How to make your web presence work wonders

By placing user experience at the heart of their brand’s web presence, marketers are finding they can deliver digital services that satisfy consumer expectations.


Gumtree is a local noticeboard for anything from selling a car to finding a striker for your football team. Following a recent usability-driven redesign, the site has recently experienced a 20% rise in advertising.

“When people come to Gumtree we want them to have a relevant and rewarding experience,” says Sam Taylor, head of brand and communications at “The ability to search and find has been streamlined and customers are now only three clicks away from discovery.”

Consumers now have a dizzying array of online and offline touchpoints available to meet their needs. Consequently brands need to deliver services that are a joy to use, particularly online where the nearest competitor is just a click away.

In the case of the new Gumtree site, the main reason for the increase in ads being posted was increased relevance.

“The new site architecture makes it much easier for people to post ads in an area that is relevant for them,” says Andy Budd, managing director of Clearleft, the user experience agency involved. “This opens up Gumtree to a whole range of people who were unable to use it before, because they didn’t have a local babygum hub. So by changing the architecture we expanded the area that Gumtree served, helping them increase their overall reach and thus the number of ads being placed.”

At online payment company EntroPay, marketing manager Barbara Durand explains that the registration process is critical to obtaining new customers.

“Users don’t want to go through a long, arduous process – they want a quick, easy-to-follow procedure while at the same time expecting something safe and secure where they don’t feel as if they’re compromising their personal details,” she says. “We wanted to improve our registration process, making it faster and simpler, by removing the stumbling blocks in the user experience.”

Working with user experience specialist Flow, EntroPay reviewed its registration process in July 2010. A test environment enabled it to watch users go through its registration process and see where they had questions.

“By making a few simple changes based on the results of Flow’s findings, we’ll be able to increase our conversion rate,” notes Durand. “Being an internet-centric business, user experience will always be at the heart of everything we do.”

“Usability is key,” agrees Jason Keane, VP digital assets at US entertainment brand NBC Universal. “If you want to engage your users they have to be given the tools to discover the most relevant content that they want in a split second, otherwise they’re off to the next thing. That is why we agonised over the wireframes to ensure our core platform blueprint enabled our users to get the most out of every site we launch.”

The best way to measure the effectiveness of user experience work is to look at conversion rates, not just for sales but also for other types of conversion such as sign-ups, information requests, downloads and video views.

Digital agency Reading Room’s user experience work on a World Wildlife Fund campaign in 2008 saw online fundraising increase by 200%.

According to Tammy Cowan-Learn, account director at Reading Room, the agency always establishes key performance indicators for its projects with the client in the first meeting.

“They differ wildly from client to client,” she says. “Usability improvement can be measured in a few different ways from user interviews or surveys taken both before and after improvements are made. We can also measure it through the client’s conversion rates, which might be an increase in sales or donations, or data capture or new members or enquiries.

“If the content on the site is roughly the same but we see an improvement in conversions for a site – then we know we’ve improved the user journey. We’ve made it easier for users to complete their goals on the site.”

A few years ago, people talked about usability as an important aspect of online applications. The focus was on user testing to ensure that the target audience would be able to find what they were looking for or complete the task they’d gone online for. That goal has developed along with consumer expectations. A brand’s web presence now has to do more than just work well. In order to drive all-important conversions, it has to be pleasant and engaging to use.

“The usability sector used to be focused on fixing the problems that came with the rise of the website medium,” comments Budd. “Now it is not just a case of making things easier for users, it is about how people perceive your brand.”

Brands need to create products and services that users fall in love with, argues Budd. “Take the iPhone as a parallel example: most other smart phones out there are as good or better than the iPhone, but it wins out because it is simple and, more importantly, a delight to use.”

The quality of a consumer’s experience of individual web properties is becoming more of a goal for all organisations. Consequently there is greater investment in internal capabilities as well as spending with expert agencies and consultants who can deliver excellent digital experiences.

“A while ago, companies were struggling to convince clients to invest in usability, whereas now clients only choose to work with companies that take user experience seriously,” says Katerina Tzanidou, head of customer experience at agency Cimex Media. “We have moved from bringing up awareness of usability to ensuring that we do more than plain usability.”

Driving increased expectations of the user experience in today’s market are the media-rich experiences that customers have on social networks, video sites and mobile phone apps. Sites such as Facebook have raised the bar in terms of an intuitive customer experience.

“It has never been easier to connect with people, communicate with them and share information,” comments Linus Gregoriadis, research director at Econsultancy. “Brands, where appropriate, need to make it as easy as possible for consumers to talk to them and to engage with their content, not just by setting up profiles on social networks, but also by making interaction seamless on their own web properties.”

Central to the need for usability is the difficulty in taking someone else’s point of view when evaluating technology. The need to take on board other people’s approaches is potentially more apparent when working with an international user base. Other cultures may have other associations with visual imagery, colours and phraseology.

