It’s the user, stupid

Okay, so it’s time to overhaul your e-commerce site or design a new one, and you’ve finally wrangled into the conference room everyone whose input you’ll need: marketing people, the information technology guys, some ops folks, and of course, the CEO.

But the most important person in deciding which features and functions should be on the site and how they should be presented is absent. Who is that? The user. Or for those who find the term “user” off-putting, the customer.

Usability testing — observing how people interact with a site — is one of the most important things an e-commerce site operator can do to make a site design or overhaul project run more smoothly and yield better results. “Usability is really specific to each individual site,” says Ken Burke, founder/CEO of MarketLive, an e-commerce technology firm based in Petaluma, CA. “There are a lot of general themes, but there are nuances to every site that you wouldn’t realize customers would have a reaction to. It’s amazing how you’ll discover things [in a usability test] that you otherwise would never have seen.”

It’s also amazing, some might say, that so many online merchants fail to conduct usability studies.

“One of the reasons there are so many problems with usability is that there are so many stakeholders in any one of these projects,” says Nate Bolt, cofounder/CEO of San Francisco-based Website usability agency Bolt Peters User Experience. “The designer has one opinion, the engineer has another opinion, the business stakeholders have another opinion, the project manager has another opinion, and everybody has to agree. But the person who is not in the room is the user — every time.”

Usability testing can make the experience of designing or overhauling a site far less ulcer-inducing by helping to quickly gel differing opinions. Though executives in a conference room may argue about how features should be presented to customers, “once they hear it from the consumer’s mouth, they agree,” says Bolt.

When conducted by an agency, usability testing can run from tens of thousands of dollars up into six figures. But Website operators can get an accurate read on how usable their sites, Bolt says. One way to test is simply by giving a dozen or so people some money and then observing them try to spend it on your site.

“The worst mistake that people make is thinking that usability has to be this huge once-a-year or once-a-quarter task, instead of making it a series of informal tests that end up giving you way better and more timely feedback,” says Bolt. His advice: “Build as much informal customer feedback as you can into your design time line. It’ll pay off, you do not need to hire an outside agency to do it, and you don’t have to delay the design by three weeks to make room for some big usability test.” (There are some advantages to using an agency, however; see “When to outsource usability testing,” page 26.)

Bolt says that typically his company watches 10-20 people use a client’s Website to see if they have trouble doing anything on the site. “That’s the sample size from which you will see behavioral patterns,” he explains. Unlike opinion research, where it takes hundreds or thousands of responses to get actionable data, “you can extract with a high degree of confidence that behavior over 10 users will apply to your entire target audience,” says Bolt.

You don’t even have to be in the same building as the users. Bolt says his company intercepts users on the site and asks them if they’ll participate in a study. “We do all of our testing remotely,” he says. “We really feel that keeping people in their native environment is important to the kind of feedback you get.”


“You would think there would be these general rules you could apply to make a site easy to use,” Bolt says, “but it seems to be different for every situation.”

That said, there are some common areas that e-commerce sites tend to struggle with:

  • Error handling

    In other words, how a site handles user errors, such as when the customer forgets to select a product’s color or fails to fill out a needed field in a form.

    Error handling “comes up repeatedly as the single biggest overlooked thing we’ve seen across all the e-commerce clients we work with,” says Bolt. “It’s not a very glamorous thing to work on, but it’s a huge deal for users.”

    When an error occurs, the Web page should change immediately without having to reload, he says. “That’s an important thing that very few people do well.” Moreover, the error should be pointed out to the customer clearly and in the spot where it occurred.

    “The reason this stuff [bad error handling] happens is that it is always last on the list, and it’s left up to the engineers to handle, and they’ve got 6 million other things to do,” Bolt says. “They may even have a flair for usability, but the bottom line is they’ve 10 other deadlines to deal with, and error handling is never a priority on the feature list.”

    In fact — in a piece of advice that shouldn’t be surprising to traditional catalogers — Bolt says online forms are one of the first places to look for ways to improve user experience. “Anywhere that you’re gathering data from the user, look at that experience,” he says. “If it doesn’t seem easy to you, it probably isn’t easy for them.”

