How to create a great online customer experience

8th Aug 2007

72 percent of UK organisations are planning to increase their website usability budget over the next 12 months according to a new report. But what should they be spending this budget on if they want to improve the online customer experience?

By Neil Davey, editor

The gospel according to customer experience management preaches the virtues of consistent and positive experiences across a company’s multiple channels. Contact centres have often been portrayed as the perennial sinners in this respect, commonly castigated for providing disconnected and inconsistent experiences. But what about company websites?

The internet has developed into one of the most prominent customer touchpoints. Yet few firms treat it with corresponding emphasis, and E-consultancy’s Usability and User Experience Report 2007 reveals that only a quarter of companies say they are “extremely committed” to providing the best possible online experience.

“Most businesses still aren’t taking it seriously enough,” admits James Roper, CEO of IMRG, a global body for e-tailing. “We can still see so much more that can be achieved and we must recognise how much further it has to go before it becomes anything like mature. However, it is getting better very quickly in terms of the general levels of satisfaction that consumers are reporting.”

"Businesses are putting more time and effort into what they do with their websites - but that is not to say they have got the right view on how successful their website is." Conrad Bennett, technical services director, WebTrends

A growing number of firms are indeed seeing the light. A survey of over 700 internet marketers conducted by E-consultancy and behavioural research consultancy Bunnyfoot found that 72 percent of UK organisations are planning to increase their usability budget over the next 12 months. But it does raise the question: what should they be spending this budget on if they want to create a great online customer experience?

Taking usability seriously

“Businesses are putting more time and effort into what they do with their websites - but that is not to say they have got the right view on how successful their website is and whether they share the same view as their customers or visitors,” suggests Conrad Bennett, technical services director at WebTrends.

“Whether a company is creating a site or redesigning a site, they spend money upfront on hardware and software and then agencies develop the site and content that fits on it. These are the things that they get a bill for, so these are the things they focus on. ‘What is the availability? Is the corporate branding correct? Is it up all the time? Can people get on it?’ These are obviously very valid, but they are not the be all and end all and companies need to take usability seriously as well.”

In terms of basic website usability, visitors expect text they can read, content that answers their questions and easy to use navigation that helps them find what they want. Yet it is surprising how often sites can fail to provide the basic foundations for a positive customer experience. 79 percent of websites tested by Forrester Research, for instance, fail in the text legibility criteria by either making their text too small or failing to have enough contrast in the foreground and background colours.

"The highest failure rate concerns whether or not the site presents privacy and security policies." Kerry Bodine, principal analyst, customer experience, Forrester Research

And Forrester has uncovered other common shortcomings. “The highest failure rate concerns whether or not the site presents privacy and security policies,” says Kerry Bodine, principal analyst, customer experience at Forrester Research. “When you are filling out a form and you have to enter your personal information, the site should present a link to the privacy policy in context and not buried in the page in six point font – right there so that you can feel comfortable using the site. But 83 percent of the sites that we evaluated failed that category.”

Some usability problems stem from developers focusing too much on the way they are building a site and not enough on how somebody would actually use it. This mistake often results in sites that force the user into behaving in a way that isn’t necessarily consistent with the way the web works, according to Bennett.

“If I put something in my shopping cart, I expect it to stay there. So if I close the window and come back to the site and it’s not there anymore then that is frustrating. It also concerns things like using the back button. People like to use the back button and if that breaks your site or causes problems then that is not the user’s problem, because it is one of the few buttons in an internet browser and it is fairly standard. So if the technology on a site can’t handle that, then it is going to affect the user’s experience.”

Tuning usability

Fortunately, for those companies that are on a quest to improve the online experience there are a handful of techniques that can identify where usability needs fine tuning. A popular tactic is to invest in a web analytics system which enables firms to analyse the behaviour of visitors.

“It’s a key evaluation tool,” stresses Bodine. “Companies can identify where people are dropping off, where they beat a well worn path for certain content, and what content is never used on the site. It won’t tell you exactly what the problem is if customers are dropping off at a certain place, so you will need to use other methodologies to supplement web analytics, but it is a great diagnostic tool.”

"The most critical decision is to recognise that the online experience should be as good (or better) than the storefront experience." Geoff Galat, VP of marketing, Tealeaf

Usability studies and surveys offer similarly valuable insight into customer behaviours and experiences. “It is definitely a best practice to reach out to the customers,” says Roper. “Before you start any design work at all you should go out and talk to your users, observe them trying to use your site or competitors’ sites. Talk to them about their needs in both the online and offline world. What are their goals? What are the triggers to use the site? Really understanding the customer base is important.”

Bodine even suggests companies can take a DIY approach to website analysis. “The easiest thing to do is simply choose a specific goal that your users would want to achieve on your site and then actually walk through the website and try to do that,” she explains. “You are trying to put yourself in your users’ shoes. Who are they? What knowledge do they have about your company and the task they are trying to accomplish? And then you can identify the things on the site – like navigation, terminology or link names – that would keep them from accomplishing their goal. You would be surprised the number of companies that don’t approach their websites from the user perspective.”

Bennett agrees that many site owners get tied up in their site and tend not to think about it as a consumer would. “Usability studies, surveys and web analytics will show you what the real genuine population of users is trying to do on your site,” he adds. “The big retailers tend to do usability testing because it is fundamentally important to what they do. But a lot of sites don’t do it.”

As if underlining the importance of usability investment and improving online customer experiences, the Usability and User Experience Report 2007 has revealed a whole raft of benefits. Respondents suggested they had experienced a major benefit in areas including improved perception of brand (reported by 54 percent of those questioned), increased conversion rates (53 percent), greater customer loyalty and retention (46 percent) and increased customer advocacy (38 percent).

“Companies are increasingly aware of the need to make sure they are offering the best possible user experience in an age where people are less likely to tolerate something which is sub-standard,” highlights Linus Gregoriadis, E-consultancy’s head of research. “The benefits of usability investment are becoming much more apparent.”

But Geoff Galat, VP of marketing at online customer experience expert Tealeaf, sends out a warning to those companies that continue to lack commitment when it comes to providing the best possible internet experience for customers. “The reality is that customers don’t ‘compartmentalise’ the customer experience,” he concludes. “For a High Street retailer, their customer views every channel (whether storefront, telephone or web) as part of their overall brand. Retailers would never tolerate the levels of frustration and failure customers experience online in their stores or over the phone. The most critical decision is to recognise that the online experience should be as good (or better) than the storefront experience, and to address the need for ‘visibility’ into every customer's online experience just as they observe their customer's experience in a store.”

10 website user experience best practices

• Best practices for evaluating your site and determining users' needs
No. 10: Flex your web analytics package
No. 9: Conduct an expert review of your site
No. 8: Reach out to real users

• Best practices for redesigning your site
No. 7: Focus on fixing usability problems with known solutions
No. 6: Adopt proven design methodologies and tools
No. 5: Look To other industries for innovation
No. 4: Ensure innovations are useful and usable

• Best practices for ensuring that your site supports your business
No. 3: Bolster your company's brand
No. 2: Measure site performance against business metrics
No. 1: Design with other channels in mind

Source: Forrester Research

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