July 30, 2008, 12:00 AM

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Do your policies elevate or undermine your visitors’ sense of certitude? Because every shopper has a different point at which he or she reaches the confidence required to purchase, those on the borderline can be influenced by the site’s policies.

The site can fail the shopper in the policies themselves or in how it communicates those policies. Shipping, credit, and return policies feature most prominently in this failure scenario.

Return policies, for instance, involve the degree to which the site chooses to shoulder responsibility for the shopper having made a decision the shopper may later wish to reverse. How much of the risk associated with returning the item is the site prepared to accept? When a site does commit to paying in full for the return of products, it benefits from making that policy clear early and often in the shopper’s decision-making process.

An effective way to address these issues is to cross-tab the clickstream data of shoppers who view policy page links with their success scores and verbatim comments. Their behavior reveals their reaction to the policy and its impact on their decision-making.

5. The Transaction Level

This failure usually takes place behind the secure socket, but would include cart functionality. When the site fails the shopper at the transaction level, frustration and negative reaction reach their highest levels. Shoppers react to transaction level failures as if they had been betrayed. They frequently use “never again” in their verbatim feedback. The crucial question to ask of the data:

Which shoppers fell out of the checkout process at which point and why?

Reasons for checkout drop-off differ from step to step, so the most effective way to determine causality is to ask those who abandon at checkout questions tied to the precise point at which they abandoned. While the cart is generally considered part of the shopping process because it indicates some degree of commitment by the shopper, cart abandonment is something of a red herring since online shoppers frequently use carts as a calculator or a wish list. Cart abandonment typically speaks more to the shopper’s mindset. The same cannot be said for the checkout process, where simplicity rules and complexity kills.

6. The Technology Level

Slow page loads represent the most common technology-related complaint-especially when a site utilizes Flash in its product pages and does not have a product comparison function. Visitors needing to compare several items must either open multiple browser windows or else pogo-stick back and forth between products, waiting for pages to load each time. Users tire quickly of such inconvenience. Even if Flash is not the root cause of slow page loads, visitors blame Flash because it is the only part of the page delivery process they can see. They express frustration with sites utilizing Flash within the highly iterative parts of the shopping process.

Search through your visitors’ open text comments for terms such as “slow,” “time,” “load,” and the always productive “n’t,” which surfaces most of the negatively oriented feedback, then check the clickstreams of those who posted comments.

7. The Competition Level

Several companies in the user experience space provide industry benchmarking reports. These are useful longitudinal indicators but the metrics don’t lend themselves to action. Sites employing the failure analysis framework gain a clear picture of their competitive landscape, where they stand within it, and how they stack up in terms of specific strengths and weaknesses against each competitor.

The competitive analysis is accurate and allows an e-retailer to take action because it comes from direct feedback from thousands of the site’s own shoppers. These people are not trying to please you. They are trying to help themselves.

The starting question for this data:

What are the most frequently cited reasons our visitors favor a competitor’s site over ours?

Cross-tabbing this open text feedback against demographics, user experience scores, and clickstream behavior opens up the analytical paradigm. Your shoppers don’t think of best practices within specific verticals, such as e-retailing. Their expectations for what’s best on the web come from every site they visit, not just those of other retailers.

Look at the conversion numbers of shoppers who score your competitor’s sites higher than yours. Look at the revenue loss their preferences represent for you. Track the trends against the specific features that these shoppers cite. Use the numbers to prioritize and cost justify your improvement strategies.

Thorough failure analysis should take no more than three weeks on a sample of 3,000 to 5,000 respondents. The rigor of the analysis and the depth of the findings typically mean that an Internet retailer will consume no more than two of these analytical exercises a year.

The long range strategic route to site success lies in understanding visit failure and eliminating its root causes.


Roger Beynon is chief strategy officer for Usability Sciences Corp.

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