Is elitism the source of poor usability?

Most sites are still achieving single digit conversion rates even though customer intent-to-purchase rates are 20% or higher in most cases. Customers are continuing to run into obstacles to the purchase process that need to be eliminated. The good news is that during this time of limited capital investments, retailers can use low cost means to find and eliminate as many obstacles to purchase as possible.

The first step is to get into the right mindset and remove what I feel is the biggest disconnect with the customers that many retailers have: we’re way more comfortable and experienced with our own sites than our customers are. We use our sites every day, and we know exactly how they’re supposed to work. However, our customers are generally nowhere near as familiar with our sites as we are.

Two weeks ago, I was lucky to be able to attend GSI‘s Connect conference for its clients. I was even luckier to attend a fantastic session by GSI’s Senior Director of Usability, Michael Summers. Michael got the audience’s attention pretty quickly by calling us all elitists…and he had a good point. He asked us how many of us fit the demographic for today’s main Internet users and quickly made the point that we were higher educated, higher paid and more Internet savvy — by a long shot — than the average site user in the marketplace. If that wasn’t enough, he showed some video of average Americans shopping online who had trouble with some of what we in the industry would consider among the most basic aspects of websites.

To solve this disconnect we need to see our sites through our customers’ eyes. There are a number of ways to do this that I’ve found to be effective.

  1. Use statistically significant customer satisfaction surveys to get trendable data that will  point to the biggest problem areas of the site.
    The two key phrases here are “statistically significant” and “trendable.” Per my last post, continuous measurement is important to avoid random outliers and uncover the underlying truth. When done correctly, customer satisfaction surveys can be extremely reliable, accurate, and predictive and can tell you not only which areas of a site customers complain about most, but also which areas of the site will actually have the biggest impact on purchase intent and loyalty. This is critical information to provide some some direction on where to focus your usability efforts.
  2. Ask open-ended questions to add color to the quantitative information.
    Quantitative analysis is extremely useful, but numbers alone aren’t nearly enough. Numbers will certainly tell you the problem areas of the site, but to really get your arms around what the numbers are saying requires adding some color to them with some qualitative information. Asking more open-ended questions like “If you could make one improvement to our site, what would it be?” are good starters to bring some of the numbers to life. If the numbers tell you that customers in general are having problems with navigation and you see that multiple customers say in open-ended comments they just want to see all the blue dresses in stock, you might start to consider adding color choice to your navigation. Or maybe you already have an option to navigate by color, but the customers aren’t seeing it and you’ll need to find a way to make it more apparent.
  3. Watch your customers use your site.
    The absolute best way to add color to the data is to actually watch customers use the site. In the past, I’ve seen great discoveries come from taking a laptop into a store and asking real customers to shop on the site while I or someone on my team watched silently. In these situations, it’s very important not to be too prescriptive in the tasks the customer is asked to do. Ask them to “find and buy a new pair of dress shoes” rather than “go to the men’s tab, then select dress shoes and find a pair of black, size 9 shoes.” It never fails to amaze me in this situation how many different avenues customers will take to accomplish the task, and they’ll frequently run into trouble. These trouble spots are the areas to find and eliminate. Some of the smallest fixes can often significantly improve conversion and customer satisfaction.If the logistics of getting into a store are too difficult or you don’t have physical stores, there are technology alternatives, like Tealeaf’s CX and ForeSee’s new CS Session Replay, that provide the ability to replay customers’ sessions on your screen.
  4. Have an expert conduct a usability audit.
    Even after discovering where customers are having trouble, it’s sometimes still very difficult to determine exactly what you should be doing differently to make the experience easier and more intuitive for your customers. In those cases, expert advice via a third party usability audit is an excellent solution. I’ve used trained usability experts in the past to identify specific improvements that led to tremendous business results. Third party usability auditors bring to the table both fresh and trained eyes that have likely seen problems similar to those on your site before and have come up with solutions for those problems or seen how other sites have solved those problems.

Regardless of the mechanisms you choose to use, the key to better usability, better customer satisfaction and the resulting better conversion and sales, is finding ways to see your site through your customers’ eyes.

Are you a usability elitist? Do you watch customers use your site? What have you learned in the process?


  • By David Hawdale, July 7, 2009 @ 12:13 pm

    Good points, Kevin. I think sometimes even as user experience professionals we get stuck in thinking everybody is One Of Us. Though occasionally this is true, mostly it is not.
    I think a key piece that retailer has to understand is that the customer is not just looking at just their beloved site, rather they are looking at the whole internet and the purchase possibilities thereof. This makes for a wholly different perspective. There can be no better way to put down an arrogant elitism than a realization that you are just one small fish in a great big sea.
    WRT the elitism of what is and isn’t understood, I thought the recent Google Video Vox Pop was a great example of this. I have posted it and my comments on this here:

  • By Kevin Ertell, July 7, 2009 @ 2:31 pm

    Thanks for your comment, David, and great points about customers using the Internet as a whole and bringing that collective experience to our sites.
    Thanks especially for the link to your site and that Google video. That was truly amazing, and it certainly brings the point home.