  • Building trust

    Another aspect of usability that will ring familiar to traditional catalogers is what MarketLive’s Burke refers to as worry-free or risk-free shopping. “It is so critical to build trust throughout the entire site,” he says. Simply adding ScanAlert’s “Hacker Safe” logo (available to Websites that hire the online security services provider to scan their servers daily for security breaches) can increase a Website’s conversion-to-sale rate by 8%, says Burke. Also, as in traditional cataloging, money-back guarantees can boost conversion rates.

  • Button and icon sizes

    Often a site’s most important buttons simply are not large enough for users to spot. “Just doubling the size of the ‘add to cart’ button can result in huge revenue increases,” says Bolt.

  • Consistency

    Mike Abney, director of commerce site management for Covington, KY-based online design firm DMinSite, says it’s important for a site to use consistent navigation, page designs, and terminology throughout. “What I don’t want to do is jar my customer into wondering, ‘Hey, what happened here?’” he says. “I don’t want them focusing on extraneous things.”

    Consistency with overall e-commerce practices is important too. Burke says that site usability is generally not the place to buck trends. “If everybody does it one way, there’s usually no reason to be a contrarian in the world of usability,” he says. “The more you get away from standards, the more it will kill your conversion rate.”

    For instance, it’s not a good idea to deviate from so-called C navigation, which entails a header at the top of the page, left-hand navigation tabs, and a footer on the bottom, says Burke. “Customers have the attention span of a two-year-old child. They will stay on a page for only five, six, or seven seconds. If they can’t digest everything on that page in five, six, or seven seconds, you lose them.”

  • Messages per page

    There should be only one primary message on a page, according to Burke: “You can have subdominant messages, but there can be only one dominant message. If you’ve got a page that has seven different offers, you’ve created chaos.”

  • Dead-end Web pages

    “You should never have a Web page that doesn’t tell them where to go next,” says Burke. A number of online merchants blow the user experience with their “no search results found” pages. If a site visitor types gobbledygook into a merchant’s search function and the results page comes back saying only that no matches were found, “then you’ve failed usability 101,” he says.

    On most sites, customers will use the search bar 50% of the time, and 20%-40% of all searches fail, according to Burke, so it is important to design for failed searches. For example, on its “no results” pages, high-end home products merchant Frontgate, a MarketLive client, offers search tips, advanced searching capabilities, and links to various other parts of the site.

  • On-site search error tolerance

    “If someone types in ‘red,’ and you have a ruby sweater and they can’t find it, that’s not a very good user experience,” Burke says. Your Website’s search function should be able to account for synonyms and misspellings.


The overall goal of site usability — and usability testing — is to “make it easy for the customer to buy in the fewest clicks,” Abney says. So in addition to a product-search function, a site may benefit from offering a “solution finder.” On a woodworking site, this could be something that enables customers to search by what kind of cut they want to make. On a gardening Website, it could be a guide to which plants are suitable for which zones, with links to the product page of each plant. Solution finders don’t necessarily generate much traffic, but they help drive up conversion rates, says Abney.

And while pretty is nice, functional is more important. “A lot of time we see sites that are stunningly beautiful, but it’ll take four or five clicks before you can even put an item in your cart or get a price,” Abney says. “At the end of the day, pretty doesn’t sell all that well. I’m not saying we’re trying to do ugly by any stretch of the imagination, but we’re here to sell product.”

Though that doesn’t necessarily mean closing sales online, Abney adds. A business-to-business site selling highly technical products, for instance, may be most effective by helping customers find what they’re looking for and encouraging them to use the phone to place their orders.

When to outsource usability testing

Companies don’t have to hire outside agencies to get valuable usability information, says Nate Bolt, cofounder/CEO of Website usability agency Bolt Peters User Experience. But bringing in the experts does have its advantages.

For one thing, if there are more than just a few people involved in a site redesign or launch, hiring an agency to conduct usability testing makes the process go much more smoothly. “The more stakeholders you have, the more you need somebody to come in from outside to do this stuff,” Bolt says. “When you start having more people involved, it becomes really helpful to have third-party research coming in because it creates a lot of buy-in.”

A good agency will also focus on return on investment and making concrete recommendations, and it won’t be perceived by people on the development team as having an agenda, he adds.

And an outside agency is less likely to misinterpret user feedback. “One of the worst things you can do is listen to what people say as opposed to watching what they do,” Bolt explains, a mistake that an agency can be diligent in helping multichannel merchants avoid.

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