Site Design Tips to Improve Your Sales — Part II

By James Maguire | Posted June 13, 2005

In part one of this series, we discussed how a well-designed site increased your chances of making the sale. In part two, we find that improving the bottom line of an e-commerce business requires a two-pronged approach: It's about fixing common problems and making use of typical shopper behavior.

That's the view of Bruce "Tog" Tognazzini, one of the leading gurus on usability — and how to use it for profitability.

Respected throughout the industry as a human-computer interface designer, Tognazzini is the author of "Tog on Interface," a how-to manual for graphical user interface designers. An original employee at Apple Computer and later a Distinguished Engineer for Strategic Technology at Sun Microsystems, Tognazzini has consulted on interface design projects for clients ranging from Adobe to Microsoft to Symantec.

Many of the problems that hurt e-commerce sites' sales stem from designers who don't understand key concepts of user interface, Tognazzini said. But managers and executives can prevent this by knowing what questions to ask. His bottom line: Armed with the right knowledge, these decision-makers never need to settle for mediocre design.

Easy Credit Card Entry
It's a tiny detail, but it's a cheap way to improve usability: Make it as easy as possible for shoppers to enter credit card and other numbers.

When creating the box for customers to enter their credit cards, make sure the entered number shows up as four separate groups, just like the credit card number itself is displayed. This helps shoppers check their entry.

Those sites that display the number as 16 continuous digits in one lump are using "really slovenly programming," Tognazzini said. That one difference could mean a lost sale.

"If the number's wrong, and they have to re-enter it, some people aren't going to try it again," he said.

The ideal method is to present the shopper with one big box, but as the shopper enters their number, the digits display in groups of four. "Then offer an example that shows spaces," he said.

However, don't require your customers to use the Tab key to enter spaces, he recommends. "That would almost be as bad as forcing them not to put in spaces."

For phone and Social Security numbers, allow users to enter the digits however they wish. If customers try to add a dash between groups of numbers, the interface should allow them.

"You can accept any piece of punctuation — whatever is not a digit, the programmer is going to suck them all out and you'll be left with the numbers," Tognazzini said.

As for entering dates, the date box should default to the current date. This makes the process one step faster, which means concluding the sale that much sooner.

Shoppers Aren't Spellers
Do you force your shoppers to be good spellers? Tognazzini noted that if your internal search engine doesn't produce results for closely misspelled products, you've lost a mountain of sales. "I should be able to screw it up and they should be able to handle it," he said.

For example, if a shopper is at a site that sells desert plants, but misspells the keyword as "dessert," then the search results shouldn't come up empty.

Tognazzini points to a technology called Soundex, which converts a search term into a phonetic spelling. Soundex "will match [a keyword] up with intermediate spellings of a whole bunch of other words."

Google uses this type of technology, Tognazzini noted, which is why you can enter "philladelpia' and it will answer: "Did you mean Philadelphia?"

This technology is not cost-prohibitive either, he said. "Soundex has long been in the public domain a long time."

He also recommends implementing the Google-style "and" search technology instead of the less effective "or" technology. Under the "and" methodology, the more terms a shopper enters, the more specific the results; a shopper who enters "red" and "sweater" will find that red sweater they're looking for.

But with the "or" technology, the engine looks for "red" or "sweater." So the more keywords a shopper types in, the more numerous and less specific the results — producing confusion.

In fact, if an e-tailer is working with a design team who wants to implement an "or" search, that merchant should run away quickly, Tognazzini recommends. "It indicates a real lack of design talent. If they're doing that, they're doing a whole bunch of other things wrong."

Seducing Form Fillers
If an online merchant wants to gather a lot of information from a shopper, Tognazzini recommends a technique he calls "Staged Obligation."

Shoppers, of course, hate filling out forms. To coax the user through this, go stage by stage: "Ask them just a couple things first. Then, after they press next, ask them about four more things. 'They'll think 'Oh, well, I might as well finish.'"

Tognazzini first used this technique when he helped develop the WebMD site. Getting busy doctors to fill out forms was particularly tough, but asking questions in stages helped. "You're not going to get them all, but you're going to get a higher percentage."

Follow Up E-Mails — Careful
Many online merchants pride themselves on prompt follow-up e-mails to customers after every purchase. But many of these same merchants send an e-mail that is far too long and complex, Tognazzini said.

He recently received a staggering four-page e-mail, of which only four to eight lines were truly necessary, he said. "All the rest of it was advertising," he added.

"If you want to put in a couple ads, okay, but keep it short and simple — keep it to one page," he recommends. And ensure that any legalese added in the actual e-mail is truly necessary.

No matter how long your confirmation e-mail, make sure it displays properly on many platforms. Tognazzini points to a follow up e-mail from a well-known vendor — in use for years — in which the first page is just a menu bar with no text. "They'd obviously tested it only on whatever printer and computer they have on their home office," he said. "Try it on a number of machines."

Save That Cart
Tognazzini has seen numerous instances of sites that do not automatically save a customer's shopping cart choices. In those cases, if that shopper's PC crashes and they come back 10 minutes later, the cart has become empty — and they have to start over. In many cases, that gives a potential customer the opportunity to give up on the purchase entirely.

