White Paper - Usability


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New white paper from e-inbusiness, the award winning specialists in eCommerce and online marketing, on usability and accessibility for online retailers

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White Paper - Usability

  1. 1. Usability { The opportunities and the threats for online retailers } White Paper The opportunities and the threats for online retailers Online retailing is no arena for the fainthearted - the winners are the ones who commit to constant improvement and action in enhancing the usability of their sites. And for the losers, the threats to their online businesses are very real indeed...
  2. 2. Usability { The opportunities and the threats for online retailers } Contents Accessible to all, usable by all! 3-5 Building a lead 6-7 The penalties of inaction 8-9 Looking ahead 10 - 11 Learn more about usability 12 Contents / 2
  3. 3. Usability { The opportunities and the threats for online retailers } Roll up, roll up! Accessible to all, usable by all! Definitions Usability At its very simplest, usability defines how good a website During 2008 US retail giant Target agreed to a staggering is at providing all customers with a service they can use payout in California, where it has allegedly easily and effectively. It therefore relates primarily to the transgressed federal anti-discrimination legislation that quality, simplicity and functionality of the user interface, and is requires website owners to give blind people full access to also used as a touchstone within the design process to enable their sites’ functionality1. ease-of-use. a We haven’t yet seen a case in the UK on a remotely similar Critically, it needs to be developed alongside the closely related scale, but our own anti-discrimination laws make it just a attribute of ‘utility’, which enables consumers to do what they matter of time until one emerges. wish to do on your site. But such an extreme example actually represents merely the So working together, usability and utility enable people to tip of a far, far bigger iceberg that continues to cost online do what they want, easily and efficiently with a minimum of retailers untold billions every year: a failure to make their sites errors. not just accessible to all, but easily usable by everyone as well. An increasingly important feature of usability that’s emerging as a competitive consideration of real consequence is that of satisfaction. If two competing sites offer precisely the same products and functionality, it will clearly be the one that’s most enjoyable to use that will emerge victorious. This is particularly important for those retailers seeking to avoid pandering to the lowest common denominator and appeal to a sophisticated and demanding audience. 1 http://pressroom.target.com/pr/news/target-web/target-nfb-settlement.aspx, August 27th 2008 Accessible to all, usable by all / 3
  4. 4. Usability { The opportunities and the threats for online retailers } In fact, a recent US survey of 300 leading online retailers, showed that across a range of 69 different usability and customer- Accessibility experience factors they scored an average of just 2 . Accessibility, meanwhile, is a subset of usability, generally held to be about ensuring that sites are usable by people According to the survey, were using text that was hard with disabilities, who cannot operate standard user agents to read; enforced four or more steps in the checkout or settings or browsers/platforms with limited/turned-off process; and just offered customer reviews, proven to be a features eg JavaScript. very popular and effective means of giving customers the impartial information they want. Enabling accessibility involves many techniques that mostly comprise providing alternatives to the standard user interface. These can include using screen readers to vocalise text and Naturally, there’s no legal punishment for having, for example, enable visually impaired people to type, colour contrasts that awkward and illogical navigation menus. But there is an make differentiation easier, clear typography, the ability to alter immense penalty nonetheless – the stark fact that visitors will text sizes and more. The technology is constantly improving too. leave in droves without making a purchase. For example, Google now also has some ability to read Flash, making it accessible to Screen Readers and hence to blind and visually impaired people. In the UK, the legislation that enforces accessibility falls under the Disabilities Discrimination Act 2005 (DDA), which among much else requires that organisations make their information easy to access. Naturally, website accessibility is just one element of the wider legislation, but it is nonetheless highly significant for online businesses because it applies to all employers and everyone who provides a service to the public (except the Armed Forces). So far, so straightforward. But online retailers also have a pressing need to promote and differentiate themselves through the style, look and feel of their websites – in other words, to deliver ‘satisfaction’ while complying with the demands of accessibility. 2 Future Now, 2007 Accessible to all, usable by all / 4
  5. 5. Usability { The opportunities and the threats for online retailers } Internet guru Jakob Nielsen has probably expressed the need for Ironically, the issue here is not so much how retailers can cater usability as well as anyone ever has: for the needs of inexperienced users and people with low-spec On the web, usability is a necessary condition for survival, computers. Commercially, it’s more important that they satisfy the he writes. If a website is difficult to use, people leave. If the creativity and functionality expectations of their more sophisticated homepage fails to clearly state what the company offers and customers. These, after all, are likely to be the people with what users can do on the site, people leave. If users get lost most money to spend, and who are most likely to shop online. on a website, they leave. If a website’s information is hard to read or doesn’t answer users’ key questions, they leave.3 This is dangerous territory, however, progressively bringing retailers closer to a line that excludes some users – possibly including “Note a pattern here?” people with disabilities – from using the site properly. And Target’s example shows the dangers inherent in getting the balance wrong. To make things even tougher for online retailers, particularly those operating in the mass market, there’s an overriding need to cater These are just some of the reasons why many major eCommerce simultaneously for audiences with wildly different levels of online businesses are continuing to grapple with the usability and experience and expertise, from novice to expert. accessibility conundrum: if we have to serve the lowest common denominator, can we ever challenge and stretch the creative and service boundaries to help maximise commercial value Not only that – the range of hardware quality and modernity and impact? in use, also means that a feature which might fly on one computer may cause another to crash. The answer, fortunately, is ‘yes’ – by getting the balance right, you can keep all of the people happy all of the time. And many of our market-leading online retailers are achieving precisely that. But it’s not always easy and there is much to consider. 3 useit.com: Jakob Nielsen’s website Accessible to all, usable by all / 5
