December 29, 2008, 12:00 AM

SPONSORED SUPPLEMENT: Web Site Design and Usability

Creating site designs that enhance the customer experience and appeal to the needs of shoppers starts with knowing your customer.

With consumers increasingly focused on finding the best deal, retailers need to pay closer attention to creating a site that not only enhances the shopping experience, but that also immediately conveys the value of their brand.

Striking that balance starts with identifying all customer demographics and incorporating intuitive design features that help each demographic make a purchasing decision.

“Knowing the customer and their needs when they come to a site is where the value proposition in site design starts,” says Tony Svanascini, CEO of web site design firm Americaneagle.com Inc. “Shoppers want to be able to identify the navigation paths that allow them to quickly move through the site based on their needs.”

Expert vs. novice

One of the most common audience splits is between the expert and the novice shopper, according to Svanascini. Expert shoppers know exactly what they want and desire a fast navigation path to a specific product. Novices browse more and want to easily explore categories and products within each category.

“The better a retailer knows their audience, the more apt they are to create navigation paths that appeal to their customers and increase conversions,” Svanascini says. “We have seen some clients generate conversion rates of 10% when following this approach.”

Designing a truly user-friendly site means taking all elements of the site into consideration, not just the most obvious. One element that tends to get overlooked in site design is live chat.

For many retailers, customer service before and after the sale is a big part of their brand’s value. “Chat is part of the retailer’s value proposition so it needs to be in harmony with site design and prominent enough to achieve its purpose, but not be a distraction to the shopper,” says Steve Castro-Miller, president and CEO of BoldChat, which provides live chat, click-to-call and e-mail management applications.

To properly integrate a live chat button into site design, retailers must first determine whether the button is to appear on each page throughout the site, be served up as an invitation for additional service or both.

If the chat button is to appear throughout the web site, many retailers choose to position it in the same spot on each page and maintain consistency in size, color and text. If it is to be pushed to shoppers, it must not permanently obscure key design elements, such as the retailer’s brand or photos and information about the product the shopper is viewing, in addition to retaining consistency in size, color and text.

Don’t block that image

“Covering up key design elements can reduce conversion rates,” Castro-Miller says. “Retailers want to make sure that proactive chat invitations complement the shopping experience without interfering with it.”

Ideally, the chat invitation should be of sufficient size so shoppers can clearly see they have two choices: to accept the invitation or close the window. “Make sure the chat button is prominent but not dominant, and easy to close if the shopper does not want to make use of it,” Castro-Miller adds. “The last thing retailers want is to serve up a jarring graphic element that shoppers won’t properly digest.”

BoldChat’s live chat application includes chat invitation acceptance tracking, operator productivity reports and service level reporting.

Avoiding clutter on a page is one of the cornerstones of good site design. It is not uncommon for retailers with large catalogs to try to show as many products as possible on a page. Nor is it uncommon for retailers to become infatuated with new technological bells and whistles, such as video, and attempt to cram as many new features as possible onto a page to create the appearance the site is cutting edge.

The risk associated with this design strategy is that shoppers can become overwhelmed and abandon the site. “A cluttered page does not correlate well with brand value,” Svanascini says. “A retailer that sells through multiple channels wants their site design to reflect the brand image conveyed through those other channels.”

Managing the mouse-over

One way to increase the imagery on a page without making it appear cluttered is to incorporate pop-up images that appear when a product category is moused over. Americaneagle.com recently added this capability to the site of Studio 41, a Chicago-area retailer of kitchen and bath fixtures, doors, and windows.

Americaneagle.com helped Studio 41 create a showroom effect for each of the five primary categories on its home page by including mouse-over pop-up images that show a finished room, such as a kitchen or bath.

“It’s a way to add more images to the home page without making it too busy and personalizes the site,” says Svanascini. “The goal is to strike the balance between design and site technology.”

In addition to site design, Americaneagle.com provides site hosting, search engine marketing and content management tools.

Another way to incorporate more product images without creating a cluttered look is to push them to shoppers while they are engaged in a live chat session. “It is a way to further integrate the catalog into the site design and use chat as a way to walk shoppers through it,” Castro-Miller says.

For example, a shopper who engages a live chat session about a pair of slacks can be asked if she wants to see which shirts or blouses on sale would complete the outfit. If the answer is yes, the service agent can push those images through the chat window.

“This is a way to improve site usability and expand catalog access,” Castro-Miller says. “The more complex the design of the site, the more important it is to add features that enhance image presentation and engage the shopper. Using the technology in this way forces retailers to consider live chat early in the design process.”

Perception is everything

How effectively the use of graphics enhances the shopping experience depends on the speed of the page download. A shopper who perceives the image or page download to be too slow is apt to become impatient and move on to another site.

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