  • By Chris Eagle, July 8, 2009 @ 7:27 am

    My web site is optimized for Chrome, since that’s be best browser available and lets us do more cool things with the site. We have a big notice on the front page that says “If you don’t have Chrome, go here to get it” with a link, which should solve any problems with Luddite users.
    Recently we added some really awesome flash and this sweet Live Chat that works through an activex control. And we’re working on optimizing it for Safari, too.
    My marketing guy has been trying to show me these A/B test results that say the new site is converting way worse than the ugly, boring old site, but you gotta consider the source. This guy still uses IE7 and gets confused at the slightest hiccup on his PC. There is NO WAY I’m going to revert to some site that looks like it came from the 1990s because this moron wants me to.
    I’m not sure what the point of your blog entry is, to tell you the truth. It’s the Age of Computers. If people can’t work with computers then they need to get with the program and stop letting the world pass them by.

  • By Kevin Ertell, July 8, 2009 @ 9:09 am

    Nice one, Chris! I got a good laugh out of that one. Should we post your Chrome optimized site for everyone to check out? 🙂

  • By Mark Johnston, July 8, 2009 @ 1:27 pm

    Totally agree with all you wrote here. And this is why us entrepreneurs with deep project management and QA backgrounds have a distinct advantage over our competitors in web dev consulting; we get it. 😀 This stuff is like second nature to us.
    Keep writing! Good blog.

  • By Alex Fisken, July 9, 2009 @ 10:40 am

    Love the stellar advice on keeping usability open ended rather than explicitly task based. I’d go even further and add that you simply sit a user in front of a computer and ask “Buy something that you have been consider purchasing” (something that you know the site you are testing sells). It’s amazing to see how users use the web end to end.
    For example – Do they start at Google? What keywords do THEY use to find the product? What results and in what order come back? Do they use your Adwords campaign? What competitors do they look at and do they go there first? Where do they land on your site and it is as intended?
    Also, we need to take into consideration natural scenarios such as if the user would pick up the phone and call customer service? Utilize chat, etc. How and where does the end-to-end experience breakdown?

  • By Mark Evans, July 10, 2009 @ 12:33 pm

    Great topic, Kevin. One of the most difficult things to do is to view your site with fresh eyes or from different perspectives. Your suggestions are spot on. Not as rigorous, but I also continually check other, similar sites to see what the “state of the market” is for site navigation and other aspects of usability. Also, what are the commonalities that users learn across the most popular sites – can these be built in to make your site easier to use?
    Finally, may be worth segmenting your users based on their needs. Depends on the nature of your site, but on ours ( we have power users that are using every day and others using several times a year (it is a b2b site.)
    The casual users need very intuitive controls, the power users need training and advanced features. And like all customers, they have high expectations!

  • By Kevin Ertell, July 13, 2009 @ 10:26 am

    Alex: Great point about starting to watch customers’ behavior even before they arrive at the site. It’s also definitely important to note where they land and how that experience is meeting their expectations. Thanks a lot for your comments.
    Mark: Thanks for your excellent comments on segmentation. You’re right that different levels of customers have different needs and different expectations. The fine folks at Future Now’s blog hasve written some excellent articles on segmentation at that are well worth checking out.

  • By Farris khan, July 14, 2009 @ 10:13 am

    It is great to have your perspective in understanding how our products ( might be value added for a web analytics practitioner. It makes logical sense that one way that practitioners can avoid becoming elitists is to get in the habit of seeing how customers/visitors actually use the site.
    Perhaps the easiest way to do this is to find some visitors (perhaps in a store) and ask them to review the site while you look their shoulder. Or this process could be conducted in a more formalized way in a focus group/laboratory environment.
    While this qualitative research is likely to result in some interesting insights, there are a couple things to consider with this approach: 1. Are the people you are looking at representative? 2. Are they behaving in a natural way… or are they looking to please the person looking over their shoulder?
    By connecting our satisfaction data with Sessions that are conducted in a natural environment, perhaps we have found a good answer to both these questions?

  • By Caroline Wilde, July 14, 2009 @ 11:33 am

    Really interesting post, Kevin – and quite horrifying how many sites don’t follow the basic commonsense rules of retail engagement! A transactional site, is after all, a store – albiet virtual – and although online customers can be in a slightly different mindset from those browsing in the real world, we still have to offer all the things that add up to a good brand experience – and one of the key things is make it easy (even pleasant) to purchase! That means keeping it simple to navigate – providing extra interest and “theatre” for those who want it – and provide a no frills fast lane for those military shoppers who just want what they want – and now!
    I agree that stats can’t show you the whole story, but they can highlight problem areas that can be presented to clients in order to bid for more time/resource investment to put right.
    I think there are a lot more insights into online behaviour – emotional as well as functional that can be unearthed through “real time” research and we should treat them as seriously as physical in store behaviour. Imagine what a retailer would do if conversion rates were in single digits in a bricks and mortar store?
    I don’t believe that internet experience should be geared around the lowest common denominator – it should reflect the brand and engage – but in doing that, we’ve still got to consider the needs of the user.

  • By Drew, November 10, 2009 @ 11:40 am

    This is completly absurd the usability of elitism isnt based off the pragmatic and cognative actions but rather the deontological approach of “What is the most efficient use of time”, in the time alocated only those of the elite and upclass thinking and education deserve to be in place to keep efficiency.

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