February 16, 2011, 2:42 PM

Effective web design blends designer vision and consumers’ needs, IRWD speakers say

How Sports Authority boosted conversion 47% by improving site usability.

Lead Photo

Michael Summers

Features that may seem crucial to web designers can be missed by shoppers who visit a site, and sales suffer as a result.  Sporting goods retailer Sports Authority had that experience when it splashed a 20% off promotion across its home page, only to find that many visitors came to the site from search and other sources, bypassing the home page.

 “80% of our visitors never saw it,” Clay Cowan, vice president of e-commerce at Sports Authority, explained this week in a session at the Internet Retailer Web Design & Usability Conference called “Top usability mistakes and how to avoid them.”

It was just one example of how a designer’s vision for a site doesn’t necessarily line up with how shoppers shop on the web, and it underscores the importance of usability considerations in site design. In fact, making Sports Authority’s site more user-friendly increased conversion by 47% within six months of implementation, Cowan said.   

“You are all making assumptions about what visitors are seeing in your user interface,” co-presenter Michael Summers, vice president of usability at e-commerce technology and service provider GSI Commerce Inc., told attendees.   Summers shared video clips of consumers interacting with web pages in GSI’s usability lab to illustrate the point. In one series of clips, consumers were asked to name the number of products a web page offered in a chosen category. Most gave a number corresponding with the number of product photos on the page, failing to notice a text list of additional products on the left side of the page or missing that they could scroll horizontally to view additional product photos on the same page.

Having watched thousands of consumers interact with sites in GSI’s lab, Summers pointed to common usability errors on retail sites. For example, web designers often work with large monitors that display pages in much higher resolution than consumers will see on a page viewed on smaller screens. As a result, designers may use the wrong scale in creating page elements. “Get the resolution right,” Summers told attendees.

He also encouraged attendees to make sure global navigation is clearly visible on all site pages and advised caution in using features such as faceted, or filtered navigation that lets visitors sort results by such factors as price, brand and product category. “Consumers really don’t understand it,” he said. Some shoppers taking part in usability lab tests don’t grasp how any filtering option they select will affect the display they’re seeing, or that they can apply multiple filters simultaneously, he added.

Cowan talked about the practical effect of sharing usability lab test results with top management. Showing executives video of users struggling with aspects of the Sports Authority web site, or even bringing executives to the lab to view testing sessions, gave his team the tools to shift senior-level thinking. “It gave us a fact-based plan versus working on suggested capabilities,” he said.

With senior-level buy-in on the improvements, Sports Authority moved quickly on the changes to achieve the significant boost in conversion in the second half of 2010, according to Cowan. The exercise also has given Sports Authority a blueprint for web site design going forward, he added. “We‘ll explore and test significant site changes with consumers,” he said, “before we make them or invest in them.”

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