Practical Ecommerce

10 Tips To Improve Usability

In a brick-and-mortar enterprise, the problem would be so obvious, no one could ignore it. A tangle of abandoned shopping carts full of unpurchased goods means trouble.

“All right,” any serious business owner would ask, “What’s going on here? What am I doing wrong?”

Three questions are likely to reveal solutions for the shopkeeper in trouble: Is it easy to move around the store? Are my customers able to find what they want? How can I speed up transactions at the checkout counter?

Ecommerce ventures have the ability to address all these problems at one time by finetuning the website itself.

Ease of navigation

Ease of navigation boils down to simplicity and speed. To accomplish this:

  • Ditch cumbersome graphics – Trenton Moss of Webcredible, a usability and accessibility specialist based in the United Kingdom, says nothing annoys website visitors more than slow-loading pages. Most will wait less than 10 seconds. If you’ve loaded your site with fancy graphics and animation, you’re working against the ultimate goal.

    Internet marketing strategy consultant Jim Sterne of Target Marketing agrees. Dazzled by graphics and gadgetry, ebusiness owners tend to get blurry vision and forget to put the customer first. In their enthusiasm, he said, website owners think “look at this cool, neat thing we can do. Isn’t it fun? We can have a spinning logo!” Sterne sighed. “Shockingly few people remember the website is supposed to be all about the customer, not what the CEO thinks is cool.”

  • Make your words count – If giving up that spinning logo stings, take comfort in the fact that words carry more punch, said Moss.

    “Contrary to the way in which we read printed matter, we see text before we see images on the Internet,” he said. “On web pages, certain items stand out—headings, link text, bold text, bulleted lists.”

    Use clear and simple language; reading from the computer screen tires the eyes, Moss noted, so make every word count. State the conclusion first. Limit paragraph length. Use upper-and-lower case type—never all capitals. Align text to the left; it’s easier to read than justified, center or right-aligned text.

  • Familiarity is good – Creativity is a much-praised quality in the broader culture, but it doesn’t necessarily generate cash when it comes to website design.

    “Users have gradually become accustomed to particular layouts and phrases on the Internet,” Moss noted. “The organization logo is in the top left corner and links back to the home page; the term “about us” is used for organization information; navigation is in the same place on each page, next to the content; anything flashing or placed above the top logo is often an advertisement.”

A successful ecommerce merchant will not underestimate the importance of these conventions.

Customer Service

Customer service comes into play once your customers are “in the store.” It’s not enough to keep the aisles uncluttered by decorative graphics—you’ve got to help them find what they want.

  • Make shopping carts functional, not informational – Sterne says the biggest reason people abandon shopping carts is that they don’t get the information they need until after they’ve put the item in the cart.

    “They want to know about sizes, colors, weight, whether something is in stock,” he said. “That’s in addition to the big one—delivery options and charges.”

    Ebusinesses need to offer more information up front, Sterne said, perhaps by way of a product page linked to more detailed listings.

  • Get urgent about email queries – What if you don’t have have the ability or the funds to invest in new technology to enrich your website? It’s still OK to answer questions generated by an “Email us!” option—as long as you do it promptly. Small businesses tend not to reply quickly to email queries that arrive in the inbox, Sterne said.

    “When the phone rings, there’s a loud noise that demands attention, and we’re trained to respond. For some reason, small ventures think they can let email sit there for a few days.”

  • Use reliable signposts – Website visitors don’t want to be sent on a wild goose chase, so check your links often, at least once a month, within your own site and to other sites.

    Small details like changed colors for visited links and scrolldown cues prevent inexperienced or elderly users from getting “lost.” This is key as the population continues to age, making older customers a bigger part of the purchasing pool.

  • Keep your site accountable – In the absence of complaints, it’s easy to feel great about a website. But a wise ecommerce owner will continually ask, “Am I meeting the needs of my customers?”

    The Fortune 500 companies Sterne serves hire people to collect data about why customers came to a site, what they hoped to accomplish and whether they achieved their goals.

    No money for expensive fact-finders? Ask friends and relatives to visit your site and tell you what they thought. Sterne said a simple survey on the site itself can do wonders.

    “Tell your customers, ‘we want to make our website better. Tell us what we can do.’ Then listen to them,” Sterne said.

Checking out

The checkout process must be easy and stress-free if you want to seal the deal, Moss warns.

  • Bite-size chunks are better – “Breaking the process up into smaller chunks allows users to tackle each step with less to think about,” he said, pointing to Amazon as the premier example. Customers log in, choose a delivery address and option, enter payment details and submit the order.

  • Reassure your customer – Likening the purchase process to a journey, Moss advises that businesses “let users know where they are in the process and how far they have to go.” Simply labeling delivery choice as “Step 3 of 4” helps a shopper see it through because he knows the trip is nearly finished. Remember, too, that online buyers still worry about security. “It’s important to allay these concerns and put their minds at ease,” said Webcredible writer Neil Turner. Guarantee safety in regard to credit card usage. Explain why you ask for a phone number and exactly how the number will be used—to ensure an order is filled correctly, for example.

  • Provide a pleasant finish – Just as you’d tell a customer, “Thank you” as she exited your brick-and-mortar store, the final step is to send a polite confirmation email. It’s courteous, and it cuts down on customer service calls. The brief message should include an order number and information about estimated delivery time. Think of this step as the virtual customer service ambassador for your business.

Checking over your website with these tips in mind will reduce the number of abandoned shopping carts and clear the way for success.

Practical Ecommerce

Practical Ecommerce

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  1. Legacy User January 11, 2007 Reply

    Helpful. I need all the tips I can get. Thanks.

    — *Karen Gross*

  2. Legacy User January 18, 2007 Reply

    I liked the metaphor of an online shopping trip being like a walk-round a real shop. I already knew some of the tips, but was interested in reading the others. Very interested in reading about how to make an online experience better for older users – especially with an aging population. Great stuff!

    — *Anonymous*

  3. Legacy User July 31, 2007 Reply

    I am paying big bucks to a web marketing firm to submit my site (online cookware store) to "all 11,000" search engines and have been told not to do any submissions on my own, risking being dropped by the major search engines. How can I get customers during my 4-6 month wait for Google, MSN, etc. to listing my site? My bank account is depleted and I have no way to "buy" advertising or email lists.

    — *Peg Krumlinde*