May 28, 2003, 12:00 AM

When search dead-ends

It`s time for e-retailing to pay attention to what happens when customers get no results on product searches, says a design and usability consultant, who points out that new industries design for the best-case scenario while ignoring other possibilities.

“Results not found” is the virtual red-headed stepchild of web design-no one wants to spend time dealing with it. “It’s not sexy, it’s not exciting, it’s an error message. No one wants to think about it,” says Jason Fried, president of web design and usability consultants 37signals.

But as e-commerce matures, it’s time for that to change, argues Fried, who points out that new industries design for the best-case scenario while ignoring other possibilities. Take cars. “They didn’t start out with the airbags and seatbelts they have now. But carmakers now realize something can go wrong; they acknowledge it and they take steps to help you out if that happens. It’s time for the web to embrace that, acknowledge that things can go wrong online, and handle it,” he says.

What’s getting Fried so worked up is web site operators’ failure to provide for query misspellings or products incorrectly described in queries and that lead to dead ends. 56% of 25 top e-retail sites surveyed by 37signals offered site visitors no further guidance when the sites delivered a No Results Found page. The web consultant has coined a term and a practice subspecialty around the problem: contingency design. Error messages are nothing new, but too many web developers and designers don’t fully appreciate the impact of such blips on the customer experience, or the metrics of sales or conversions, Fried says.

“Contingency design is about getting people back on track after a problem occurs online, as well as designing to prevent problems,” he says. “You might offer an advanced search option to broaden or narrow a search when they don’t get results, or give them an opportunity to check their spelling.”

37signals has found such fixes do make a difference. Federated Department Stores Inc.’s, for example, attributes a recent doubling of online conversions in part to new contingency planning for errors, Fried says. A search for brand DKNY, for example, now delivers results even if the query is incorrectly entered as “DKNI.” Planning for errors also made a difference at Google, which was surprised to find that a large percentage of customers were complaining about inaccurate search results when a search term was misspelled. But wait-didn’t Google offer a spell check feature? Turns out not everyone saw it. When Google repeated the link to that feature at the bottom of the page-next to the link for complaints-use of the correction feature doubled.

“It’s impossible to design a site that always works perfectly,” Fried says, “so we like to say, make your mistakes well.”

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