Build A Site, Not A Labyrinth

Would you open a department store where half your customers get lost and leave in frustration? Or a multiplex where nobody could find their movie? Or a coffee shop where customers had to wait in line three times to get their latte? Of course not. Then why would you launch a web site without making sure that customers don’t get lost and frustrated?

A recent study found that a third of online banking customers closed their accounts within a year. Half said it was because the site was too difficult to navigate. The truth is, many sites, whether they offer commerce, community or content (or all three), are labyrinths of confusion. And that costs the sites big time in customer acquisition, conversion and loyalty.

If your web site is important to your business, you better make sure that it provides a good experience for users. And the only way to figure that out is through systematic usability testing with a trusted research partner.

One popular approach is usability labs. The most common usability labs are one-to-one interviews in a focus group facility. A moderator asks subjects to complete tasks within a site or site mock-up, while you observe through a one-way mirror. If you need to test with users all over the world, and you don’t have a huge research budget, usability labs can be done online as well (but you might miss a lot of non-verbal grunts and groans).

You’ll be surprised what you can learn from users. In one usability lab we conducted for a major airline site, we learned that users were afraid to click on a button labeled “Buy a Ticket Now” because they thought it would obligate them to purchase a ticket, or somehow automatically charge their account. I don’t want to even think about how many sales could have been lost if we hadn’t learned this.

Usability labs are effective because they let us directly observe real customers. But sometimes it’s important to get a quantitative read on usability, especially if we want to create a benchmark for future testing. In this case, online testing is the best way to go. More often than not, it is just too expensive to test enough people for a good quantitative study unless you can do it over the web. A bonus is that you are testing people in the natural environment of their home or office (with their naturally slow Internet connections).

Online usability testing can be conducted in a number of ways. A “micro-survey” approach can gather data from many users from many pages in a live site, and that information, combined with log data, can be aggregated to get a clear picture of user experience. Or, you can create a series of tasks that mirror those on a site, then test the ability of users to complete those tasks. Quantitative testing should be highly customized, and you need to design an approach that best addresses your specific objectives.

Another alternative is an expert review, in which design and systems experts systematically test and evaluate a site based on values like navigation, aesthetics, consistency, and information architecture. While this type of testing can complement feedback from real customers, nothing can replace hearing directly from them.

Whatever the approach, online marketers and retailers need to invest the resources it takes to create and maintain the right online experience for users. Not doing so is like deliberately turning customers away. If your customers have a good visit, they are more likely to come back.

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