February 28, 2007, 12:00 AM

Designs on Success

Web site design is the classic Internet-years phenomenon. Retailers who don’t get regular makeovers risk being left behind.

To quote a former U.S. president, “Oh, the vision thing.” For the e-commerce web site design thing, vision is crucial.

Last year Overstock.com CEO Patrick Byrne had increasingly worrisome financials top of mind. The financial woes were caused by a significant but troubled 2005 investment in new e-commerce and fulfillment technology. Hastily implemented system upgrades and subsequent troubles caused by them ultimately resulted in the Internet-only retailer posting a net loss in 2006 of $96.8 million on sales of $796.3 million vs. 2005’s net loss of $24.9 million on revenue of $803.8 million.

So Byrne began envisioning ways to turn things around. One of the big solutions he put into play was a major redesign of the retail web site-the 18th largest, according to the Internet Retailer Top 500 Guide-slated to launch late summer. To be a success, though, the redesign required a clear and focused vision, he says.

“If you just do step-by-step, incremental evolution, you’re overlooking paradigm changes. You will not get there by incremental A/B testing alone,” Byrne says.

He reached this conclusion based on experience. Byrne finds crafting an overarching vision as the basis for site design and greater teamwork more balanced than the e-retailer’s previous on-the-go changes made by a small group of people. “It seems rational to quickly force changes through, and I’m guilty of that more than anybody,” he says. If he could start afresh with design, he says things would be done the way they’re now being done: first create the vision, then build a technological foundation, one that enables easy testing of design elements and brings the vision to life.

Visual and operational choices made by man are tested by machine to help Byrne and his in-house site design team determine what works best. The retailer uses testing and analytics applications from Omniture Inc., SiteSpect Inc. and Visual Sciences, a subsidiary of WebSideStory Inc. “These tools let us track how shoppers are using our site and what changes are effective or not,” he explains.

Overstock.com’s vision for its yet-to-debut site redesign is based on the vision of the company itself: to be “the world’s coolest outlet store,” one that showcases value and leaves customers satisfied, it says. Come the end of summer, the world will get to judge, based on appearance, just how cool Overstock.com is.

The known universe

There are nearly 109 million web sites in the world, according to Internet research firm Netcraft Ltd. If they were entered in Best in Show, what web site design standards could a judge use to make a decision? Applying the word “standard” to the art and science of site design is as ludicrous as the Miss Universe Pageant: Does tall play well in The Ukraine? Are Australians biased against plastic surgery? And where is Miss Centaurus Galaxy?

According to one judge, though, there actually is one standard that can be used to determine best or worst, right or wrong: the audience. “Site design only is wrong if you choose the wrong solution based on who your customers are,” says Imad Mouline, chief technology officer at Gómez Inc., an Internet performance management consulting firm. “This is because the industry is shifting from a black-and-white way of looking at design toward a view centered on the customer’s web experience.”

Indeed, retailers have to think fast if they want the tiara and the roses. “E-commerce continues to evolve quickly, unlike the other channels, which have been around so long and stabilized. E-commerce is only starting to approach that point, and evolution forces e-retailers to reevaluate design on a regular basis and consider upgrading to new technologies,” says Joseph “Tocky” Lawrence, vice president of consulting and e-commerce services firm F. Curtis Barry & Co. Lawrence specializes in e-commerce site design, platforms and strategy. “But there is no rule for how often a merchant needs to redesign; I typically see e-commerce sites do major overhauls every two or three years.”

Because there are almost 109 million web sites competing for the attention of Internet users, many experts say the number of “suggested guidelines” for design is very small, and the guidelines themselves are understandably broad:

— No more making it up as you go along. A clear, all-encompassing concept is a must.

— Know when to say “when.” Overcrowding is never good, but there is also such a thing as “too much white space.”

— Keep up with the ever-increasing pace of web technology development, for technology profoundly influences design.

— And ultimately, one sure key to winning design is winning over the audience by ensuring its voice is heard.

Go fly a kite

Overstock.com isn’t the only kid who wants to be the coolest e-commerce site on the block. BestKiteboarding.com, which launched in February 2004, not only wants to be cool, it needs to be cool, the company says.

“It’s a cool sport, and we’re trying to show through our design the lifestyle and community of kiters,” says Troy Lawson, chief technology officer at Best Kiteboarding LLC, which annually redesigns its site. “Kiting is like a buddy system-like climbing, you can do it alone but it’s not as easy. This makes for a happy and excited group.”

And, following suit, a happy and exciting e-commerce site. “The thrust of the look and feel is to be extremely dynamic,” Lawson says. “With this year’s home page design we’re doing a little less selling and focusing more on lifestyle. The top three-fourths of the page is community and lifestyle, the bottom fourth is selling.”

To get its point across, the e-retailer is using online video, rotating imagery, vibrant colors and other visual elements. Oh, and pictures of girls. Lots of girls in bikinis. 90% of kiteboarders are men; the customer breakdown skews even further, with 95% of purchases made by men, Lawson says.

Know thy customer doesn’t get much easier. However, Lawson says this year’s design involves more than a shopper can quickly absorb and plans to make things easier on the eyes during the next redesign, scheduled for a fall launch. “We still will keep a lot of information and features on the site, but this year’s is just a little too busy,” he says.

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