May 1, 2000
A Better Way For Web Design
Eric Schaffer is CEO and chief of technical staff at Human Factors International Inc., a Web-interface software usability company.
ost Web-site design teams fail to apply state-of-the-art usability-engineering methods and research to their work. The results are serious and obvious: a lack of "stickiness" that causes users to wander off into cyberspace instead of buying goods and services. The primary reason 30% of E-commerce customers sign off before purchasing products is that they don't know what else to do. They try to follow the bouncing ball, get lost, and leave.
Once potential customers sign off, they seldom come back. As far as they're concerned, if they can't find what they're looking for the first time, it's not there. A bad Web experience can also sully a company's name through word of mouth among users.
So, why do Web-site visitors get lost? There are two reasons: The Web-site industry knows hardware and software, but not user-centered interface design, and there are people who think they can design because they are intuitive and have a "sense" of what makes a Web site inviting.
The current level of Web-design expertise is, to put it mildly, alarming. Too many sites that look good but don't work well are being designed by graphic artists. Or they are created by systems-oriented designers with little practical knowledge about the ergonomics of a user-friendly Web site. These designers build sites based on what's convenient for development, not what works for users. While it's true that some design companies such as Cambridge Technology Partners, Zefer, and Sapient have added experts in user-centered design and human-computer interaction to their staffs, at heart they're still software- and systems-oriented companies.
The result is that 80% of Internet home pages reviewed by Human Factors International reveal 15 to 20 problems for users, including the deadly mistake of failing to let the user know which site has been reached. Add structural and detail issues, and it becomes much too difficult for a user to get into a site. Perhaps that's why a technology-stock expert was quoted recently on a television newscast as predicting that "80% of the E-commerce sites on the Internet will disappear in the next five years."
OK, let's go for a walk. Pretend we're in a large suburban mall-three or four levels, major chains, specialty stores, restaurants, and so on. Walking at an easy pace, a first-time visitor to the mall has about four seconds to window-shop, ascertain what a given store offers, and decide whether to enter.
When navigating through E-space, the average user takes about two seconds to check out a home page, figure out what's being offered, and decide whether to go further. If a potential customer doesn't see something interesting on the screen right away, that customer is history.
If your business is E-commerce, you don't want to be part of the 80% of sites that the prognosticators say will fall by the wayside. Make sure your home page is eye-catching, informative, and easy to use. Navigation guides should be easy to spot; for instance, don't underline words and make them look like links if they aren't. Make it easy for users to point, click, and find the name brands you offer. And brand names do make a difference; they add substance to a home page while indicating to users that your site is a reputable operation.
Internet shoppers want product descriptions, prices, and easy-to-read menus. They also want service-something they evaluate even before they make a purchase. Most important, they want to be coddled and need to feel comfortable. That's what ergonomics is all about-comfort.
Web-site design that produces a positive customer experience is not a matter of chance or intuition. It happens because of a systematic process that includes data gathering, high-level structure, detailed design, task-flow parameters, and testing. Everything has to be in place. An E-commerce site that is easy to navigate, has a short response time and a fast task-completion rate, provides seamless error-handling and user feedback, reduces customer workload and frustration, and offers a look and feel that promotes corporate branding will keep users coming back for more-and will be a winner in the E-commerce race.
In My Humble Opinion is an occasional column expressing the opinions of InformationWeek's readers. Submissions of up to 750 words may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org. Only writers being considered for publication will be contacted.
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