How single-purpose site design affects the user experience and user profitability.
Brick-and-mortar stores are traditionally designed to move people toward the exit when they check out. Progressive stores, however, are moving their cash registers closer to the store interior, because they realize customers will leave when they want to. There's no need to push them out the door.
Many Web sites still emulate these "thank you, now leave" stores. It's not limited to retail sites, either. This problem plagues every industry. The overarching issue is design. Designers tend to create sites thinking about a user's need as a solitary proposition: she's online to accomplish one thing. They build user experiences (hopefully) that enable the user to accomplish that task efficiently. Unfortunately, such designs often prevent the user from straying from her task and easily fulfilling other needs. This affects customer loyalty, cart abandonment, up-sell opportunities, and the site's overall return on investment (ROI).
Let's look at a few common examples of how single-purpose site design affects the user experience and user profitability.
Checkout or Bust
The most common, and self-defeating, example of this design problem is the common checkout funnel. The funnel is usually a series of pages that start with the shopping cart and end with a thank-you page. I'd estimate 7 out of 10 major retail sites take the funnel metaphor too seriously.
In real life, a funnel inextricably channels its contents down a narrowing path, with no chance of escape or divergence. Online, that design is self-defeating. Online companies mirror the funnel by removing navigation elements common to the rest of the site (the top and side navigation), replacing it with the funnel navigation (allowing users to go between checkout pages) or no navigation at all (just a "continue" button).
How many times have you stood in line at the grocery store, only to realize you forgot an item? You ran like the wind to find the missing product without losing your place in line. When companies remove users' ability to break out of the funnel, they basically give them an ultimatum: check out now or quit. Many abandoned carts aren't the result of users deciding they didn't want the products. A percentage of those carts represents people who simply wanted to add more products or edit the cart. These people weren't allowed to do that, and they closed their browser windows in frustration.
Thank You. Now, Leave!
The thank-you page must also be rethought. This isn't limited to retail. Service-oriented companies, product vendors, and any other vendors that offer white papers or information based on a registration face it, too.
The checkout process usually ends with a thank-you page. Amazon.com took the lead to make this page useful. Its thank-you page includes a fully merchandised product area (based on your current purchase), links to check your account, and promotional material. This isn't a dead-end page. Rather, it pulls you back into the site.
Most other companies haven't followed suit. They display dead-end pages with no functionality. Perhaps they display a receipt or an order confirmation. Only rarely are there interesting links to draw people back into the site. Effectively, these sites follow that old, offline model of "get them through checkout and push them out the door." Amazon realizes a great time to cross-sell merchandise is while a customer's checkbook is open. That's why it merchandises the thank-you page.
Financial institutions and consultancies that offer white papers or product brochure downloads have a similar problem: what do you do after users completed their purpose? Because designers think about users in this single-purpose way, they don't think what the user might do next.
In the retail example, the user should be cross-sold products and given links into her order details. In the case of a financial institution or service company, there should be links to other services that cater to similar needs or to a similar type of customer. Perhaps an online calculator will engage users who download mortgage information. Maybe these users would like to sign up to receive future information on specific topics.
Stop Thinking So Linearly
Web sites have a major advantage over the real world. Users needn't operate linearly. The cash register doesn't have to be next to the exit door, and the financial salesman doesn't have to say goodbye after he's given the customer the requested collateral. Users should be encouraged to stick around and explore as much of our companies as possible.
If we really want users to be loyal and spend time on our Web sites, we must design them to allow this. Designers must approach user navigation with the understanding users have multiple malleable purposes. They're not online for just one reason (if they are, that reason might change midstream).
Dead-end and exit pages don't allow users to explore your company's offerings. They do just the opposite. They signal you don't really want users hanging around. And that's just bad business.
Until next time...
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Jack Aaronson, CEO of The Aaronson Group and corporate lecturer, is a sought-after expert on enhanced user experiences, customer conversion, retention, and loyalty. If only a small percentage of people who arrive at your home page transact with your company (and even fewer return to transact again), Jack and his company can help. He also publishes a newsletter about multichannel marketing, personalization, user experience, and other related issues. He has keynoted most major marketing conferences around the world and regularly speaks at Shop.org and other major industry shows. You can learn more about Jack through his LinkedIn profile.
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