February 15, 2011, 12:36 PM

What you don’t know about browsers can hurt your conversion rate

Sites perform better when designed with today’s more complex browsers in mind, IRWD speakers say.

Lead Photo

Imad Mouline, left, and Tony Elmquist speaking today at IRWD 2011.

There was a time when the web browser on a consumer’s computer simply rendered the content that a retailer transmitted from its servers. But those days are long gone, and understanding the complex workings of today’s web browsers is critical for good site performance and conversion, two speakers explained today at the Internet Retailer Web Design & Usability Conference 2011.

Tony Elmquist, a web developer at web and catalog retailer L.L. Bean Inc., No. 24 in the Internet Retailer Top 500 Guide, gave the example of a page he developed for the 2009 holiday season that enabled site visitors to drag products into a personalized page where they could zoom into images, send product information to friends and interact in other ways.

The page worked fine with the FireFox 3.5 browser he used to develop it, but when a tester outside of L.L. Bean’s firewall tried to load the page using the Internet Explorer 6 browser the page load stopped dead for 10 seconds before it resumed rendering. That kind of delay was sure to lead shoppers to abandon the task.

Elmquist investigated and learned that IE 6 was unable to handle a kind of JavaScript code used in the application. “Two days before launch, we rewrote the code,” Elmquist said. “These are the kinds of things you have to watch out for.”

And while most consumers now use more advanced browsers than IE6, he said that IE6 browser is still used by 4-5% of the slightly older than average shoppers at LLBean.com. In China, he said, 60% of online shoppers use IE 6. Each retailer must consider its own customers and the browsers they use when deciding how important each browser is.

Elmquist spoke with Imad Mouline, chief technology officer at Gomez, the web performance division of Compuware Corp. Mouline explained that it’s important to optimize performance not by each web page but by the most important tasks consumers perform on a retailer’s site. In some cases, that actually means foregoing a technique that could speed up one page but slow down a common customer flow—such as viewing a category, a product page and checking out. That could occur, for instance, because optimizing an early page in that flow might make it harder to cache some of the information for later pages, Mouline said.

To illustrate the point, Elmquist gave the example of two types of visitors to LLBean.com. One knows the shirt she wants from seeing it in Bean’s catalog and navigates rapidly to a product page and checkout. Another shopper looking for a fishing reel may want to gather information, watching videos and asking questions of Bean specialists, and consider several products before making a selection.

The second shopper will make use of many more complex, interactive features of the site, many of which use JavaScript code. L.L. Bean could take steps that would help the fisherman complete his task more quickly but in so doing integrate unnecessary JavaScript code into pages the directed shopper sees, making it harder for her to get to checkout quickly. The direct customer is more important, Elmquist said.

“We want to deliver a rich experience, but we don’t want to slow down our core customer experience,” he said. “That’s where the bulk of our business is, and that’s what we care about most.”

Mouline and Elmquist also described some of the new features of new browsers, including support for HTML5, the latest version of the HTML language used to create web sites.

Support for HTML5 varies widely among browsers—Mouline pointed to a test that scored browsers from 0-300 on this feature and scores ranged from 12 to 231. Given this wide variation, Mouline recommended focusing HTML5 development on mobile applications, as smartphones, being newer devices, are more likely to use modern browsers that support HTML5.

Using HTML5 will allow mobile web sites to deliver faster and richer experiences by drawing on resources on a user’s smartphone, such as their address book, as do mobile apps developed for specific phones like the iPhone or Android handsets. As an example, Elmquist said HTML5 would allow a retailer to access a database of information about a customer’s preferences and shopping history.

“Instead of storing that information in a cookie we can store huge reams of data that we can dump into a database on the client side,” he said. That would allow a customer, for example, to quickly bring up the items she purchased previously and reorder them, or select a stored shipping address at checkout.

Even though many web browsers cannot yet process HTML5 code, Elmquist recommended getting start with developing with HTML5 for mobile applications, as a way for developers to get ready for the day when it will make sense to develop applications for the PC-based web with HTML5. Because code written for mobile phones must be very compact, it will force developers to learn how to write very efficiently, which will come in handy later. “If we develop HTML5 for mobile now,” he said, “by the time we can port it to the desktop, when 90% of browsers can support HTML5, we’ll have very efficient code.”


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