Turning your web lookers into web bookers

1st February 2001

Think about the last time you tried to buy something through the web. Was it easy to use the web site and find your product?

  • At each step of the way were you confident that you were doing the right thing and that you could trust the company behind the web site?
  • During checkout was it easy to provide the necessary billing and shipping information and know where you were in the process?
  • If the answer was no to any of these questions, there is a good chance that you never bought what you were after. You left frustrated and the company was left with an abandoned shopping cart.

Unfortunately, fruitless shopping experiences are very common, and are hindering the much-hyped e-commerce revolution. The good news is that you can avoid giving your customers this experience by applying principles of usability to the design of your web site – and increase your revenues as a result!

Profitability from Usability

Year 2000 is looking like the year in which many e-commerce ventures came back to earth, often with a fatal crash. Attitudes of venture capitalists changed as the industry watched web businesses fail to break the habit of spending money faster than they could earn it. Many companies that are surviving the current dot com cull are those that make it easier to buy goods and services.

In the competitive e-commerce environment a Darwinistic "Survival of the easiest" seems to be occurring. Sites such as Amazon.com provide a good experience to customers as they find, understand and buy the products or services they want. They conduct extensive usability tests to see how well real users use their site, and fix any problems found through better design. On the other hand, before dot bombing, boo.com adorned their site with cool but confusing technology that served as an obstacle to most people who came to the site to spend money there. The ubiquitous animation, obscure navigation and bizarre product categorisation may have intrigued a few visitors, but it prevented far more from purchasing. The result was a low conversion rate – the percentage of people who actually do what you want them to do on your site.

Why you need to focus on the conversion rate

To e-commerce businesses, failure to focus on the customer experience translates into lost revenue. Studies have shown that up to 40%1 of the time users attempting to purchase products on the web end in failure1, and the main reason behind these abandoned shopping carts is poor customer experience. As shown in Figure 1, converting more customers from 'lookers' to 'bookers' has a tremendous effect on business profitability. Starting with the industry average conversion rate of 1.8%2 and assuming an annual growth rate of 25%, it shows the impact of improvements through usability.

  1. Creative Good: Holiday 2000 E-Commerce: Avoiding $14 Billion in "Silent Losses"
  2. Shop.org and BCG, The State of Online Retailing, April 2000
graph showing then increase in profitability when online conversion rates are improved

Jenners – Here's how NOT to do it

As Edinburgh's answer to Harrods, Jenners has a profitable customer base. Unfortunately only the most determined shoppers are likely to succeed in using the Jenners online store (www.jenners.comLink opens in a new window ) because of the usability defects described below

Skip the Flash introduction

Jenners gives users a Shockwave Flash animated introduction to their site. The vast majority of web users prefer not to see animation that sets a 'mood' for a site. They have a goal for being at the site. After waiting over half a minute for the animation to download, I noticed that thankfully Jenners provides a 'skip intro' button. Unfortunately if users investigate one of the options beyond the home page and click the browser Back button they are thrown into the Flash introduction once again.

Let your links guide your users

Throughout the site links are not distinguished from general text, forcing the user to move their mouse around the site to try to find the bits of text that might reveal themselves as links. Some of these links are quite important, such as the one for entering the online store. Users must move their mouse to the text just click here to see an underline that identifies this as a clickable item. This is the equivalent to camouflaging the front door to your shop. Strangely enough on the same page there is an item that appears to be a link but is not. Users scan pages and their eyes tend to jump to the links. Hiding links forces your users to search, and prevents users from quickly moving easily through your pages. This hardly sets the stage for an online purchase.

The navigation bar has a good rollover feature to reveal the subcategories. However a major disadvantage is that rolling the mouse away from an item does not remove the rollover effect. This presents users with a confusing interface with a highlighted part of the navigation bar that does not correspond with the page they are on.

Let me go back-please!

Entering the store makes the shopping experience worse. A separate untitled window opens with no browser navigation buttons. The back button is one of the most frequently pressed buttons and to remove it seriously harms the user's ability to navigate. If a user enters one of the categories, but wants to go back, they suddenly have to recognise and know how to use a new navigation device introduced on the page: the breadcrumb trail.

If the user enters into a purchase process, even this basic navigation aid is removed. At one point Jenners even advises user to click the browser Back button which they have taken away. Usability tests clearly show that online users get scared during the transaction process – they suddenly remember all the stories of questionable web security and fraud. Locking them into the process makes it difficult to do simple tasks like changing the number of products ordered. This in turn heightens their fears of online shopping and no-doubt contributes to the high number of online shopping carts at Jenners.

What Can you do next?

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This article was written by Chris Rourke. Chris is the Managing Director of User Vision, a usability and accessibility consultancy that helps clients gain a competitive advantage through improved ease of use.

User Vision's work has been invaluable to us and has more than proven that usability testing is essential to this project.  I have thoroughly enjoyed working with your team and would hope to work with you again in the near future.

Change Manager, Britannia Building Society.