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Usability’s invisible edge: offsite steps for online success

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10th Aug 2007
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As the evolutionary pace of website design decelerates into what might prove its ultimate plateau, quality metrics and analytics look set to be the next big thing. Woe betide the business that doesn’t understand the importance of offsite diligence in squeezing the most out of their customers’ online experience.

photo of a swiss army knife

By Rob Lewis, staff writer

Company websites can’t just trade off their good looks any more. The internet’s ongoing battle of the brands is going up a gear and corporate sites are now competing in terms of utility and convenience.

A recent e-consultancy survey found that nearly three quarters of organisations will be ramping up their website usability budget in the next 12 months. That’s indicative of a lot of momentum.

The Web Usability Partnership is just one of the many user experience consultancies that have appeared in the last five years. “It’s still the case that most of our clients have no metric information at all,” says managing director Peter Collins. “Some might have very basic stuff like page hits but most aren’t even using things like Google analytics. It’s just not seen an imperative.”

Yet it’s an area in which deliberate efforts must be made. The problem with company websites is that, inevitably, they come from an internal perspective. Companies have their own ways of storing and presenting information, even their own names for things. None of that will necessarily translate to the web.

Collins knows of one hardware supplier that had always taken the traditional catalogue approach of presenting its online goods. But people behave differently on the internet. They won’t browse from their desk in the same way they might browse from their armchair. “Most organisations do not have a good understanding about what their users want and they end up annoying them,” he says. “It destroys brand value.”

"Most organisations do not have a good understanding about what their users want and they end up annoying them." Peter Collins, managing director, Website Usability Partnership

User testing ought to be at the heart of everything you’re doing with your website, Collins argues. You should test, change and test again, then repeat. In an ideal world, you would even be testing the alternative solutions you’re not implementing, in case you’re missing out on something. Without this benchmarking, you’ll have no idea if you’ve improved anything and, even if it makes perfect sense to you, it could actually have made things worse.

The good news is that all this testing can be seriously low-tech. Collins’ page mock-ups are often no more than bits of paper. All this means you can get in from the start, too. It’ll give you some steer on whether you’re headed in the right direction. “You don’t have to build a website to test it,” as Collins says.

Just click on it

After entering its third administration, the Sock Shop was bought by Ruia Group last year and is now run in the UK as an internet retailer. With that business model, you would expect them to be usability experts but even the top dogs can get thrown off the scent.

“We knew from the start that metrics and analytics were an essential part of the process,” says managing director Vimal Ruia. “But we did an out-of-house usability study last month and found it very useful.”

Through something akin to the digital equivalent of a two-way mirror, Ruia and his colleagues were able to monitor actual visitor activity on their site. It resulted in a room of people egging on an unknown, unhearing consumer to click through the brand menu. “We thought ‘surely everyone can see those are buttons’. Click on it! Click on it! But we were obviously confusing people,” he says.

A month before the testing, Sock Shop performed some user profiling, an equally important part of enhancing site usability and something that synergies well with marketing and customer research. Ruia expects the majority of the necessary changes will be made by the end of August, but that won’t be the end.

"I see a website as something you have to keep on top of and keep monitoring, rather than just periodically overhauling it." Vimal Ruia, managing director, Ruia Group

“I see a website as something you have to keep on top of and keep monitoring, rather than just periodically overhauling it,” he says. “The important thing is to have a fixed long-term goal.”

In the future, it may be that out-of-house usability consultancies become as popular as out-of-house designers, about whom they appear to have an innate scepticism. “Designers feel compelled to reinvent the wheel,” Collins explains. “They don’t feel they’ve done a good job unless they’ve come up with an entirely new way of doing things.

“The problem with websites, of course, is that, just like newspapers, there are conventions. If you don’t use them, you confuse people.”

Virgin territory

As if emphasising the growing focus on online experience, customer champion Virgin Group has put its website usability under the spotlight and created an innovative new approach. Virgin.com, the portal to the products and services provided by the global Virgin group of companies, has overhauled its three-year-old design with a fresh navigation system that is aimed at improving the customer experience. Navigation of the complex group now takes place through ‘lenses’ or ‘Virgin Views’.

This approach allows customers to literally view Virgin differently through different lenses, with different eyes; a view of the group products and services from the sky for example with the Altitude lens. Virgin has aimed for this to create not only a uniquely entertaining viewing experience for the user but also to reinforce the company’s brand values.

"In a world where connected, empowered customers are growing mistrustful of grand promises and empty brands, the customer experience is the new battleground of strategic differentiation." Lee Feldman, chief creative officer, Blast Radius

“When you are presenting a customer with the breadth of options that Virgin is able to do then being able to explore the site, make new connections and gain new perspectives in the way that is enabled by ‘lensing’, massively enhances the customer experience,” a Virgin spokesperson announced on its launch.

The site redesign is the product of a partnership with strategic interactive agency Blast Radius. “Virgin.com absolutely understands and knows that today’s customer-driven marketplace requires a customer-conscious 'outside-in' perspective that informs every decision,” adds Lee Feldman, chief creative officer at Blast Radius. “Using ‘lensing’, the new Virgin.com site is able to offer a very different and 'fun' customer experience and is an outstanding example of this approach in action.”

In the future, Virgin is looking at making it possible for loyal customer to set up their own custom lenses and manage their own experience of the Virgin Group through exploring the relationship between the various Virgin Group companies and services.

One thing is for sure: with a growing number of firms dipping into their coffers to improve their website usability - from corporate giants such as Virgin all the way down to one-man operations - businesses have well and truly woken up to the importance of their customers' online experiences.

“In a world where connected, empowered customers are growing mistrustful of grand promises and empty brands, the customer experience is the new battleground of strategic differentiation,” Feldman emphasises.

Read more features, practical case studies and white papers about customer experience management.

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