January 29, 2010, 12:00 AM

SPONSORED SUPPLEMENT: Site design from the customer`s point of view

Retailers want to sell, but consumers come to e-commerce sites to do so much more than purchase these days. Sites that make it easy for consumers to accomplish their goals build long-term loyalty.

Retailers want to sell, but consumers come to e-commerce sites to do so much more than purchase these days. Sites that make it easy for consumers to accomplish their goals build long-term loyalty.

When retailers think about redesigning their web sites, they`re usually thinking about how to boost sales right away. But shoppers today visit e-commerce sites for many reasons besides making an immediate purchase. They`re gathering product information, reading or writing product reviews, comparing prices or simply adding a product to a wish list. Whatever the consumer wants to do, the site should help her do it easily.

"Consumers have a lot of different motivations for visiting a site other than making a purchase, and well-designed sites help shoppers achieve their goal beyond making a purchase," says Alex Schmelkin, president and co-founder of ecommerce design and engineering firm Alexander Interactive (Ai). "Site design elements that get in the way of the consumer achieving their goal by requiring an excessive number of clicks and that create indirect navigation paths need to be eliminated."

Retailers must understand what consumers are trying to do, and how consumers feel about how easy it was for them to achieve their goals, before setting their redesign goals. Tracking customer behavior patterns as they move through the site, such as the content viewed and page tabs clicked on, and then comparing that data with survey feedback from customers about the usability of the site, can provide the insight retailers need to set the right site design priorities.

"It is best to approach site design and usability through the eyes of the customer," says Larry Freed, CEO of ForeSee Results, provider of customer satisfaction, measurement and management tools. "Too often retailers envision successful site design through their eyes and end up overlooking features and functionality that create the depth of interaction the consumer wants."

Every detail
Because the intent of each shopper logging on to an e-retailing site is different and may vary with each visit, ForeSee results has developed CS SessionReplay, an on-demand application that tracks how individual consumers move through a retailer`s site.

CS SessionReplay shows such activity as a customer scrolling down a page, or clicking on a page tab to gather more product information or on a link that takes them to a product review. Retailers can also see whether the consumer has come from a search engine results page or a pay-per-click ad, as well as the navigation paths travelled through the site.

"Information about customer activity needs to go beyond identifying what pages a customer views and how long a customer stays on a particular page to reveal more about how shoppers actually interact with the site," says Freed. "When a retailer can see all the activity that takes place during a shopper`s visit down to the tiniest details and combines that information with satisfaction data from surveys, retailers can translate that data into improvements consumers want to see."

Site design and usability experts say that consumers prefer to visit sites that make it easy for them to achieve their objectives. While most visitors to a retail web site are not looking for a product manual, for some that`s the primary reason for their visit. One way to make that available to those looking for the manual, without cluttering up the page for everyone else, is to place a tab on a product page providing a direct navigation path to the manual.

Ai used this design tactic for a retailer of pet care products, placing tabs at the top of the product page for Frontline, a flea and tick medication. The tabs opened pages containing information about the types of diseases prevented by the medication. The tabs were clearly marked as optional pathways to additional information; consumers looking for the information found it easily, while other were not forced to wade through text that did not interest them.

"Good site design empowers customers to shop on their own terms," says Josh Levine, chief experience officer and co-founder of Ai. "If the customer wants to get additional details about a product or read a review, there ought to be a clear, direct path that addresses their needs. At the same time, informed shoppers should be able to instantly add the item to their cart and check out without wading through excessive detail or lists of options."

Test new ideas
Before implementing any changes to site design, recommended procedure is to extensively test the new feature before rollout, pitting alternatives against each other in A/B tests.

"Testing is the key to not only finding out what features play well with consumers, but where to locate buttons and tabs on the page, colors used, and the type of information to include on the site and where to locate it," says Schmelkin. "The more extensive the testing process, the easier it is to try new ideas and identify what works."

Gathering customer feedback through surveys is another way for retailers to gain a deeper understanding of customer satisfaction with site design and usability, even during the testing phase.

"There are so many customer segments with different preferences and intentions for their site visits that retailers need to constantly measure satisfaction with site usability as it relates to the customer`s evolving intent for visiting that site," says Freed. "If customer satisfaction with a site is not measured regularly, retailers can`t manage it."

Surveys are also a good way to separate fact from fiction, especially in the face of new developments, such as the explosive growth of social networks, blogs and online forums in recent years. Surveys can help sort out to what extent opinions expressed through social media impact consumers` decisions to visit a retail site. Because a shopper comes to the retailer`s site from a social media site does not mean the conversation on the blog or Facebook page influenced their decision. "There may be other factors at the root of their decision," adds Freed. "Attributing that decision to a social networking site visited immediately beforehand can be misleading."

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