Cultural behaviours are really important says Anja Klüver, director of Prospect, a user experience specialist. “Designing globally is a very interesting question because different things work in different countries,” she says. “Everything you do online can be accessed by the whole wide world so you absolutely have to consider that.”

At Hewlett Packard, they don’t consider what they do as international testing; rather they look at it as testing where it most makes sense.

“HP has a design and usability section which is decentralised on purpose,” explains Deborah Mrazek, design practice manager, corporate marketing at HP. “The experts are located within the field all over the world – there are 350 user centred design professionals working for HP globally. We carry out user design research in as many places as we have development. People are somewhat the same and somewhat different all over the world and you really need to get the real customer’s feedback as you develop products.”

The evolution of user experience has come to mean brands are taking a more holistic approach to customer experience. Emphasis is being placed on ensuring that customers are getting a similar experience across different touchpoints. For example, retailer John Lewis’ online service is very integrated with the company’s stores, while Net-A-Porter is focused online but has a serious consideration for the real-world experience of delivering and receiving goods.

As user-centredness becomes a more defined organisational goal, companies need to identify these different customer touchpoints and adopt a coherent company-wide strategy.

“The onus is on companies to think about an integrated experience and meeting the needs of customers at different points of their journey, whether they are using a website or social media as part of their research or attempting to buy something either in-store, on the phone or while on the move,” says Gregoriadis. “This is easier said than done and needs to involve parts of the business including website development, marketing, operations and customer service: buy-in from the top of the organisation is essential.”

Along with strategy, marketing and sales, design has a valuable role to play in business success and a user-focused digital investment shows its worth. Consumers see brands holistically and, as expectations of a digital experience increase, marketers need to stay ahead of the curve.

fact focus

What is usability?
Usability is the science of designing easy-to-use web interfaces.

Why do we need usability?
To help us manage user expectations. If people find it hard to use your website, they’ll leave. Your competitors on the web are a couple of clicks away.

What’s the difference between usability and user experience?
User experience not only meets the functional needs of consumers, it goes beyond to facilitate an interaction that is seamless and a joy to use.

What’s the difference between usability and accessibility?
Usability focuses on how intuitive and easy something is for all people to use. Accessibility is determined by how barrier-free the technology is for people with disabilities.


If you do that user research, it will get you a big step forward in terms of results, but it won’t get you all the way. User research and usability testing work really well with multi-variate testing. User research might get you 80% of the way, but the rest of the improvements come from the tweaking involved in multi-variate testing. That’s where you can change the colour of a buy button and see significant improvements.

There’s no logic to it, and user research would never tell you to make those changes, but for big companies those small difference can be worth millions of pounds. But you have to do the user research first, otherwise it’s like putting lipstick on a pig.

future trends 2010/11 predictions

Sam Taylor
Head of brand and marketing communications,

“Increasing sophistication in the ability to track and blend observed site data with survey data and transactional data is going to be key. These insights will allow businesses to craft a bespoke experience around each user. But this will need to be balanced with consumers’ growing interest, and uncertainty, around data capture. Ultimately, if the user can see the benefits of brands using their data, it will provide mutual benefit and increased usability.”

Jens Riegelsberger
Senior user experience researcher, Google

“Expectations around usability will rise. It’s already been observed that popular online services and tools such as Facebook, Amazon and Google have raised the bar for the usability of workplace systems. Employees who use services at home that are free and pleasant to use are less likely to put up with arcane workplace software. These expectations affect customer interactions in other industries, even if online is only one of your channels.”

Liz Citron
Former head of user experience & design for journalism, BBC

“Top-class user experience and consistency between platforms are key for brands. Often a website is at odds with the mobile site or the TV ad. Giving users an elegant, joined-up experience will help to turn casual visitors into life-long advocates. Also, relevance is important – give people what they want, rather than what the marketing department wants. If you get that right, the business benefits will follow.”

Tamarah Khatib
Online general manager, BMI

“Over the past two years, BMI has incorporated usability research in the decision-making process through all of its web interface development projects and has restructured the information architecture of the website, the booking engine process and other service applications resulting in the online experience matching brand perception. Most businesses are doing the same and it’s possible that most transactional websites and mobile apps will evolve into the same core layout, but will differentiate themselves by designing for emotional engagement and user customisation.”

top tips you need to know

  • Before undertaking any digital work, ask yourselves what will an archetypal user of your brand understand and how does it meet their needs.
  • Don’t put barriers up to customers contacting you through non-digital channels – aim to make the digital experience so good they don’t need to contact you any other way.
  • Tell customers that changes are based on their feedback and they’ll love you that little bit more.
  • Remember that not everyone is a web-savvy teen – access issues due to ageing, disability or a lack of experience of computers must be considered
  • Users have habitual behaviour and want to just get in and get out of the site rather than learn its whole architecture and structure.


The power of joined-up thinking

Michael Nutley

Digital channels are increasingly coming together as marketers bend to the forces of interactive marketing and belt tightening, and look for a better understanding of consumers’ purchase journeys.


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