  6. 6. Usability { The opportunities and the threats for online retailers } Building a lead What’s more, their approach is often neither particularly difficult nor prohibitively expensive. The most successful online retailers are the ones who have Quite simply, they know their customers and they understand most effectively managed this balancing act. And their the potential (and limitations) of online retailing. So, first and focus has been first and foremost on meeting the usability foremost, they provide their customers with choice, providing requirements of their primary audiences, including satisfaction. different means of navigation that suit the needs of people with differing levels of experience, expertise, browser age, hardware To this end, they’re committed to the use of creative skills and sophistication and, just as important, personal preference. creative technologies, but they are successfully balancing the creative with the technical to ensure that they use technology Next, they keep up-to-date with new technologies and ensure innovatively to engage the consumer without sacrificing usability. that they use them to best and most relevant effect, with back- This is a key factor in front-end development that simultaneously up alternatives in place. In the early days of Flash, for example, ensures an ever-improving experience for consumers and promotes many website developers saw this new tool as a universal panacea the retailer’s brand. that would add excitement and creativity to any site. The result, after an initial flush of user delight, was growing impatience as Increasingly, this is becoming just as relevant for mobile sites loaded slowly and prevented users from getting into the site eCommerce as for its longer established ‘fixed’ form, where as quickly as they wished. The lesson has been learned, and retailers are making significant investments in ensuring that their no good developer today lets technology get in the way of the sites are satisfying and usable for users of the growing number of user’s ability to use their sites. mobile browsers. The focus today, rather, is on using best practice and new So it is by concentrating on constant improvement that the leaders technologies to streamline the user’s experience by making their keep ahead of the curve and encourage increasing numbers of interaction with a site swifter and more intuitive than ever before. loyal customers to keep returning and spending. Building a lead / 6
  7. 7. Usability { The opportunities and the threats for online retailers } Recent years, for example, have seen the increasing use of Ajax Online market leaders do not depend alone on their own opinions (Asynchronous JavaScript + XML) – a development tool that and preferences to drive change and improvement. Rather, allows users to interact with a website in a manner similar to they use the direct customer feedback that they constantly a desktop application, for example by providing a meaningful receive through using real-time techniques that A/B and Multi- response to some input without reloading the page, as in providing Variate testing (MVT) offer, to gain rigorous data on what helps a drag and drop facility. One of the first examples of Ajax in consumers swiftly and efficiently make a successful purchase. action to reach a wide audience, in fact, was Google Maps, which enabled users to move an image of a map around their screen, Using sophisticated analytics, they can therefore spot precisely enabling them to ‘improve’ a web page to match their personal which elements of the site are underperforming – those showing preferences. higher than average bounce rates, for example, or revealing search terms that do not produce a result for the user – and use an array However, improvements in usability extend beyond the immediate of alternative approaches to identify and implement the most efficiency of a site, to encompass areas including payment effective. security and streamlined fulfilment. Online security remains a major concern for users, and evidence that a site is using the most And, of course, they take their responsibilities under the DDA effective available solution – such as PayPal or Google Checkout very seriously indeed. No one enjoys paying needless financial – adds to their willingness to provide financial information. penalties. Likewise, a poor experience of late delivery (or non-delivery) lingers in the user’s memory, possibly delivering terminal damage to In other words, the leaders are constantly investing in the the customer relationship. Offering services like estimated delivery usability of their websites: they remember what Jakob Nielsen time, timely email support and information, free shipping, in-stock had to say on the subject. “Usability is a necessary condition availability and even, where possible, an in-store pick-up option all for survival.” And this constant commitment is one of the contribute to usability. most important factors behind their success. Then there’s testing. Building a lead / 7
