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New Rules of Engagement in Web Usability

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Most websites lack a customer-focused approach. See some common mistakes and learn how to avoid them on your website.
This chapter is from the book

What am I doing wrong? I guess they don't have it," Charlotte muttered to herself while she attempted to hide her frustration. The fact is the major retail website Charlotte was exploring did have the product she was looking for; she just couldn't find it.

Charlotte is representative of hundreds of shoppers who participated in major task-analysis research conducted by Hewlett-Packard Company over the years to understand the customer challenges of online shopping. The scenario for her task was simple: "Your printer is out of ink. Go to this website, and find and purchase what you need to get it going again."

Charlotte knew exactly what she was looking for. The product was a popular item in its category, and the online merchant had it on the website. But she still got lost several times during her search and needed to start over from the home page. She spent nearly 15 minutes searching just to come up empty-handed before aborting the task. She was visibly agitated with the experience, and, at the end of the allotted time, she said she would never shop at that online store again.

In an actual situation while shopping from her home computer, she would most likely be surrounded by normal, everyday distractions that would cause the task to take even longer. She would have spent only a fraction of the time on the original website before clicking to another for a more satisfying shopping experience.

You must realize that customers won't shop on websites that are difficult or that take too long to use. Can you blame them?

After analyzing the results at hand, we identified two key problems with the website in the example:

  • Charlotte did not use the website the way the developers intended.

  • The top-selling, routinely needed item for which she was searching was buried too deep within the website.

On the surface, these two problems seem simple. But after diving down into their root causes, observing customers and analyzing research, this example is symptomatic of a widespread e-commerce problem: applying old design rules to a new medium.

"If customers can't find it, they can't buy it."
—Dr. Jakob Nielsen, Web Usability Expert

You must also realize that customers in research settings represent only a fraction of real shopping customers and the trouble they have finding and selecting products in online stores.

The Trouble with Websites

Many websites have products that people can't find. It is clear that a big gap exists between how online stores are organized and how customers want to shop for products. This results in unsuccessful searches and abandoned shopping carts. Shoppers give up when they can't find what they are looking for easily and quickly.

Most websites lack a customer-focused approach. Web developers often design e-commerce websites that are database driven rather than customer driven. Database-driven websites are organized around products that an online store has for sale and are designed for efficiencies of code. Customer-driven websites are based on how a customer shops for the products on the website and are designed after understanding customer needs.

Fundamentally, e-commerce and online shopping are new paradigms, while traditional methodologies and principles—the old rules—are applied. These old rules and techniques haven't translated well to this new type of store and have not provided shoppers with an intuitive shopping model. As a result, customers can't accomplish simple tasks such as finding popular products on major websites.

Online stores were historically developed by taking existing information and importing it into a website. Most websites are designed to allow shopping for one product with little consideration for multiple product purchases. This approach does not work successfully and customers expect more from this new technology. Information should be specially developed and tailored to online shopping and must be kept current.

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