mapping the way

Shopping on a Website with poor navigation is like driving cross-country without a road map. Sure, customers may eventually reach their destination, but they’re just as likely to get lost and give up midway through their journey.

As an online merchant, you can’t afford to leave potential customers stranded in the depths of your site-or even worse, to have buyers fleeing before they complete their transactions, vowing never to return. Your Website must direct visitors to what they are looking for quickly and easily.

Though you wouldn’t know it from the welter of confusing Websites out there, by following 10 basic tips you can ensure that your online catalog achieves optimum usability:

1) Keep it simple. Navigation shouldn’t have to impress anyone. Its main objective is to be functional.

2) Keep it intuitive. Cars don’t have signs that tell you where to start them, and Websites shouldn’t need buttons that say “click here.” Navigation should be a natural process; if you need to provide too many instructions, your navigation isn’t simple enough.

3) Be direct. Make sure users don’t have to guess what each icon means. For example, clicking on a product photo should lead the user to a product page.

4) List the most important features first and then continue in descending order. For example, e-commerce sites should lead with a link to shopping, and branding sites should make content features the most prominent aspect.

5) Use the fancy technology for content, not navigation. Embedding Java applets and animations into navigational commands can muddle a site’s navigation flow, especially for users whose computers may not be able to handle such technology quickly, if at all.

6) Include a search function. If a site has enough content to support it, a search function is a helpful tool for the user.

7) Design navigation bars so that they are justified left. This way, no matter the size or configuration of the user’s browser window, these standard tools will be visible.

8) Keep the style consistent throughout the site. For instance, if the links on the home page are round buttons with key words in the center, don’t make the links on the product pages appear as wordless cartoons.

9) Use both text and graphic images. All-text pages are deadly dull; too many graphics can be confusing. But a mix of words and graphics can draw users deeper into a site.

10) Remember that less is more. When you give people too many choices, they’re apt to leave the site. Although there is no rule of thumb, be wary of offering more than nine navigation choices on the home page-you don’t want to overwhelm the user.

Your idea of an intuitive, simple, consistent site might be completely different from that of your target audience. Fortunately, according to Forrester Research senior analyst Harley Manning, there are a number of “right ways” to test your site’s usability.

“The easiest way to figure out how your site measures up is to have someone test it based on a list of criteria,” Manning says. Give the tester a “shopping list”-have the person try to make several purchases, order a catalog, and e-mail the customer service department with a question about a product warranty-and have him or her time the process and rate the site by ease of use. “But make sure that the person who’s doing the testing is from outside your company,” Manning adds, “so that he or she can look at it objectively.”

You could also hire a consultant to evaluate flaws, or find a company that will perform a “usability test”-hiring laymen to determine how a site ranks based on whether it does what it’s supposed to do, how long it takes, and how many errors occur. To have a consultant test a specific set of tasks costs roughly $10,000-$25,000, though a complete testing program over the entire design and development period can run as high as $100,000, depending on the size and complexity of the site.

Whether you’re starting up a Website from scratch or tweaking an existing online catalog, “keep your mind open to the new rules, but don’t blank on what you already know,” Manning says. “Just as in direct marketing, the most important thing to remember when taking your catalog online is to present a compelling offer, and then to communicate that offer clearly and effectively.”

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