September 28, 2005, 12:00 AM

Intelligent Design

(Page 2 of 3)

Bulleted product descriptions are a feature several Internet retailers have either adopted or are considering including in their site redesign, according to site design experts. As part of its redesign LampsPlus.com reduced its product descriptions to a shorter paragraph by breaking out some information into bulleted points, such as:

l Finish

l Bulb wattage info

l Width

l Height

Customers desiring more information can scroll down the page or click on a link. "We divided our product information into different areas on the page, rather than grouping it all in one large paragraph because customers tell us they want to get product information quickly," Hsu says. "We put all the key information up front and provide the option to get more information if that is what they want."

Hot topic

How to access additional product information is a hot topic of debate among web designers and Internet retailers. At issue is whether it is best to have consumers scroll down the page to access additional information such as product guides or care instructions or to have them click on a link that activates a pop-up window with the desired data or takes them to another page.

Currently, there is no hard and fast rule as to which approach is more effective. What web site designers do agree on is that pertinent product information needs to be kept above the page fold and as easy to read as possible. "Web presentation and customer absorption of data are not the same online as with a catalog," says Bob LaGarde, CEO of LaGarde Inc., which provides web design. "Retailers need to recognize that the customer experience is different online than it is on paper."

Indeed, broadband is dramatically raising consumer expectations for web site design, according to site designers. In July, more than 59% of U.S. households with Internet access had a broadband connection, up from 51% a year earlier, according to Nielsen/NetRatings. In addition, a large portion of Internet users in the 41% of households with low-band connections have broadband access through work. A symbol of how the times have changed: The New York Times is redesigning its site to accommodate broadband users, which reportedly account for about 90% of the site’s traffic.

Thanks to the steady growth in the number of Internet users with broadband access, applications such as Flash and servers capable of presenting high-resolution, three-dimensional and multi-view images of products are fast becoming standard fare in site design. Flash, which allows designers to incorporate animation, video, and enriched colors, is being used not only throughout web site design, but also applied in the shopping cart. The aim is to create a more engaging shopping cart complete with high-resolution images of the product placed in the cart and links back to the page detailing the product, in case the customer wants to review the item, and which downloads information faster. Information downloads that take more than 10 seconds can create a sense of tedium and lead to abandonment.

TJMaxx.com recently conducted an A/B test of HTML and Flash-based shopping carts and found that in the Flash version, abandoned shopping carts were reduced by 50%, according to Forrester’s Manning. "A Flash-based shopping cart takes about 200k in memory to run on a computer, which is nothing for broadband," Manning adds.

Harnessing computing power

High-resolution graphics can also be run off servers capable of parsing the image into multiple views. The technique is replacing the old method of scanning images through PhotoShop and then cropping the images before placing them on the web site. Photo cropping can reduce the quality of the image and make such an image unsuitable for magnified views.

Zoom capabilities are most frequently associated with LandsEnd.com, which was an early adopter of the technology. The clothier has benefited greatly from using the technology because it enables customers to see the weave of a particular fabric. Such detail can greatly influence purchasing decisions, because it simulates handling the item in a store.

"Larger, more detailed images enhance the shopping experience, especially for such high-end items as home fashions, clothing and jewelry," says Manning. "Placing an image on the server and allowing it to serve up the desired detail is part of what computers were meant to do."

Still, designers must be careful not to overwhelm customers with slick media presentations, as they can result in clutter and turn off some customers. "You have to remember the audience," asserts LaGarde. "A game player will expect a more dynamic site, but a senior citizen may prefer better and more readily exposed navigation tools."

In either case, customers want the option not to view Flash-based presentations, if for no other reason than they may be in hurry and do not want to sit through it. They also expect any graphical enhancements to be seamless and not interfere with the shopping experience.

Brand identity

For all the fanfare that can be incorporated into design, retailers still need to pay close attention to their brand identity, especially as they operate multiple sites. Waterford Wedgwood, USA Inc., which recently launched a U.S.-oriented site for its Wedgwood brand (Wedgwood.com), emphasized brand consistency in the site’s design with that of the Wedgwood brand outside the Internet. The company used the same fonts for type, color (blue) for border and background shading, and styling that appears in the Wedgwood catalog, stores, and on the company’s web site for customers in the United Kingdom.

"Our site is a branding and marketing tool," says Jennifer Korch, director of Internet marketing for Waterford Wedgwood USA. "We are constantly balancing all our retail and direct sales efforts with that of our brand identity to create synergies between them."

The Wedgwood site, which hosts the company’s full product line of 1,800 SKUs, provides informational pages that deliver ideas on how the china can be used for everyday dining, in addition to direct sales. "We want to make the product relevant for more than just use on holidays or formal occasions," adds Korch.

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