Avoiding style over substance

Eyecatching website content can be good but not if it is at the expense of usability. The novelty of an attractive website will soon wear off if all consumers can do is look at it. By Nathalie Kilby

User experience is everything – or at least it should be – to website design. Every brand owner and company needs a site that is easy to use and navigate. Yet all too often, usability is lost in the rush to make a site as trendy and interactive as possible and, of course, ensure it is placed high in the search rankings.

There are signs, however, that more companies are becoming aware of the need to ensure site usability. Little wonder as there is a wealth of evidence to suggest that too many sites come woefully short in facilitating a smooth and positive user experience. Earlier this month Harris Interactive and customer experience management software provider Tealeaf released a report that showed 86% of consumers experience problems when conducting transactions online, and 37% of visitors abandon an online transaction after experiencing problems.

Increasing spend
Faced with such stark findings, it will come as no surprise that research from E-consultancy and Bunnyfoot earlier this year showed that 72% of UK companies plan to increase their spend on usability over the next 12 months. But how is this budget to be deployed and how do site designers determine how to create the best experience for users?Tealeaf vice-president of marketing Geoff Galat says: “Businesses need to look at the bigger picture and remember that the Web is now more competitive than ever. This research shows that the ones who will benefit most are those that are able to provide the best online experience for their customers and to do this they need to be able to pinpoint problems when they occur and find solutions before the problem escalates.”

Pete Ballard, managing partner at user experience agency Foolproof, says that usability should not be considered in isolation and that ethnography – understanding behaviour and culture by watching or talking to people, while they’re doing whatever it is they do – should be used to gain insight into how online consumers behave and make their buying decisions. “Usability needs to move beyond just looking at the website,” he says. “You need to understand how people are making their decisions away from the site, what contributes to their decision – whether that’s online or off. This means you have to look at the market as a whole, not just your own site or marketing activity.”

Andrew Henning, managing director of site design agency Redweb, agrees that for a site to be successful it is essential to look at the broader picture: “The worst thing you can do is make assumptions. We often find that clients can assume that their online markets are the same as their offline markets, when in fact they don’t know. Or that online is only for ‘the youngsters’, when research tells us that the over-55s are the biggest growing user group online.

“The key is never to assume anything. While you can call on all the usual sources for insight and analytics, these tools don’t help us understand how the user behaves, their motivation or the emotion states experienced while using a site that contributes to the responses from the user.”

Ethnographical focus
Volker Wiewer is chief executive at digital marketing agency eCircle. He says that ethnographics are particularly useful for global brands that need to make marketing strategies specific to different countries. He says ideally, ethnographics should be used to deepen the relationship with consumers. He adds: “If ethnographics tells us how different people in different countries behave online, then the results they throw up should be used to ensure that consumers are targeted in ways appropriate to their location, culture and mindset.”

Mindset is key says Ballard. He explains that companies need to understand how their customers arrived at their site and that their © journey may not have begun online, but off, in the real world. He says a direct mailer could have been sent to a consumer which triggered a self-directed search online, which then takes the user to a review or comparison site. He cites the credit card sector and says that most consumers have decided to take out a credit card away from a card’s site, say a price comparison provider, therefore the landing page from the comparison site should be one that completes sign up, not one that aims to sell again, he argues.

Rise of the ‘silver surfers’
Wiewer also points out that greater insight is needed in an environment where online shoppers have revolutionised the way brands need to communicate their online proposition. He explains how, for instance, as more elderly people have joined the online community there has been a huge shift in search methods and decision processes. “Add to this the way price comparison sites and internet communities have impacted the online retailer and the World Wide Web is a different market from the one it was ten years ago,” he says. “Facebook, MySpace and eBay, to give just three examples, all teach us lessons about the online mentality of the average consumer.”

Proximity London head of digital Mark Iremonger says that clients should expect market and competitor awareness as a basic minimum from any agency. He adds: “Agencies have a clear responsibility to champion usability and it is absolutely essential to look at it as part of a cross-channel strategy. Previously usability was about the right content on the right page, but there is a much broader picture.”

He explains how business-to-business communication for Royal Mail is planned with both the onand offline experience in mind. A first piece of print direct mail is sent, which prepares for the recipient for a second mailer, which directs the customer online. He says that such a relationship is natural and should be considered in the planning of a campaign – even where the focus is online.

Redweb’s Henning agrees: “Certainly, as competition increases, no digital agency can afford to take such an isolated view. Usability for a digital agency and the client is setting up testing that looks at behaviour, seeks to understand motivations and registers emotions felt that might effect responses at any given point. This can only be achieved by interspacing the testing with observation and carefully constructed questioning about motivation and the emotions felt by the individual. This produces valuable insight that will have a positive impact on how a site is used.”

The need for digital research
Nonetheless, Foolproof’s Ballard argues that not enough digital agencies are grasping this and that there is a planning gap between market research providers and digital media planning agencies. “For too many planning agencies, digital is not their favoured channel and so are failing to invest in researching the user journey. Meanwhile, traditional market research companies are failing to invest in researching the nuances in online behaviour. There is much talk of media convergence but not of converging the planning function. Clients that get it are investing in researching the entire experience from beginning to end – wherever the journey starts.”

Where once people discussed usability in isolation, with just their site in mind, it is clearly time to think about the entire customer journey. Look at the issue too narrowly and you look at only half the story. In a world where customer reviews are increasingly important across the life cycle of a customer, it is important to get the journey right. When thinking about site design and customer experience, brand managers and they would do well to remember what it is like to be customer themselves.

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