December 31, 2007, 12:00 AM

Designing the Future

(Page 2 of 2)

The customers themselves were the cornerstone of the redesign, and they were quizzed thoroughly, right down to eye-tracking studies. Kristofferson’s team combined the customer research findings with data from Omniture Inc., its web analytics service, and found it was frequently spending too much time on the wrong things.

For example, the old site had a three-column structure. Site navigation was on the left, while the middle area featured product details and the right-hand column was used to promote seasonal merchandise or other products that might interest the customer.

“We learned that customers were ignoring that part of the page, so the click-through was low, and it got no attention in eye-tracking studies,” Kristofferson says. Those studies showed the considerable effort Kristofferson’s team put into creating content for the right-hand column was largely wasted. The new, two-column site has only the left-hand section for site navigation and the main section; tabs for site navigation are included across the top. The right-hand column has been abandoned for now, but may be readopted someday if the design team can find a way to use it to serve the customer.

Two many tabs

And about those tabs: a growing number of departments had led to two rows of tabs at the old site, which confused the customers. For the redesign, the team asked its customer guinea pigs to go over the site’s entire catalog and pick the most natural category for each item. The process helped whittle the tabs down to one row, with pull-down menus for subcategories. “The question of what gets a tab has been the subject of thousands of meetings at Internet companies around the world,” Kristofferson says. “It may seem a little silly, but it’s an important conversation to have.”

Internal studies showed that 90% of Walmart.com’s customers have broadband Internet access, making it feasible to use rich media. Customers can see multiple views of many items, as well as different colors. Some items have a quick-view, so customers can view details without leaving their results page. Though Walmart.com’s annual sales are in ten figures ($1.26 billion in 2006, according to Internet Retailer estimates) they’re a minor part of the merchant’s overall revenue of almost $350 billion in 2006. Nonetheless, the site provides crucial support for thousands of retail stores, and the linkage has become even tighter with the redesign. Kristofferson says 90% of Walmart.com’s users go to a Wal-Mart store at least once a month, and half of them visit weekly. They use the web site to do comparisons and read reviews, though they often make the actual purchase in the store.

To serve those crossover customers, and increase their numbers, the redesign incorporated several new features. Site-to-store shipping lets customers send items to their local Wal-Mart store for pick-up-a boon for both the customer, who gets free shipping, and the store, which almost always rings up extra sales when the customer comes to pick up the goods, the retailer has found. The “Site To Store” logo is prominent not only on the web site, but also in stores, so customers know exactly where they need to go to get their merchandise.

Minivan mileage

“There’s all kinds of need for this service,” Kristofferson says. For example, parents sending their children to college can purchase all the necessary accoutrements at Walmart.com and have them shipped to the child’s college town, saving wear and tear on the minivan.

For those who can’t wait the seven to 10 business days for site-to-store and want to buy something that’s also stocked at the stores, Walmart.com is now testing a “Find in Store” feature, which checks inventories at every store within 100 miles of the customer’s ZIP code.

While Walmart.com isn’t releasing numbers on how the new site is performing, Kristofferson says feedback from customers shows their perception of the brand has changed for the better. “The merchandise hasn’t changed,” she says, “but we’re presenting it in a way that highlights the quality and value.”

Her advice is to focus on customers’ needs, and make them drive the decisions. “Do something crude and quick, if you have to, and put it in front of people and see what they think,” she says. “You may find your assumptions are just wrong. But you also have to trust your gut and keep moving. The best case is to have data from customers to guide you, but not to get mired in it.”

Elizabeth Gardner is a Riverside, Ill.-based freelance business writer.

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