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Aesthetic appeal no longer drives e-retail web site design. Today, retailers need to think more about designing sites compatible with the growing variety of devices consumers use to access the web.
There's been an explosive growth of smartphones, netbooks, laptops and most recently tablet computers like Apple Inc.'s iPad. Add in the growing variety of operating systems and the widely varying screen sizes of those devices and it's easy to see why retailers must move away from a one-size-fits-all web site design strategy.
"Retailers need to take a three-tiered approach to web site design based on the device being used to access their site, the operating system running the device and the screen size and resolution of the device," says Michael Svanascini, president of web site design firm Americaneagle.com. "Site design is becoming more technology-driven."
The starting point for a retailer's site design strategy must now be creating templates compatible with the devices commonly used by consumers and their operating systems.
"There are myriad operating systems and screen sizes for smartphones and personal computers," says Svanascini. "Retailers have to be thinking about how the operating systems and screen size for those devices impact how their web site looks."
Simple is beautiful
Simplicity is the best approach when designing an m-commerce site. "Replicating the basic content, functionality and flow of the e-commerce site on an m-commerce site is essential to creating a pleasing consumer experience," says Christina Anderson, e-commerce business development strategist for Americaneagle.com. "Consumers need to be able to perform the same basic actions critical to completing a transaction as easily on the retailer's m-commerce site as on their e-commerce site."
Retailers must keep in mind that not all smartphone operating systems are compatible with Flash and Ajax—two applications favored by web site designers because they add pizzazz to the shopping experience. Nonetheless, retailers can still design web sites that have plenty of sex appeal.
One major concern is that Apple's iOS operating system, the underlying software used by the iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad, does not render Flash elements e-retailers often use to display video and animation. But that can be overcome by writing programming code to identify when the device accessing a retailer's web site is running iOS. Once the diagnosis is made, the host server disables Flash for that consumer's device and replaces the Flash-designed content with rich, static images featuring a Shop Now button.
Americaneagle.com has successfully implemented this feature for StuartWeitzman.com, a retailer of designer women's shoes and handbags.
Compatibility issues with Ajax, which allows images to change when moused over without a page refresh, and the operating systems for iPhone and Android are becoming less of an issue. The newest versions of the operating systems for these devices now support Ajax, Svanascini adds.
Answers are also emerging for how to solve the difference in screen sizes between 25-inch desktop computer monitors that support 1280 pixels per inch and tablet computer screens that support 1024 pixels per inch.
"In some cases it is a matter of paring down the amount of content that appears on a tablet computer screen," says Anderson. "Banner ads do not necessarily need to be displayed on smaller screens. It's a matter of having a template in place for the access device being used and finding a balance between the quantity and quality of content used in that template."
Just as retailers need to be aware of how the technology behind the latest generation of smartphones and computers impacts their site design strategy, they must take the time to learn about the strengths and weaknesses of a potential site design partner, including the company's financial health.
"Making sure everyone is on the same page when it comes to the usability and functionality of the web site and making sure the site design partner has the financial strength to be there for the long haul are key in today's economy," says Svanascini. "The future growth potential for e-commerce is tremendous, and being able to work closely with a financially stable site design partner can provide retailers a substantial edge."