February 28, 2008, 12:00 AM

Internet Retailer Web Design ’08

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“Lighter is righter,” said David Flinn, director of professional services at Gomez Inc., which tracks site performance. “If you’re losing customers it could be bad navigation, but it could also be it’s just too slow.” He suggested reserving bandwidth-clogging rich media for the pages that really engage customers, such as product pages.

Online retailers also should be sure that they use rich media in a way that meets customers’ expectations, advised Shari Thurow, founder and search engine optimization director of Omni Marketing Interactive. For instance, if clicking on a product image brings up product detail for one product, it should do the same for others.

She also warned that extensive use of technologies like video and Ajax can hurt a site’s search engine rankings, as the engines do not index those elements the way they do web pages. “The more rich media you put on a site, the less likely it is to appear at the top of search results,” she said. Thurow advised attendees to consult with an expert in search engine optimization before adding rich media to a site.

Keep it simple

While there were several presentations about advanced technology, there were also speakers extolling the virtues of simplicity and consistency.

Among them was Jamie Dihiansan, senior art director at multi-channel retailer Crate and Barrel, who emphasized letting the product be the star of the web page. Crate and Barrel’s product pages feature a central image box, which rotates rich photographs of one product at a time. Templates can easily be changed to incorporate new content, enabling a digital graphics team of only six to keep up with a web site where up to half the products change each season.

Some web sites make the mistake of trying putting too much on a home page, said Jennifer Bailey, usability services manager at web performance-measurement company ForeSee Results Inc. “Emphasize everything and you emphasize nothing,” she said. “Customers don’t know where to focus.”

She also advised putting key elements, such as search boxes and navigation features, in the usual places on the page. “Be innovative in other ways,” Bailey said. “When it comes to the core e-commerce functionalities follow the conventional path, because that’s what customers expect.”

SonyStyle.com has been redesigned three times in seven years, and the current version features consistent placement of key information across categories, said Darrell Porcher, Sony’s director of web development. It’s also designed to enable all kinds of consumers to research and buy products. “We learned that you can’t be so segmented that you wind up isolating the customer,” Porcher said.

Often isolated from e-commerce are consumers with disabilities, and Lynne Brown explained that group includes 21% of the working-age population of the U.S. Redesigning its web site to make it accessible to the disabled helped Japan’s Mitsukoshi department store chain increase online sales by 45%, said Brown, business development specialist at the IBM Human Ability & Accessibility Center.

A personal account of how hard it is for the blind to shop online was presented by Pina D’Intino, senior manager of service management reporting and accessibility at Scotiabank, one of Canada’s largest banks. While her computer is equipped to speak the text in tags attached to graphical elements on a web page, D’Intino, who lost her sight nine years ago, said fields often are not properly tagged. Her bank is working with other financial institutions in Canada to come up with standards for making web sites easier for the disabled to use.

Moving to mobile

Looking ahead, mobile commerce eventually will emerge as a fourth major retailing channel along with stores, the web and catalogs, David Sikora, CEO of mobile shopping mall Digby, told the conference.

Today, selling to consumers through their mobile phones is limited by the phones’ small screens and the unpredictable connectivity of wireless networks, he said. Data entry is also problematic. “You can’t build the same type of customer experience with mobile commerce just yet as you can with a personal computer linked to the Internet,” he said.

That will change, Sikora said, comparing mobile commerce today to the state of online retailing 15 years ago. “We are in a similar era with mobile commerce,” he said. “The merchants that figure out how to use this channel will have a huge competitive edge.”

And those retailers will face an entirely new set of design challenges.


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