July 27, 2006, 12:00 AM

Clicking on all cylinders

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Software generates individual session recordings as a line map overlaying a web page that shows the direction of the user`s eye movements across the page. Aggregating data from multiple user sessions generates a color-coded heat map showing eye movement trends. That kind of visual information offers web site designers guidance on what elements to place where on the site to increase their effectiveness; practical information, for example, on whether images associated with key text are actually increasing readership of that text.

Eye tracking is also building a body of data on what works and what doesn`t. It`s demonstrated, for example, that the eye becomes habituated to a top navigation or left side navigation scheme. That makes it important for the search box, part of how visitors find their way around a site, to be closely associated with the navigation scheme on a site through color, delineation or location. One Critical Mass client that used a left navigation bar but had placed the search box in the upper right corner of the page—a common arrangement on retail sites—saw significantly better utilization of the guided navigation feature after it moved the search box closer to the nav bar.

Lean forward

While leading-edge retail sites are availing themselves of new tools and technology to guide and implement site design, the same changing patterns of how consumers interact with sites offers takeaways for any online retailer. And whether design addresses that with the help of rich media features or something as simple as moving a search box to a more visible spot, in general, when planning design it pays to think not like a marketer but like a consumer.

Good web site design today has evolved into something more contextual, interactive and much less static than it was even a few years ago. "If you think of TV as a `lean-back` kind of experience, the Internet is a `lean-forward` experience," says Clemmons. "So look for the kind of lean-forward tools and experiences that you can put on a computer monitor that will encourage people to interact, to participate, and to really see that product in their home as something they desire."

The buzz on Web 2.0
How will it influence design for retailers?

The buzz lately is about Web 2.0: the fusion between technology that makes online applications work better for consumers, and the community aspect that results from consumers influencing sites every time they visit them. Many retailers are wondering how Web 2.0 will affect visitor reaction to their sites.

The expectations of users are changing as they become accustomed to cutting-edge Web 2.0 sites such as Flickr.com and del.icio.us.com, notes David Fry, CEO of web design, hosting and managed services provider Fry Inc. And the challenge for nearly all web properties now is around what expectations a visitor steeped in Web 2.0 experiences will bring to a site, Fry adds. What will he expect to see and do? What type of interaction will he expect between that site and other sites and services?

Fry notes many new technologies and web design concepts that online retailers must become familiar with in order to engage today`s Web 2.0 consumer. His comments on what he views as the top five:

AJAX (Asynchronous JavaScript and XML): It meets the needs of consumers who no longer want to click and wait for pages and frees designers from page-by-page development to provide a naturally intuitive experience, similar to desktop applications. AJAX also provides more user-friendly product configurators and buying guides.

CSS2: The next generation of Cascading Style Sheets. CSS has been used to globally control design elements such as font types and spacing for an entire site. CSS2 enhances this ability to control characteristics across the site and can be used to change the position of elements on a page without accessing the page code.

Real Simple Syndication (RSS): Embraced by the blogging community and used by many to streamline and capture relevant news in retailing, RSS can be used to share content easily and just might be the next generation of opt-in e-mail.

Tagging: This expands the taxonomy that every site uses to describe the category hierarchy of products. For example, a retailer might assign a parka a taxonomy of Mens/Outerwear/Skiing/Parkas/Columbia Double Whammy. A shopper may see it differently—"great coat for thrashing in the powder at Aspen." Tagging is seen on sites like Flickr.com and YouTube.com, where users impose their own hierarchy on the information structure by placing tags or comments on a site. The results of community tagging can yield interesting design options.

Social Computing: User reviews let consumers read others` feedback about products as they make their own purchase decisions, as well as provide their own review. Their impact has grown along with the community commerce aspects of the web at sites like iTunes. Once limited to the site of origination or affiliation, they now are shared across networks at third-party sites.

Click Here for the Internet Retailer Guide to Providers of Web Site Design

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