  8. 8. Usability { The opportunities and the threats for online retailers } The penalties of inaction Inaction is not the only danger, however. Change that is too dramatic and rapid can equally prove to be a source of aggravation among consumers. They are creatures of habit, and those who become loyal customers have learned over time to like As Nielsen also points out, people don’t need much of an excuse a site’s overall approach, look and feel. So while subtle change – to leave a website. Equally, they don’t need much of one to decide sometimes so discreet that the visitor may not even consciously (consciously or unconsciously) never to return. All too often, notice it – can boost visitor and business volumes, sweeping though, this decision is not taken due to the actions of an online change can be destructive. retailer: it’s more often thanks to their inaction. For customers respond positively to change – at least when There is therefore a careful balancing act involved, designed that change represents progress. A site that does not constantly simultaneously to provide the reassurance of familiarity with change and refresh itself – new features, new designs, new a site’s image and how it works without allowing boredom to products – will gradually lose its appeal. erode its customer-base. And when it loses its appeal, it will lose its customers too. When visitors perceive that the site has not changed since their last visit, Similarly, there is a danger of over-reacting to users’ desire for bounce rates will increase as they leave before making a purchase. satisfaction. The home page is the most important consideration here – if there is no regular change here, visitors will assume that nothing This is where another balancing act comes into play: it else has changed either. They will reject the site as a worthwhile is important not to provide so much free information and destination to return to. And over time it will lose custom. entertainment that visitors start using the site simply for that satisfaction, and not to buy the goods and services that you want to sell. The penalties of inaction / 8
  9. 9. Usability { The opportunities and the threats for online retailers } Turning to the issue of accessibility, the potential for being These, then, are some of the ‘easy’ lessons that market leaders prosecuted under the DDA is clearly an important risk factor that have learned and applied over the years. The consistency of online retailers will act to avoid. But this is not the only benefit of their commitment to positive change is continuing to open the compliance. gap ever further between their fortunes and those of their less successful competitors. First, people with disabilities are clearly potential customers for most retailers, and are therefore an important subset within But nothing that we’ve covered so far is unavailable to every online a larger market. What’s more, the PR and word of mouth benefits retailer that takes its business seriously. Any retailer can do this of providing a site that’s easily accessible to them are likely to – the technology and the experience is widely available and carry considerable clout with their peers, friends and family, while cost-effective to apply. the damage to the reputation of a site that does the bare legal minimum (or even less!) is also likely to be disproportionally serious. A third factor, with possibly even more commercial importance, relates to Search Engine Optimisation (SEO). The ‘bots’ used by major search engine like Google read sites in much the same way as a blind user does, meaning that the more accessible your site is, the higher its quality score will be. On the other hand, an inaccessible site will be marked down, with an impact on its search engine visibility. The penalties of inaction / 9
  10. 10. Usability { The opportunities and the threats for online retailers } Looking ahead But, for the leaders, one area more than any other is grabbing the attention – mobile e-commerce, often called mCommerce. It’s already with us, of course. According to Nielsen research from But while this capacity is available to most, the leaders spring 2008, some Americans have already continue to invest in the ‘harder’ stuff as well, using advanced made a purchase using a mobile device, and around half of the technologies to protect and extend their lead. In the UK, cell-phone owners in that country are willing for example, online clothes retailer New Look is using ‘eyeball to make one in the near future.4 analysis technology’ which enables them to identify how users eyes move as they use their site, literally enabling their page But, despite the increasing prevalence of devices like the iPhone designs to be as eye, and attention, grabbing as possible. which can render websites on the palm-top, problems with issues like image size and bandwidth remain an issue for many retailers. As well as constantly researching and acting on subjects like However, emerging solutions like Magento – that optimises basket-size optimisation and new means of improving security, presentation and functionality for the iPhone’s browser – are such leaders are also exploring the potential of new and emerging addressing these difficulties to bring mCommerce into the technologies. mainstream. These include the ‘Ribbon’ navigation strip launched in Fortunately, as more retailers make the move, they are being able Microsoft’s Office 2007 suite, that eliminates the need for various to ‘mobilise’ many of the usability lessons they’ve learned the hierarchies of drop-down menus, and the internet browser plug- hard way over the last decade, powering ever-swifter mCommerce in Silverlight, which includes features such as animation, vector adoption by users to the point, not far in the future, where it graphics and audio-video playback to compete with programs becomes ubiquitous. like Flash and Shockwave. 4 June, 2009. www.nielsenmobile.com/html/press%20releases/M-Commerce.html Looking ahead / 10
  11. 11. Usability { The opportunities and the threats for online retailers } So, online retailing is no arena for the fainthearted – the winners are the ones who commit to constant improvement and action in enhancing the usability of their sites. Just as important, there’s no fooling the consumer. They can intuitively recognise a site that has made the investments they want, in satisfaction, security and more. This adds to their comfort in using a site, and has a positive effect on their perception of the brand – both of which contribute to improved conversion rates, higher average order values, reduced rates of return and other key commercial performance factors. The opportunity is there for everyone to apply the good practice that drives such improvements. And the threats involved in not doing so are very real indeed. Looking ahead / 11
  12. 12. Usability { The opportunities and the threats for online retailers } We’d love to share our passion for usability with you and your For regular updates from our team and useful links to help online team. If you have any questions or would like to learn more increase your search engine marketing awareness, follow us about e-inbusiness and how our usability or wider online marketing on Twitter. and e-commerce expertise could drive your online channel, contact us today: e-inbusiness Speak to one of our experts now http://www.twitter.com/einbusiness a 0845 481 8004 Devaki Phatak m http://www.twitter.com/Devaki_Phatak information@e-inbusiness.co.uk James Malton for 8 www.e-inbusiness.co.uk/whitepapers http://www.twitter.com/jamesmalton Learn more about usability / 12