Is Your Website Design Driving Away Your Customers? Some Basic Usability Tips for Commercial Websites
Following my article on
Appearance, Usability and Search Engine Friendliness in Web Design
where I discussed the importance of looking at the usability and search engine visibility of a website, I have received countless messages
from visitors to thesitewizard.com asking me to review their website. While I do not have time to answer such requests individually, I decided that an
article outlining some glaring usability flaws that I have found in a number of websites in general would be helpful. This article thus deals with the
myths and fallacies commonly believed when designing a website to sell a product or a service.
Make It Easy for Visitor to Check Your Price List
Some websites try to hide the price list for their products. Some of these sites only display the price of the item after you hit the
"Buy" or "Order" button, or worse, only after you have created an account on their site. Others have a price list, but bury the link to the price list
somewhere deep in their site in a place not easily accessible from the main page or the products page.
I'm not exactly sure what the reason behind this is. Possibly, they think that if the customer does not see the price until they click the "Buy" or
"Order" button, they will be more likely to buy the item. This reasoning is fallacious.
There are many types of visitors arriving at your site. Let's take the case of the window shopper. If they see something noteworthy on your site,
they may make a note of the price so that they can return later if they want the item at some point in the future. If the price of the item cannot be easily
found on your site, do you seriously think that they will thoroughly search the site just to find that elusive price tag? Or do you suppose that such
a visitor will click the "Buy" button, just so that they can find the price tag at the end of the process somewhere? Or will they go through the bother of
creating an account, revealing their personal particulars, just to find the price of an item?
Like the serious shopper, if they cannot find the price, they will simply go to another site. Remember: this is not a brick and mortar store we're
talking about, where you need to take time and put in effort to travel to another store. On the Internet, your competitor is only a click away.
And the search engines are more than happy to yield thousands of other sites selling the same type of goods or services as you. I realise that
there are some brick and mortar stores (usually small concerns) who think that if they don't put a price tag, the customer has to find out the price
from a sales person, who will then have the opportunity to persuade him/her to buy that item. Whether or not that is a good idea for a
brick and mortar store (and I can think offhand of some types of customers that you will lose even there), it is a bad idea for a web store.
No matter how you look at it, every customer and potential customer will need to know the price of a product. Even the corporate customer buying for
his/her company works to a budget. Making it difficult for your visitor to find the price list is a quick way to drive a potential customer away.
As has been observed by many usability experts - the average Internet user has the attention span of a flea. If they can't find what they want within
the first few seconds of glancing at your page, they will leave. And your competitors will be more than happy to attend to them in your place.
Provide Descriptions and Pictures for Your Products
I realise that the new web designer is beset with contradictory advice about how best to design their site. One set of such conflicting advice is
the requirement to be brief and to-the-point so that you can catch that Internet visitor who will only give your web page a few seconds glance before
deciding whether to stay or go elsewhere. Contradicting that is the requirement that you describe your products in depth and place pictures of your product,
or screenshots if yours is a software product.
The best way to resolve this, I think, is to take a leaf from
Amazon.com's book. For every item they list on their
search results for a query (they have too many products to have a straightforward "Products" page), they usually have a brief description,
a thumbnail picture, the price and a link to buy the item. If this brief description interests you, you can click the link and get a longer description and
more information about the product.
A product page for each product, with a long description and pictures of the product, is indispensible. This is particularly so if your product
is expensive, or has plenty of competition. Your long description and pictures of what you're selling is what cinches the sale. Potential customers
will use the information on that page to decide whether or not to buy the item. They look at the page and compare it with the what is said about your
competitor's product. It is thus in your interest to mention all the salient points about your product or service on that page.
Think of it as the web equivalent of a salesman promoting a product to a walk-in customer.
An informative and detailed product page is not all you need. You also need to place your "Buy" or "Order" buttons both at the top and the bottom of
the product page. If your product page is especially long, spanning many screenfuls, you may also want to consider placing additional buttons somewhere
in the middle of the page. Do not force your customers to scroll to the bottom of the page before they can buy the item. You may have suffered
countless hours drafting the description of the page. Do not pass the suffering to your customers by requiring them to read it all before they
can order your product. Some customers are easily convinced, or they come to your page having already decided to buy. Make it easy for them to get
to where they want to go within your site.
Allow Your Customers to Browse Your Site in Any Way They Choose
Have you ever encountered a "live" salesperson who drones on and on about a product, giving you little chance to jump in and tell him/her that
you have already decided to buy the product? "I'll buy already!" you want to shout, but the guy insists on finishing his tome on the product.
Such a person, in real life, is probably seldom found. However, I have visited many websites that practise this very sales tactic. One characteristic
of such websites is that the site has very poor navigational facilities. You cannot easily access other pages on the site except through a sequence of
choreographed steps that the author has planned. First you have to read his introduction about the product. Then after a very long exposition on the
first page, you are graced with a link at the bottom that takes you to a second page. Again, you have to endure the sermon on the second page before you
can find the link to move on. Even if you have already decided to buy the product, you're forced to go through the whole sequence of steps before you
can buy the product.
Such websites are reminiscent of the high-pressure sales tactics employed by some salesmen, and give visitors a bad taste.
The usability of such sites is low, and the design of the site discourages impulse purchases.
One of the basic rules in selling something on the web is that you should not force your customers to click through many pages before they
reach the "Buy" or "Download" button. It is never productive, leaves a bitter taste in some visitors' mouth, and drives off others. Sure, you may convince
some people to buy the product after they read it all, but you are also convincing others that you're the sort of person they don't want to do business with.
A website is different from a "live" salesman. People can leave any time during your sales pitch. And they do. Most people visiting a site to buy something
are not there to read a long exposition. They are there to get a product. Delaying that purchase can only hurt your business. When I say that you need to
give a product page with a detailed description about your product, I don't mean that you have to force everyone to read that detailed description before they
can buy. Always provide a shortcut to the order form for your visitors.
Mandatory Items on the Site Navigation Bar
For a commercial site, certain links should be accessible from every page of your website. The easiest way to do this is to place them on your
navigation bar. If you don't know what a navigation bar is, take a look at thesitewizard.com. On the top left of every page is a series of buttons which
give you access to the main pages of the site. Your navigation bar need not be on the left side as mine is. You can put it at the top, the right or the
bottom as well. However, the following items should always be present:
- Products: this is a link to a page listing all your products. If you have too many products to fit into one page, you may want to create
category pages that are accessible through the main product page.
- Order Form: this should point to your order form.
- Price List: as mentioned earlier, a price list improves the usability of your site, and ultimately your bottom line.
- Support: you should place a link to a page which provides ways that your customer can contact you.
- About Us: since you are selling things, you should have an "About Us" page that tells your customer about you or your company.