December 31, 2007, 12:00 AM creative chief keeps eye on customers

Debbie Kristofferson, vice president of creative and user experience at, used extensive customer feedback and her TV background when redesigning the retail chain’s site.

It may look nice, but are customers using it? Debbie Kristofferson, vice president of creative and user experience at, found the answer to that question very quickly upon seeing the results of research into what customers thought of Wal-Mart’s e-commerce site during preparation for a redesign.

Customers were the cornerstone of the redesign, and they were quizzed thoroughly, right down to eye-tracking studies. Kristofferson’s team combined the customer research findings with data from Omniture Inc., its web analytics service, and found it was frequently spending too much time on the wrong things.

For example, the old site had a three-column structure. Site navigation was on the left, while the middle area featured product details and the right-hand column was used to promote seasonal merchandise or other products that might interest a customer.

“We learned that customers were ignoring that part of the page, so the click-through was low, and it got no attention in eye-tracking studies,” Kristofferson says. Those studies showed the considerable effort Kristofferson’s team put into creating content for the right-hand column was largely wasted. The redesigned two-column site has only the left-hand section for site navigation and the main section; tabs for site navigation are included across the top. The right-hand column has been abandoned for now, but may be readopted someday if the design team can find a way to use it to serve the customer.

Kristofferson is the keynote speaker at the Internet Retailer Web Design Conference. Her keynote address is titled Wal-Mart: Setting the pace on site design.

Kristofferson came to web site design from TV and web content production, having served as a producer at The Discovery Channel. Her science show, Next Step, had given her a chance to do TV segments describing the intriguing development of the Internet. After The Discovery Channel, Kristofferson worked for two years as executive producer at Third Age, a web portal for people heading into retirement. She then moved to Excite, where CEO George Bell, another alum of television, hired her to structure the site into a coherent network of services to engender user loyalty. And then it was on to, No. 13 in the Internet Retailer Top 500 Guide.

The redesign of, which debuted late last year, was Kristofferson’s biggest opportunity yet to demonstrate her creative chops. She oversaw the redesign of 2 million pages, and every aspect of the site was rethought. Browse-to-checkout was stripped down to four clicks, images were enlarged and enhanced with rich media features, apparel and home furnishings were arranged into “collections” in a way that’s difficult to duplicate at a Wal-Mart store, and customers have new information resources, including CNET product buying guides and customer reviews.

Developing content for a retail site is philosophically different from producing a television show, or even a content-oriented site, where the content and its creators are the stars of the show. In retail, the merchandise and the merchandising team are the stars, and the web team’s function is to support them any way it can. Nonetheless, her TV experience is invaluable, Kristofferson says. “If you can’t grab and maintain someone’s attention, you can’t get ratings and you’re out of business. Having content brought to life in a way that meets viewer needs is a muscle that TV builds over and over again.”

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