number for placing phone orders.

Source: “E-Commerce User Experience,” by Jakob Nielsen, Nielsen Norman Group, Fremont, Calif.

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