January 14, 2000
Usability On The Web Isn't A Luxury
On the Internet, it's survival of the easiest: If customers can't find a product, they can't buy it. It's cheaper to increase the design budget than the ad budget, and attention to usability can increase the percentage of Web-site visitors who complete a purchase.
By Jakob Nielsen and Donald A. Norman
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The real difference between a person's behavior on the Web and in the physical world of real stores involves switching costs--how much effort it takes to switch from one vendor to another. In a physical store, the costs of switching are high. The person has driven to the store, entered the building, and walked deep into the interior. Even when faced with dwindling supplies, inattentive or rude salespeople, and lines at the checkout counter, the purchaser is apt to stick with it. The cost of leaving, going to another store, and then possibly encountering the same behavior is usually not worth the effort. Of course, in the physical world, many people then never return.
On the Internet, switching costs are low. If you don't find what you want, the competition is only a mouse-click away. Get a questionnaire pushed in your face, and not only will you probably not answer it, but you're likely turn away annoyed and go somewhere else, never to return.
Vendors such as Amazon.com Inc. try to overcome switching costs in several ways. First, they make it easy to find the item the potential buyer wants. Second, they make it worthwhile to return. For example, the more items bought at Amazon.com, the better its purchase recommendations will be. Both of us have at times purchased items from the recommendation lists, even though we didn't start off intending to buy those items. That's a good user experience and an even better sales ratio.
Third, Amazon.com uses its affiliates list to make its visitors part of the family and lets them earn money by recommending the site to others. And fourth, the purchase process is as easy as any on the Web, again fighting the low psychological cost of switching with the low psychological cost of purchasing.
Studies of user behavior on the Web find a low tolerance for difficult designs or slow sites. People don't want to wait. And they don't want to learn how to use a home page. There's no such thing as a training class or a manual for a Web site. People have to be able to grasp the functioning of the site immediately after scanning the home page--for a few seconds at most.
Of course, there are no rules without exceptions, and there are a few cases where a Web site is so useful that people are willing to spend some time learning the site; extranets sometimes fall in this category. But it's dangerous to assume that a site will be so useful that people will give it more leeway than they give the Web's other 11 million sites. It's arrogant, as well. Most brands are not nearly as treasured as their owners would like to believe, especially when switching costs are factored in--take Coca-Cola, one of the most famous brands in the world. Suppose you're on an airplane and ask the flight attendant for a Coke. If you're told "we only have Pepsi; is that OK?" the odds are pretty good you'll say yes.
Success on the Internet depends on multiplying the number of people who will visit a home page times the proportion who actually buy anything--the percentage who become customers. It's expensive and difficult for most companies to get people to the Web site in the first place. That's why advertising budgets are so high--increasing the second number is a lot easier.
To double the success of a site, you must either double the visitors or double the conversion rate. Doubling the number of visitors could require doubling the advertising budget, or more. Doubling the percentage who purchase may require simply redesigning your Web site guided by a human-centered design process. Considering that many sites have conversion rates on the order of 1% or 2%, it's much more cost-effective to focus on the second number in the formula.
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