1. Email Newsletters
Email newsletters let you maintain a relationship with your customers that lasts beyond their visits to your site. The newsletter is the perfect website companion because it answers a different user need: newsletters keep customers informed and in touch with the company; websites give customers detailed information and let them perform business transactions.
Newsletters are fairly cheap. They require little technology and mustn’t be published too frequently. If you don’t have a newsletter, then publishing one is probably the single-highest ROI action you can take to improve your Internet presence. If you do have a newsletter, then improving it according to research findings will likely make it several times more valuable to your organization. (Most of the newsletters we’ve tested failed to meet users’ expressed desire for good communication.)
Newsletters have one more benefit: they are the primary way to liberate your site from dependence on search engines. In the long run, achieving this liberation is one of the most important strategic challenges facing Internet managers.
2. Informative Product Pages
The product pages on e-commerce sites, marketing sites, and B2B sites all suffer from information deficit. It’s rare to see product descriptions that tell prospects everything they need to know to make a purchasing decision.
In my recent book, I present data showing that poor product information accounted for 8% of the usability problems on the websites we tested. Even worse, poor product information accounted for 10% of the user failures (that is, cases where users gave up, as opposed to “just” being delayed or annoyed). Designing product pages according to user needs is a highly targeted way to encourage sales at a point where users have already indicated interest by virtue of visiting the page.
You need detailed product information, but it must be written in a way that makes sense to people who aren’t experts in your field. For example, on the product page for a laptop, don’t be like Dell and tell people that the screen is “WSXGA+.” Tell them it’s 1680 x 1050 pixels. (Be honest: did you know this? And you’re probably five times as geeky as a normal person.) Or, better yet, be like Apple and show different screen resolutions next to each other so users can see how much data is visible with each.
3. High-Quality Photography
One of the simplest ways to improve product pages is to show better photographs. For the hero shot at the top of the page, show the most representative photo in a small size. Below that, offer several additional photos that show different angles and close-up details. Also, remember mistake #10 of the top-10 Web-design mistakes of 2005: linking from small pictures to pictures that are only slightly bigger. Instead, link to photos that are as close to full-screen enlargements as possible.
Using huge enlargements might seem to contradict the guideline about fast response times for downloading Web pages. But there’s a big difference between bloating a navigational page with irrelevant graphics and showing a big photo after the user asked for it. In the first case, the slow download interrupts the user’s flow. In the second case, the delay is expected, and while delays are never welcome, they are less of a problem when they’re clearly necessary to fulfill a user request.
A great downside of the online medium is that people can’t touch and feel your products. But close-ups and quality photographs can still give users a good approximation of a product’s tactile qualities, and they are essential to making people feel good about buying online.
For software products or online services, show full-resolution screenshots instead of photos.
4. Product Differentiation and Comparisons
You must soothe user fears about buying the wrong product, or they’ll postpone their purchases and probably never buy from your site. When you have multiple products in the same category, you must explain product differences so clearly that it’s obvious to people without industry expertise why they should buy one particular product over the others.
Product differentiation is obviously easier for companies that simplify their product lines in the first place. Why offer many different products with virtually no true differences? For example, Dell has four different models of laptops: Inspiron, Latitude, Precision, and XPS, several of which are available in six different trim lines. If there’s a clear difference between the models, it’s not explained well on the website.
Even if you have a small and clearly defined product line, you must make the differences blatantly obvious on your site.
Comparison tools can also help users choose and thus overcome decision paralysis and facilitate sales. But such tools work well only when they illustrate key differences in a concise and unambiguous manner. Too often, websites take the easy way out and simply throw up a huge table of specifications without highlighting the points where products differ.
5. Support for Reordering
I’ve already mentioned the best way to get repeat business: offer an email newsletter, which will keep customers thinking about you even when they’re not ready to buy. Then, when they want to spend money, they’ll remember you.
To make people spend more money, make it easy to reorder. People often need the same things again and again. Why require them to navigate five levels down your site each time? In B2B, customers often need to order supplies, spare parts, or accessories for equipment they’ve already bought, so you should also facilitate those types of supplementary orders.
In one of our studies last month, test participants especially appreciated it when FreshDirect, an online grocer, let them reorder from their previous shopping lists.
