The Effective Website: The Seven-Minute Checkup

Jun 01, 2007 9:30 PM  By

Can you evaluate the effectiveness of your Website in a mere seven minutes? We developed this Seven-Minute Site Checkup as a fun diagnostic for the free, fast-paced Medical Center sessions at last month’s ACCM. Of course, this exercise can’t approach the value of a comprehensive third-party review, but it can help you get up to speed on usability and conversion basics before your commit to your next Web project or a paid third-party review.

Here’s a tip: Double your investment by performing the exercise twice. Before examining your own site, “wipe your glasses” by walking through a checkup on a site from a retail category other than your own. You’ll get a clearer sense of the usability patterns underlying all effective sites, and you’ll be in a position to diagnose your own work more objectively.

MINUTE 1: home page

A comprehensive home page analysis requires a detailed review across scores of benchmarks, but for your seven-minute checkup, take your page’s vital signs with three questions:

  1. What can I do on this site?
  2. Why would I do it here?
  3. How do I start?

If the home page is effective, these questions can be answered in seconds — that’s how much time you have before your user opens up another browser tab to shop a competitor or simply leave.

Pay particular attention to question 2; the answer is your site’s unique selling proposition. Does your site compete on service? Breadth of assortment? Price? Make sure the reasons to shop your site instead of the competition’s are apparent at a glance.

Tip: Keep these three home page questions in mind as you evaluate other landing pages on your site. For sites reaping the full benefits of paid and natural search, the home page may account for as few as 20% of entry pages, so all your landing pages need to make a quick, easily scanned argument for sticking around.

Next check the home page’s shopping scent. The simplest way to help your visitors pick up a strong shopping scent and start finding and choosing product is to provide an easy-to-find site search box and well-organized, clearly labeled site navigation.

MINUTE 2: navigation

Take a look at the site’s primary navigation links. Is the number of choices manageable or overwhelming? Research shows that more than seven links is pushing it.

Quickly read though the navigation labels. Do the words make clear what the site sells and how the products are organized? Odds are the home page’s prime real estate is spent on products your company deems important. As you look at the site navigation, is it clear which categories would logically contain these featured products and the ones just like them?

Start clicking to see if you guess right. As you drill down, do you always know where you are and where you can go?

Tip: Effective site navigation keeps users oriented with clear page headlines, consistent breadcrumb trails, and links that look unambiguously clickable.

MINUTE 3: category page

Time is tight, so let’s boil down these key pages to their essence: Category pages are lists and ways to manage lists.

  • Is the category page on your screen immediately recognizable as a list of products? Is the reasoning behind this list’s default order apparent (price ascending, alphabetical by brand, etc.)? How easy is it to change that order?

  • What tools can help you narrow the list and choose a product? Are filters, if used, relevant to the products on the page?

  • For those users who prefer traditional merchandising, does the page precede the product list with price-tiered, good/better/best recommendations?

  • Now go back to your list of home page questions and use them to evaluate this category page as an entry page to your site.

Tip: Effective Websites design for users first but recognize the importance of formatting content for natural search too. Here are two quick search-engine optimization checks for your seven-minute evaluation:

  1. Does each page on the site have its own unique title tag?
  2. Does the site use properly formatted HTML headlines to help search bots find the most-important ideas, or does it hide key concepts with rendered graphical text that the engines can’t read?
MINUTE 4: site search


Site search can give you insight into how visitors think. You should be mining your site search logs on a regular basis, but for now, type in the terms that the site itself flags as important: the products featured on the home page and the category pages.

Search for these featured products at least three ways:

  1. as they are named by the site (for instance, “6-pocket tan cargo shorts”).

  2. as a user might describe them, using obvious synonyms and misspellings (“cargo shorts,” “kaki cargoes”).

  3. by looking for the category each product belongs to (“men’s shorts”).

Does each of your searches produce accurate and useful results? Does the site avoid serving dead-end pages, always suggesting an alternative? Does the site offer help in context — say, spelling out how to contact a live human if the results presented don’t satisfy? (For a quick look at any site’s null-results page, try searching on “true love” or “world peace.” These problems tend to stump even the most solutions-oriented online retailers.)

Tip: Whether browsing or searching, users expect the same item assortment and shopping tools. Look back at this checkup’s category-page section and evaluate the site search-result pages as manageable lists. And do they work as entry pages that provide a strong reason to shop here instead of somewhere else?

MINUTE 5: product-detail page


Clicking into the search-results page on your screen, take a quick sample of the site’s product-detail pages. On each page, how quickly can you find the add-to-cart button? Is this button the most prominent element on the page? Is it scannable, above the fold, and free of competition from other page elements?

Use the squint test. Stand several feet away from your monitor: Is the add-to-cart button still the page’s unmistakable focus?

If not, check for two likely culprits:

Ambiguity — are other buttons on the page mistakenly given equal weight and placement? Look for prime offenders like add-to-wishlist.

Clutter — check for competing offers. Are the promotions on the current page relevant to the product being sold, or are they cut-and-paste offers more applicable to other categories that are nonetheless shouting down your buy button?

Look at the product copy: Is it formatted for the Web, with subheads, short paragraphs, and bullets? Is it layered, with the most important information first and esoteric details a click away? Or is lengthy, repurposed print copy — unlikely to be read online — pushing your add-to-cart button below the fold?

Tip: An effective add-to-cart button can’t be patchworked into a design. It relies on a page with a clear visual hierarchy and a design vocabulary that achieves prominence and focus without simply falling back on “bigger” and “more red.”

Before clicking and moving on to the cart, take a final look at the product-detail page.

  • Does it supply headlines, breadcrumb trails, and cross-sell items to help place it in context?

  • What guardrails does it provide to refocus a user tempted to leave your site?

  • How well does it function as an entry page to your site? Does it make the site’s unique selling proposition scannable?

TIME OUT


What does your clock say? If slow-loading pages are bogging down your checkup, remember to optimize your site for speed. Start here: Use the “view source” command on your pages and look for red flags such as nested table markup and inline scripts.

MINUTE 6: shopping cart


When your user arrives at the cart, the page focus should shift to the continue-to-checkout button. Now this button must be the one page element that’s impossible to miss.

Try the squint test again. Make sure your checkout button isn’t forced to compete with elements such as “update cart” or “change quantity.” “Continue shopping” buttons and cross-sell presentations should be the cart’s secondary focus, not the primary call to action.

Try to gauge the persuasiveness of the shopping cart currently on your screen.

  • Does the cart tempt you? Does it highlight your relevant savings and offers? Does it show you that your item is in stock and let you know how soon you can get your hands on it?

  • Does the cart reassure you? Does it highlight guarantees, security certifications, and shipping and return info?

MINUTE 7: checkout


Our seven minutes are just about up. Taking a careful look at the first checkout page you see, answer these three questions:

  1. Does the process look trustworthy and friendly? Are the reassurances highlighted by the shopping cart still visible, and is contextual help available if you need it?

  2. Is it clear exactly what you need to do next to move forward in the order process?

  3. Is the end in sight? Does this first page show you that the order process can be completed in a reasonable number of steps — ideally no more than five?

TIME’S UP


Congratulations! Chances are this quick exam turned up several changes you can make to improve usability and conversion on your site. Use your notes to focus your team as you choose the next round of site improvements. Successful redesign is rarely accomplished in one fell swoop; it requires an iterative, project-based approach. So keep this seven-minute exercise handy, and try it anytime you think your site could use a checkup.


Larry Becker is vice president at the Rimm-Kaufman Group, a paid-search services and Website effectiveness consulting firm.