September 30, 2003, 12:00 AM

The new realism of web site design

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Among the crucial changes was the addition of a Gift Selector section that allows a customer who needs to buy multiple gifts within a budget to enter into input fields the number of gifts, total budget and whether the gifts will go to a single address or multiple addresses. A price calculator then recommends products based on the cost of the merchandise and the shipping charges. The customer picks the product, adds to shopping cart and checks out. “It resulted in a significant increase in average order size and in the number of gifts to over 10 recipients,” Land says. “We made it really quick for people.”

Listening in is a good idea, Fahrland says. “Those who sit in on call centers know what customers want because they hear what customers are asking for,” she says.

Another way in which site designs are becoming more of a science is that retailers are measuring ever smaller metrics. “Over the last year, people have been focusing on smaller and smaller parts of their web sites,” says Ken Burke, president and CEO of design company Multimedia Live. “They’re ratcheting down to a really low level.”

For instance, when home furnishings retailer redesigned its site, it tested different wording and designs for its add to cart/purchase function. With NetConversions, it tested a hot “Buy Now” in a big circle, “Buy Now” in a small circle with a “Buy Now” hot link underneath, a hot “Add to Bag” in big letters, “Add to Bag” in small letters with an “Add to Bag” hotlink underneath, a hot “Purchase” in big letters, and “Purchase” with a “Purchase” hot link underneath it. The hot “Purchase” in big letters outpulled the control-the original hot “Buy Now” in a big circle-by 33.3%.

But if the number of retailers who are carefully testing their changes is going up, there is still a large number who are just watching what others are doing and grabbing those designs, says Harley Manning, principal analyst with Forrester Research Inc. “We see a lot of people copying their competition without understanding whether what their competition is doing makes sense for themselves,” Manning says. “When that happens, you end up with a bunch of dogs chasing each other in a circle; they’re not really going anywhere.”

The web is not well established enough yet so that retailers can adopt what their competitors are doing with any confidence that it’s the right thing, Manning says. “The limitation to just copying is that the web is still not very good,” he says. “Anyone who’s just copying is probably perpetuating as many bad things as good things.”

However, retailers shouldn’t be too quick to undertake unique designs, Burke says. “If you don’t adhere to some basic design elements, people will get frustrated and leave,” he says. Two key elements, he says, are to have categories prominent on the home page, so customers know how to navigate, and to have the search box at the top right of the home page. “Consumers are adapting to standards on web sites,” Burke says, “and so retailers are migrating to them, at least to the point where they are open to considering what everyone else is doing.” (See box page 22.)

Architectural challenges

While level of detail about brand, product and customer is important to the success of a site, it pre-supposes a data structure that will allow a retailer to do something with the information in each of those areas. Retail web sites have come to realize that that means a lot of work upfront, Burke says. “Design is as much a function of architecture as it is of anything else,” he says. “If you just do design, you’ll be dead.”

A site’s architecture must take into account the levels of product categorization, the number of categories and the number of products in each category, designers say. The levels of categorization are a balancing act between merchandising needs and legitimate differences among products, Burke says. He encourages retailers to adopt no more than two levels-a main level, such as Men, Women and Children at an apparel site, and subcategories, such as Slacks, Shirts, Sweaters, Shoes. Also make sure that the categories make sense to the shopper. “Often, how retailers see products is different from how customers see products,” Fry says.

The ideal number of categories is five to seven, and they should not exceed nine, Burke says. That number is not arbitrary, but rather reflects studies about human cognitive abilities, experts say. A manageable number not only gives customers a quicker idea about how to find products, but also is more easily remembered and helps customers learn the site faster, Burke says. “If you put up 20 or 30 categories, people can’t figure out how to get around the site,” Burke says.

Finally, products should be evenly distributed among categories. The ideal number, Multimedia says, is 12-20, although as many as 30 are acceptable. Anything above 45 is too many, Multimedia says. “If you require seven pages of scrolling, customers will never see the seventh page,” Burke says. “That means you’ve not done a good job of categorization.”

Once the categorization is completed, retailers need to make sure they have thought through the rest of the site’s organization. For instance, one of the gravest sins that a retailer can commit, yet a practice that is still surprisingly widespread, is to return a “No results found” message to a search query, Burke says. “Don’t ever deliver a zero results page,” he admonishes. “Even when you get an error, give the customer something. You can say ‘Sorry, no results, but here’s something else to think about.’”

Broadband challenges

Similarly, he says, retailers need to pay more attention to their customer service pages. “Customer service pages are one of the most widely used sections of a web site,” he says. “So the design needs to be well thought-out, well organized, easy to get to and with all the information a customer will need.”

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