Reordering is a matter of total user experience, beyond the website’s user interface. Compose your product line with a view toward reordering. Continue to carry classic products so that people can order new copies of things they like. If you need to launch new products, keep sizes and similar parameters the same. For example, a customer who bought a sweater last year should be able to buy this year’s model in the same size and be guaranteed that it’ll fit equally well. Keeping sizes identical is much more important for etailing than for the physical retail channel, where customers can try things on before buying.
6. Simplified Text
You can usually double website or intranet usability simply by rewriting the text to follow the guidelines for online content. Better writing is probably the single most important improvement you can make to your site, but it appears fairly far down the top-10 list because it’s not a one-time fix. You must hire good writers for all your projects, train them in writing for the Web, and have all of their content edited by even better editors who are even more knowledgeable about content usability.
Expensive though they may be, editors are always worth the cost.
7. Catering to Seniors
Older people are the fastest-growing segment of Internet users. In fact, they are virtually the only remaining growth market in rich countries, where most of the younger people who want to get online already have accounts.
Many senior citizens are rich and have time on their hands. When it becomes difficult for them to get around, the Internet becomes a natural place for them to spend some of their vast piles of money. Seniors are also less into piracy and tend to be more loyal than fad-chasing young people.
Best of all, you can take advantage of the fact that most websites discriminate horribly against older users. Even government websites that supposedly target retirees are designed according to guidelines for thirty-somethings. Because so many sites are hard for them to use, seniors will shower you with business if you’re the honorable exception who acknowledges their special needs. (And, those needs aren’t even that special — it’s much easier to make sites usable for seniors than for users with disabilities, plus there are many more seniors and they tend to be richer.)
8. Gift-Giving Support
Wishlists and gift certificates are low-cost features that give you incremental sales and introduce your site to new customers.
Maybe search shouldn’t be on this list; even though the benefits from improving it are immense, the required investment is fairly high — certainly higher than for the other redesign initiatives listed here. Thus, the cost/benefit ratio is not as stunningly favorable for search as it is for my other recommendations. It’s still favorable, though, so you should work on it.
Users increasingly depend on search as a primary interface to the Web. While search is getting fairly good for the Internet at large, it remains miserable on most websites and intranets.
Fixing your site’s search requires that you buy and install better search software, and then tune it for your content and user queries (by adapting the spell-checking suggestions, for example). Worse, you must fix your content so that it’s searchable. For example, you have to write meaningful page titles that actually explain the page’s content so that people will know what they’ll get when they click on a search hit. You also have to write using your users’ vocabulary.
While it’s expensive to rewrite your content for findability, doing so also improves your standing in external search engines, and SEO (search engine optimization) is one of the highest-ROI Internet marketing tactics. This is a much better investment than running ads that most users won’t see due to banner blindness.
10. User Testing
User testing should really be #1 on this list because of its ability to set your project right with almost no investment. But I know that most readers tune out when I harp too much on the need for testing: people prefer to be told what to do rather than run their own studies.
However unpopular, I still recommend that you do your own user testing. There are always issues that are unique to your own industry that can’t be resolved by reading general research insights. And remember: usability studies can be cheap, especially when you use low-cost paper prototypes that let you test an interface while it’s still in the early design phase.
Bonus Tactic: Loyalty Program
For 10 years, I’ve recommended loyal-user programs, such as frequent-browser points modeled after airlines’ frequent-flyer miles. Virtually no websites have taken me up on this idea, so I can’t claim that it’s a proven high-ROI tactic like those on the official top-10 list. But, take loyalty programs as a bonus idea: it’s likely to be one of the main ways the Internet can fight back against search engine overlords and return more of the value to the websites that create it.
We’ve recently been observing people shopping online and are seeing some user loyalty emerge: more users are now starting out at a preferred site rather than a search engine. Perhaps we’re finally seeing some websites that are good enough to be worthy of a bit of loyalty.
To encourage more loyalty, reward your repeat users. Discount offers and free shipping are the obvious ideas, but a website is a computer and we can go beyond these old-world approaches. For example, there are products in limited supply that sell out every holiday shopping season; give your loyal users first dibs on your allocation — or let them register for future allocations before you make them available to the general public.
Serving Customers, Not Chasing Hype
The high-ROI ideas I have highlighted here have one thing in common: they add value to your site by enhancing its value for customers. That is, they give users what they want and need. These ideas are not the latest over-hyped stories the trade press loves to cover. Users want you to get back to basics and invest in the simple things that really matter to them.
Interface design is about making money for the company. Execution and workmanship are what you need, not fashion and advanced features. Do the basics, and do them well.
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