October 8, 2008, 12:00 AM

Sweating the details helps VistaPrint.com implement rigorous design changes

With a new design or a major feature and function going live on its e-commerce site every three weeks, VistaPrint Ltd. has zero tolerance for trial and error. Instead, VistaPrint uses rigorous usability testing to implement changes.

With a new design or a major feature and function going live on its e-commerce site every three weeks, VistaPrint Ltd. has zero tolerance for trial and error. Instead, thanks to rigorous usability testing and comprehensive design planning, VistaPrint knows well in advance if the introduction of a new feature, function or page design is likely to generate bigger tickets and higher conversion rates.

The devil is in following through on the details, which VistaPrint, an online custom printing products and services retailer, accomplishes by utilizing a full-time user experience staff of 16 designers, information systems architects and software engineers and established testing procedures. VistaPrint, No. 57 in the Internet Retailer Top 500 Guide, divides its design and usability process into four distinct steps: site optimization, user experience design and research, content strategy and site marketing.

Other retailers study their own web-related metrics and then use focus groups and A/B or multivariate testing prior to going live with a major site upgrade or redesign. But what makes VistaPrint’s approach to web site design and usability testing unique is the retailer’s methodical approach to using multiple sources of customer data to improve performance and feedback to create a successful application. “We spend a lot of time going through the discovery process and using the feedback to create designs or changes that will improve our business performance,” says VistaPrint user experience principal Kirk Doggett. “We test and tweak these things until we know we’ve got it right.”

When VistaPrint made a recent decision to overhaul its design gallery, a selection of templates customers can use to create their own personalized business cards, invitations, brochures, stationery and other print products, it faced a challenge in redesigning the gallery with a better tool bar, clearer and faster navigation and deeper content. On the original gallery pages, customers used a tool bar on the left side of the page to browse for products and styles across 33 general industry categories. But customers complained that it took too long to select and complete a design using limited tools. “The old tool bar was organized in a way that gave them quick access to general categories that could be used to begin a design, but the functionality was hidden,” says Doggett. “It took them too long to complete a transaction.”

Before starting on a project, VistaPrint, which grew its web sales by almost 60% in fiscal 2008 to more than $400 million, will analyze up to nine types of customer metrics to understand a design problem or build a blueprint for a major new feature and function. In addition to analyzing customer comments directly from its call center and using web analytics to break down site traffic, orders and conversion rates, VistaPrint will also pull historical information from its data warehouse and recreate visitor sessions in real time using performance-monitoring software.

Prior to beginning the redesign of the design gallery VistaPrint spent almost four months analyzing 4,000 customer orders and visitor sessions to identify the problem. “Based on usability research, customer feedback, and insight from customer support representatives, we identified that many of our small business customers could not find relevant and high-quality designs,” says VistaPrint senior director of user experience Jeff Prus. “What they wanted was a faster way to create more print designs and advanced editing tools.”

To redesign its design gallery, the e-retailer first streamlined the number of categories it displayed on its category and product pages from 33 to 21. VistaPrint also created an entirely new taxonomy. “Our existing gallery classified content into about three general categories such as animals and pet care, construction and trade, and retail and sales,” says Prus. “The new taxonomy includes over 400 industry verticals, classified into 21 top-level categories. Just within the retail category we defined nearly 50 sub-industries as diverse as antiques, cigars, gas stations, and vitamins.”

Once the new taxonomy was created, VistaPrint designers created story boards mapping out the new navigation and features and functions and wrote the program.

The rigorous attention to design planning is paying dividends. VistaPrint is now processing more than 30,000 daily orders. “We have measured significant business benefits from our efforts,” says Prus. “We continue to add new designs and optimize our gallery and matching set experiences through iterative testing. We are also localizing our content and site interfaces as we roll out across our 19 localized web sites.”

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