May 31, 2001, 12:00 AM

K.I.S.S. Keep It Simple for the Shopper

(Page 3 of 3)

At, usability is more than just a theme guiding site design refinements: it’s the full-time job of Colin Hynes,’s director of usability. Hynes’s preparations for a major site relaunch at Staples last year shows why the function rates its own job title. To direct the overhaul of its already award-winning web site, did hundreds of hours of usability testing with online shoppers, and also pulled in data from customer e-mails and independent ratings services such as BizRate. One of the goals was to buff up usability by making the site’s navigation system more intuitive.


The research turned up surprises that fed directly into site improvements. Here’s a sample: Moving its former land-based user tests online, polled hundreds of users on features like search functions to better understand how users experience the site. For example, an online version of its offline card-sorting test, in which volunteers sort pictures of products into a grid of categories, revealed that some products weren’t located where consumers expected to find them. The test showed users a product image, sometimes with a description, and asked them via a pull-down menu in which category they would logically expect to find the product on the site.


“Typically, you’ll find a lot of people going in one direction or another. You might get 90% saying they think the desk jet printer would be in the printer section, for example, but when you get into other product areas that’s not always the case,” says Hynes. “You may find 40% think it should be in one category, and 45% say it should go in another. If you didn’t know that, you could have up to 55% of your customers looking for something in the wrong place. Obviously, that’s a huge dissastisfier that could cause you to lose sales.”


To solve the problem, Staples started putting the products in question in multiple locations on the site, along with cross references. Cartridges and toner, once listed only in technology, were added to the office supply category, for example, while multifunction machines that once appeared only under printers and now show up in the copier/fax category as well. “The great thing about the web is that it’s not a finite warehouse where we’re limited in where we place products,” Hynes says. “The cost of extra catalog pages adds up, too. But on the web, we can put a product in multiple locations, so the search can be driven by where the user expects to find the product.”


Getting on


In addition to redoing the look and feel of the site, also refined its search engine for the relaunch. “We’ve made the shopping a lot more streamlined,” says Hynes. “On the old site, you might type in ‘Palm Pilot,’ and you’d get a page with 10 items. They could be Pilot pens, Palms and other things mixed together. There might even be subsequent pages with as many as 50 results.”’s Microsoft site server search technology now chunks results into more product-specific categories.


“It would be great if I got a lot of e-mails every day saying ‘Hey! The usability on your site is the best!’” Hynes says. But that’s not how people react to the best-designed sites, where shopping is so seamless it draws attention to the products, not the process. “Consumers with a goal should be able to accomplish it, leave and get on with the rest of their lives,” he says . “That’s what we want to accomplish. We strive to do that, and we listen to our customers to make sure that happens.” l



Going for the heart’s redesign picks up on yet another trend in retail site design. Web merchants aren’t just improving slice, dice and chop functions; they’re tapping into shoppers’ emotions to drive sales. Penney’s heart-tugging home page--with wording worthy of Hallmark-was the result of consumer surveys and feedback about how people like to shop and why they shop where they do. The emotional connection, says a spokeswoman, was a key learning from focus groups and a soft launch that involved feedback from thousands of customers. She adds: “You’ll see that reflected in new photography, color selections and choice of language.”

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