The topic of web site usability came up in multiple sessions at the Annual Catalog Conference, whether they were supposed to be about usability or not.
Kurt Peters , Senior Executive Editor
A lot of discussion at the Annual Catalog Conference centered on web site usability--what is it, how a retailer achieves it and how an organization makes sure that once a site has been optimized for usability, it stays that way. The topic came up in multiple sessions, whether they were supposed to be about usability or not. “It’s no different from sending out a catalog,” said Lauren Freedman, president of consultants The E-Tailing Group Inc., in her session “Does Your Site Have What It Take to Be Best of Breed?” “You want to be proud of your catalog, you want to be proud of your web site.”
For starters, how to use the site has to be obvious. One way to achieve the obvious is to make sure pages jump out at the user at first glance, Ken Seiff, CEO of Bluefly Inc., said in the “Top 40 Best Practices for Digital Advertising in 40 Minutes” session. “We design our site so the page jumps out at you from four feet away,” Seiff said.
Seiff’s preference for long-distance page viewing set up conflict with his design team, who argued that web pages are designed to be studied from up close, not four feet away, he said. “But our customers do not study the page the way we do,” he said. “They need a very quick roadmap of where they want to go. If I can’t spot on the page where the different chunks of information are, then we haven’t done a good job.”
That’s particularly true as customers navigate a site to find a particular product. They’re hunters, not browsers, a number of speakers said, and pages must be designed in a way to facilitate hunting--and that means simple, intuitive, clear. “People don’t read when they are navigating,” said Phil Terry, president of consultants Creative Good, in his session “Web Usability: Small Changes, Big Results.” “And when they’re navigating, if they see an a graphic, they think it’s an ad.”
Pages should contain only one product or one function and its use should be obvious, several speakers said. “Without patronizing your customers, think of them as monkeys and put a banana on each page--and only one banana,” Lawrence Becker, vice president of new media at Crutchfield, said in the “Top 40” session, although he added later, “It’s not nice to think of customers as monkeys, but the banana metaphor works.”
A major mistake is that many retail sites fail to present information in a pyramid fashion, with the most important piece of information (the price) at the top and with less important information following to the bottom of the page, Terry said “Customers look at the product page for five seconds, so you have to put the most basic stuff at the beginning,” he said.
Under the auspices of the Direct Marketing Association, sponsors of the conference, Terry conducted workshops on Monday, putting 21 sites (of 50 that applied for review) through usability tests with consumers, and presented the results on Tuesday. Most sites had problems that prevented customers from completing transactions, and, Terry said, the most common response from retailers after they saw the problem was: “It seemed so obvious. How could we have missed it?”
Among the problems that Terry spotted:
• An apparel site that lacked a sizing chart for a dress
• Confusing graphics that don’t communicate what a shopper should do next--or that the shopper can even do anything. In one case, a retailer had a picture of multiple products and, while each was clickable, the design didn’t communicate that to the shopper
• Lack of a Place in Shopping Cart button on product pages
• Links that take shoppers where they don’t expect to go. In one case, he noted, a More Information sunburst link placed the product in the shopping cart.
The biggest problem in inadequate site design is what Terry terms “pixel politics,” that is, turf battles within a corporation where marketing and merchandising want to do one thing and IT resists or wants to do something else.
There are no easy answers to pixel politics, speakers said, although diplomacy and educating IT about the goals of marketing and merchandising are good starts. “Find a champion on the IT side,” Freedman said in her presentation when the issue came up. “Find a woman in IT who shops and you can sell her on the importance of what you want to do. She can be the champion in IT.”
A number of speakers urged retailers to shop their own sites as customer would. “You need to be introspective and take a close look at your site at least twice a year,” Freedman said.