February 24, 2011, 11:39 AM

Sports Authority lets consumers make the calls on site design changes

Lab testing exposed design flaws; improvements boosted conversion by 47%.

Lead Photo

In a bid to increase conversions, sporting goods retailer Sports Authority was focused on promotions, like the discounts featured on its home page. But it wasn’t until a site redesign improved usability that it got the kind of results it wanted: a 47% increase in conversions over six months, vice president of e-ecommerce Clay Cowan told attendees in a session at last week’s Web Design & Usability Conference 2011.

It’s an example of how a designer’s vision for a web site doesn’t necessarily line up with what makes a site easy for consumers to shop, and it underscores the importance of usability considerations in site design. By expecting home page promotions like 20% off to carry the ball on upping conversions, for example, Sports Authority had discounted the fact that the many visitors who come to the site from search and other sources bypass the home page.

“80% of our visitors never saw it,” Cowan said of a particular home page promotion.

Sports Authority redirected its conversion-boosting efforts to improving usability after watching consumers interact with its site in the usability lab of GSI Commerce Inc., its e-commerce platform vendor. Co-presenter Michael Summers, vice president of usability at GSI Commerce, has watched thousands of consumers test e-commerce sites in the lab, and he shared common usability errors on retail sites, showing video of consumers in the lab to illustrate his points.

In one series of clips, for example, consumers were asked to name the number of products a web page offered in a chosen category. Most gave a number corresponding with the number of product photos on the page, failing to notice a text list of additional products on the left side of the page, or missing that they could scroll horizontally to view additional product photos on the same page.

Summers pointed to other common usability errors in retail site design.  For example, web designers often work with large monitors that display pages in much higher resolution than consumers will see on a page viewed on smaller screens. As a result, designers may use the wrong scale in creating page elements. “Get the resolution right,”  Summers told attendees.

He also encouraged attendees to make sure global navigation is clearly visible on all site pages and advised caution in using features such as faceted, or filtered, navigation that lets visitors sort results by such factors as price, brand and product category. “Consumers really don’t understand it,” he said. Some shoppers taking part in usability lab tests don’t grasp how any filtering option they select will affect the display they’re seeing, or that they can apply multiple filters simultaneously, he added.

After viewing consumers trying to complete tasks on its site and gaining an understanding of where the site confused them, Sports Authority moved quickly to make usability changes that netted the significant boost in conversion in the second half of 2010.  The exercise also has given Sports Authority a blueprint for handling web site redesigns going forward. “We‘ll explore and test significant site changes with consumers,” Cowan said, “before we make them or invest in them.”

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