Most of us are familiar with Abraham Maslow's theory of human needs, which categorizes human needs into a pyramid and advocates that as a person's lower-level needs are met, he or she moves up the hierarchy of higher-level needs.
The principles behind a pyramid of needs can be applied to the online world. Web sites, especially e-commerce sites, need to fulfill some basic user-experience requirements before users can move from one level of Web site usage to the next. Just as a person who can't breathe isn't concerned about where the next meal will come from, online users won't be interested in advanced features such as personalization if they find the site frequently inaccessible.
A pyramid of user experience needs could consist of five broad levels, from the basic level of site availability to the advanced desirability level, as shown below.
Site availability. Users should be able to find your Web site. Whether they use Yahoo or another search engine or they blindly type www.yourcompanyname.com into the address bar, this is a good starting point for your site. If the site attracts a lot of traffic, ensure that you don't send users to your competitor's sites by not being able to handle a surge in users. Around Thanksgiving Day last year, dozens of e-commerce sites, including Amazon.com and Bestbuy.com, suffered outages, largely due to the volume of users trying to buy PlayStation2 game players on these sites. If your site is not available, users won't be concerned about the higher levels in the pyramid of user experience needs.
You also need to be concerned about page availability. Make sure all links across your site work and there are no dead links turning users away. Online services such as Web Site Garage and NetMechanic will help you identify dead links on your site.
Usability. The next level up in the pyramid caters to the usability needs of the online user. A good information architecture, global navigation, sectional and local navigation, and labeling are a good starting point, ensuring users can easily and intuitively find what they want on your site.
That done, focus on ease of use of your Web site. Make it a point to reduce clicks and simplify processes by listing the tasks most frequently performed by users on your site, then find ways to reduce the number of steps required to complete each of those tasks. The changes you make could be as simple as allowing a user to refine a search from the results page itself or as complicated as Amazon.com's one-click shopping process.
Supportive features. Once users get past the first two levels of online needs, supportive content comes next. Crossing the first two levels means that they have managed to reach and navigate through your site. It's now time to provide supportive features, such as detailed product information, artificial intelligence search capability, a similar product locator, and a gift finder, if appropriate. These features support products and services and help users hone in on, and find, the detailed information they came looking for in the first place.
Desirability. If your site has fulfilled the previous four levels of user experience needs, users then reach the final level -- desirability. Only then do they look for the bells and whistles on a site. Safe in the knowledge that they are in good hands, users start paying attention to features that form the icing on the cake, including personalization, community areas and services, customized newsletters, and custom-tailored products and services.
The elements described above for each level are not exhaustive; there could be a dozen elements for each level, and different sites will have different elements for those levels.
Applying Maslow's pyramid to the Net creates a framework for organizing the needs of your users into different levels. To improve the user experience on your site, create your own pyramid of online needs that focus on your site and user groups. Start at the base of the pyramid and work up, fixing and building features at one level before moving up to the next.
Then watch your site stay in step with your users' needs.
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Lyndon Cerejo is a Strategist with DareStep, the e-business consultancy group within Cap Gemini Ernst & Young. DareStep focuses on delivering world class user experiences with its proprietary approach to evaluating and developing digital interfaces, from Web sites to digital exchanges to mobile commerce.
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