Tognazzini noted that the master of shopping cart technology, Amazon.com, has a cart that allows shoppers to go away and come back days later. Everything's saved.

Is your site's cart automatically saved? It's a question every e-tailer should ask their programmer. In fact, it may not be enough to trust the programmer on this issue, Tognazzini noted.

"A lot of times a programmer may think he's created a cookie [that saves cart contents] but for some reason there's something they've done wrong."

What every storeowner must do is test their cart software under "edge" conditions. That is, situations that mimic a shopper who goes away and comes back, or has computer problems. As a general rule, merchants should test their cart's performance on all browsers and platforms.

And, with a properly designed shopping cart, the cart's cookie should always be kept in the user's file on the host machine — not the client machine. "The user might start shopping at work and finish at home," Tognazzini said

Serving Up Graphics
"There are a number of major manufacturers who seem like they've set out to make their site as slow as possible," Tognazzini said. A main culprit is the use of ineffective technology to offer up photos.

Many e-tailers, of course, have a vast library of product photos, so if photos aren't presented quickly, it's a major problem. "Instead of creating a single large graphic and 'slicing' it [letting it load section by section], they have a separate file for each piece." If a shopper is using a dialup connection, this is like watching paint dry.

In this slow-load situation, "Quite often there's no [alternate text, also called "ALT"] label attached to the illustration, so if it's a button you can't click it until that button finally arrives." At this point, it's almost easier to use the phone then surf the Web, Tognazzini said.

One factor could be a surprising warning sign: "If your Web site has won a graphics-design award, you are likely in serious need of a redesign," he said. Such sites tend to be pretty rather than profitable, he noted, due to their emphasis on bandwidth-hogging graphics.

Does Your "Look" Match Your Biz?
Similarly, a site design that looks too luxurious can actually work against a discount site, he said. "You don't go into a store on Fifth Avenue that's arrayed like Tiffany's and expect to buy something really cheap." On the other hand, if your products are priced on the upper end, "you need a clean, well-lighted site that looks inviting and has an 800 number on every page."

The point is to make your site match your customer's budget level. One of the best ways to do this is to look at the other sites selling what you're selling. Your navigation, prices and products may be better than theirs, but your site's overall look should not be radically different, he noted.

Information, Please
Brick and mortar stores have an edge over many online stores in terms of providing enough information to persuade a shopper: An in-store shopper can peruse the product's box and any in-store signage or ask questions of a live human.

Online sites need to aspire to reach this level of customer service. Tognazzini refers to a site selling camera gear that missed answering obvious questions. Is your site providing the answers to all likely customer concerns?

Moreover, is your information accessible to all your shoppers? Tognazzini points to airline sites, with their graphs of information about departure times and destinations. Sometimes when e-tailers post this style of complex graph, it doesn't display properly. Again, it's an issue of testing multiple platforms. Although few users run Mac or Linux platforms or use the Netscape browser, "their credit card is the same color as everyone else's," he said.

Overly Cautious Shipping Times
Some merchants are so conscientious about promising (and missing) shipping times that they warn customers it may take longer than it usually does, Tognazzini said. He points to a major PC maker who warns of a five- to seven-day wait, though it virtually never takes that long.

Instead, strive to provide a quick and accurate shipping time — and stick to it.

"Customers have learned that they can go to sites that tell them how quickly it's going to ship, and if your site doesn't, you're going to be paying lots of money for 800 numbers to answer them."

In short, don't be too worried about your lawyer's warnings. That rare hurricane that slows delivery shouldn't be your guiding rule. "Stuff happens, and people understand that," Tognazzini said.

Tog's Biggest Pet Peeve: Living Up To Vendor Claims
Making good on customer returns and money-back guarantees is absolutely critical, noted Tognazzini. It may be expensive, and a claim may fall into a gray area, but it's still essential.

"Whatever [a vendor] claims they're going to do, they should do it. If a merchant makes a claim about a money-back guarantee, they need to give the money back," he said.

Most merchants do this, of course, and that's a good thing: When a customer return goes wrong, "you've lost that customer, not just for today or this week, but forever."

He points to one of the central facts of Internet life: "This is a community, and vendors are selling to a community, not isolated individuals like the old days." Aggrieved customers may post their complaints somewhere on the Web where it will be seen by countless shoppers — and will hang in cyberspace ad infinitum.

The Future: Universal One Click
All these design and usability tips can do wonders for e-commerce stores. But to really move online retailing forward, what merchants need is one-click purchasing technology, Tognazzini said.

Of course this would have to be done while respecting Amazon's patent, he conceded.

Still, what he envisions is a one-click method that works by allowing participating shoppers to store their information in a secure location. Then that single click would simultaneously be a "yes" to the purchase and provide one-time permission to access their credit card number. The end result would be a quick and efficient e-commerce sale.

Until then, there's still a lot of site improvement work out there to keep online merchants busy.

Adapted from ECommerce-Guide.com, part of Internet.com's Small Business Channel.

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