Design and usability matter a lot when creating a company Web site, and getting it right could be the difference between business success and business failure. Chris Barling, chief executive of ecommerce software provider Actinic, offers best practice advice.
Getting Web design right is both hard and controversial. If you ask a cross section of the population their opinion of a particular design, there are usually as many opinions as the number of people. To try to understand design in a business context, I think that it's worth asking what the difference is between design and art? I would define design as the constrained application of art. Good designers are interested in the practical application of their creative output. And design is not just about aesthetics, it also embraces usability, cost and other more prosaic factors.
Designing a Web site that can sell successfully has many of the elements of ordinary sales and marketing, combined with creativity.
The aim of design has to be to support the objectives of the site. In the case of ecommerce sites this is primarily to sell.
How can design help? First of all we must communicate the brand message that the company wishes to convey to the target demographic. If there is any disconnect between these two, this will jar with prospects and significantly reduce their likelihood of buying. To use an extreme and silly example, the brand communicated for extreme sports will be different from insurance sold to over-50 Saga types.
The next objective of design, and closely related to brand, is the prime message. Maybe the site wishes to communicate freshness, maybe stability. Whatever it is, it's the objective of the designer to create an emotional reaction in the people engaging with the site.
Design has the chance to bring clarity to what is offered on the site, establish trust and clearly explain how the offering can be accessed. The topic of usability merits a whole section.
There is no point in interesting people in your site if they are not actually interested in what you are selling, so make it simple to recognize what it is that you have to offer. Display pictures of the sort of products that you sell in each category – some of your buyers may not speak your language, but they know what they want to buy. If you sell branded goods, use the brand logos to reinforce your credibility; you need to inspire confidence in buyers who have never met you.
The home page has tremendous potential for making additional sales. Alternatives are special offers, new products or your top sellers. It is worth experimenting and measuring the results.
Make it easy for your customers to find the exact product they want - provide an obvious means of navigation. A great idea is to provide fast links on the homepage direct to the product. For example if you're selling footwear, why not break down the sizes and types?
Try to keep the site fresh, providing facilities for the merchant's less experienced staff to update all parts of the site.
When designing ecommerce Web sites, there are some principles which pretty much always apply. These include keeping your site simple and easy-to-use. Make sure that it is obvious how to add something to the shopping basket. Use common metaphors such as View Basket, Checkout, About Us, and Contact Us. Also stick to common concepts, such as making the logo clickable and put the basket at the top.
Remember that buyers can arrive at any page in the store via search engines, so ensure that each page supports the brand proposition. This is another reason for providing contact details throughout the site, including telephone number, e-mail, and physical address.
Other tips are to communicate delivery charges clearly and early on in the checkout. Don't force customers to create an account to buy – many already have too many passwords to remember.
Once you have established interest, make it as easy as possible to find your products and services. Usability testing, observing people from your target audience actually trying to buy, can be tremendously helpful at ironing our problems.
It's incredible to imagine, however a major ecommerce store recently conducted a full usability overview of their store. Frighteningly, they discovered a single button in the wrong place was preventing customers from purchasing products. The store estimated that this problem had been costing approximately $300 million lost sales a year.
Remember the key rule of usability - if in doubt just keep it simple.
While I am sure that the majority will know the following points backwards, it's probably worth reiterating them briefly, simply because they are occasionally missed.
Key points are not to obstruct the buying or brand-establishing process by the inappropriate use of flash, large images, front-doors, or other gimmicks. Blinking or flashing images may qualify as the ultimate turn-off. If you really need an introduction on entering the site, then at least offer a Skip Intro link. Ask yourself – do I need to impress technically, or to sell something?
Make the site blisteringly fast. Even though the majority of us have broadband, remember that during peak traffic the sites that are fast will have slowed down but continued taking orders. In contrast, sites that struggled in the first place will be dropping their buyers like dead flies.
Heroes of design?
To many in the designer community, Apple is the epitome of cool. When Steve Jobs retook the helm in 1996 his zeitgeist approach pushed Apple to explore new areas of design and usability, however it never gets in the way of the commercial imperative.
Apple has design in its blood, and its products look great. But the design is always a holistic part of the solution. To design successful ecommerce stores, we must do likewise.