December 29, 2008, 12:00 AM

Reshaping Web Site Design

Retailers architect new ways to design features and functions that improve business results.

With a new treatment or a major feature going live every three weeks, there’s no room for complacency in VistaPrint Ltd.’s approach to web site design. Instead of speculating over how visitors might respond to a new application, VistaPrint, an online retailer of custom printing products, uses step-by-step planning and rigorous testing to design web pages that meet customer expectations and generate more business.

When VistaPrint recently updated its design gallery of templates that customers use to create personalized business cards and stationery, designers and marketing managers analyzed thousands of transactions and visitor sessions. VistaPrint then used the new analysis to design and launch a new gallery that has since helped the company acquire 4.5 million more customers overall and nearly double daily orders to about 33,000.

“We don’t guess at what our customers want out of a new design,” says VistaPrint senior director of user experience Jeff Prus. “We study their behavior and then design and test a new treatment that’s going to meet their expectations and ours.”

Other online retailers are emulating VistaPrint’s focused, no-nonsense approach to web site redesign and usability, including ActionEnvelope.com, QVC Inc., and Fat Brain Toys. In the early days of web retailing, a flashy design that showcased a merchant’s brand may have been enough to pique an online shopper’s interest. But these days, as web merchants of all sizes deal with the bad economy and a sharp drop in consumer spending, more retailers are looking harder at their design plans and figuring out better ways to drive traffic and generate sales.

To improve their designs, merchants are sifting through myriad information, including traffic logs, web analytics reports, customer service tapes, surveys and other data that help them better understand web site traffic patterns and buyer behavior. Retailers are then using the data to create effective designs that make it interesting and easier for customers to shop and complete their online purchase.

“A great design starts with a thorough understanding of what the customer wants, and the retailers that focus on the end user will be the ones getting the most new and repeat business,” says Eric Cantini, creative and customer experience practice partner at Rosetta, a retail web site design and strategic planning firm. “The design has to be visually compelling to draw shoppers in, but the real task a retailer has to accomplish is creating pages and tools that motivate a buyer to make an informed and easy purchase.”

Drill down

Prior to rolling out its updated design gallery, VistaPrint analyzed nine sets of customer metrics and then created a multi-point plan to create and test the new treatment. Customers found the old gallery with its limited selection and outdated navigation hard to use. To create a better design, VistaPrint designers and programmers used their customer analysis to create forms that reduced by 50% the time it took for a customer to complete a design and submit the order online.

VistaPrint also added 400 new product templates, dozens of different categories and an updated tool bar. In several rounds of focus group testing at VistaPrint’s internal usability laboratory, users liked the overall design, but wanted easier navigation. VistaPrint improved the final design by adding new ways for visitors to search for templates such as by industry, category and other criteria. VistaPrint also made the tool bar the most prominent element at the top of each gallery page.

“The original design was organized in a way that gave users quick access to all of the new templates we were adding, but the functionality on the page was hidden and it took users too long to complete a transaction,” says Prus. “What customers really wanted was fast access to the advanced editing tools and quick order submission. Once we added and tested those elements, we knew the updated design gallery was going to perform well.”

VistaPrint knows the value of detailed planning and breaks down its design projects into five phases: customer analysis, page design, usability testing, page rollout and user follow-up. Having a comprehensive design plan enables a retailer to set specific goals and objectives. A comprehensive plan also provides an online merchant with an opportunity to create a working document for designers, programmers and business managers that spells out specific details, such as technology and marketing budgets, performance objectives, technical requirements and new business expectations.

“Planning out a web site design or redesign can’t be done haphazardly, especially in this online retailing environment where everyone’s fighting to stay competitive and bring in business,” says Cantini. “A formal document that spells out what’s going to happen and when, and then measures the outcome is a road map a merchant can use to complete the project from beginning to end.”

ActionEnvelope.com, an online retailer of custom envelopes, relied heavily on precise planning to redesign its web site. Even though Action Envelope routinely updates its web site every two years, the company worked closely with Alexander Interactive Inc., its current design firm, to write out a comprehensive blueprint before embarking on a much more complex redesign.

For the latest generation of the Action Envelope site, which went live in January 2008, the top design priorities were easier navigation and better customization. Action Envelope sells multiple styles of envelopes that come in nearly 100 colors and in a variety of shapes, weights and seals. But the old site made it too complicated for busy consumers and small business owners to sift through a multitude of combinations and then customize an envelope with their individual logo and trademark colors.

Spell it out

To create a better web site, Action Envelope and Alexander Interactive first drafted story boards and designed page layouts that emphasized a cleaner look and improved navigation. They next created a project timeline and planning document that laid out deadlines, technical requirements, performance objectives and new business goals. “We looked at the overall navigation on the web site, the main categories and how they could be simplified,” says Action Envelope chief operating officer Seth Newman. “The blueprint kept us focused on what we needed to do and when.”

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