Posts tagged: Usability

2 important concepts for better usability

As I mentioned in my last post, I believe (and data I’ve seen at ForeSee Results supports this belief) poor usability is the #1 obstacle to better conversions on our sites.  Getting usability right is hard — very hard. It requires a mindset that is very difficult for most of us to develop naturally. In fact, I’d argue that our natural development tends to pull us further and further away from the mindset we need to design highly usable websites.

Two concepts we need to carefully consider — and strike the right balance between — are “knowledge in the head” and “knowledge in the world.”

Knowledge in the head and knowledge in the world are concepts introduced by noted psychologist, cognitive scientist and author Don Norman is his classic book, The Design of Everyday Things, which I just finished reading. The book was originally written in 1988, well before the web as we know it existed. But the principles he discusses about the design of doors, faucets, phones and other everyday things are extremely relevant to web design. To me, chief among those principles are the concepts of “knowledge in the head” and “knowledge in the world.”

Here’s how Norman explains the two concepts:

Human memory is essentially knowledge in the head, or internal knowledge. If we examine how people use their memories and how they retrieve information, we discover a number of categories. Three are important for us now: 1. Memory for arbitrary things. The items to be retained seem arbitrary, with no meaning and no particular relationship to one other or to things already known 2. Memory for meaningful relationships. The items to be retained form meaningful relationships with themselves or with other things already known. 3. Memory through explanation. The material does not have to be remembered, but rather can be derived from some explanatory mechanism.

Knowledge in the world acts as its own reminder. It can help us recover structures that we otherwise would forget. Knowledge in the head is efficient: no search and interpretation of the environment is required. In order to use knowledge in the head we have to get it there, which might require considerable amounts of learning. Knowledge in the world is easier to learn, but often more difficult to use. And it relies heavily upon the continued physical presence of the information; change the environment and the information is changed. Performance relies upon the physical presence of the task environment.

He goes on to note that “whenever information needed to do a task is readily available in the world, the need for us to learn it diminishes.”

It’s very interesting to look at our sites in the context of these concepts. Imagine a typical customer. What knowledge about how to use the site would she have in her head? How does that compare to the knowledge in our heads about how to use our sites? What’s her educational background, familiarity with web technology and familiarity with our sites versus our educational background, familiarity with web technology and, most of all, familiarity with our own sites?

The reality is, we are not like our customers.

It’s very difficult for those of us who work on sites day in and day out to see our customers’ perspectives. Elitism is the source of poor usability. We all too often consider ourselves to be proxies for our customers. It’s easy to do, and I’ve certainly been guilty of it myself. After all, we are customers of our own businesses, and we see things that work and don’t work for us as customers. We have to remember that we have a lot more knowledge in the head, particularly about our own businesses, than our customers do. And that knowledge in our heads prevents us from seeing our customers’ perspectives. We also easily miss lots of “tree stumps” on our sites that regularly get in our customers’ way.

So, should we just include step-by-step instructions for everything on our sites?

No, I don’t think that’s necessary or even prudent for everything. Norman explains lots of design principles that, if applied, should make many elements of our sites highly intuitive without instructions. But we probably should include a lot more help than we do. We really need to listen to what our customers are telling us and watch them use our sites. It’s the only way to get a better sense of the knowledge in their heads so we can know where we need to include some knowledge in the world.

For example, all too often username or password requirements are not mentioned at the point of entry and customers only find out about them when an error message occurs. Let’s be clear about those requirements upfront.

What type of terminology is being used in navigation? Are customers likely to equate “jackets” with “outerwear” or “stoves” with “cooktops?” One quick way to get a sense of terminology customers use is a review of search terms customers use.

Conventions can be our friends

There are certain conventions that are established enough to effectively be knowledge in the head for most of our customers. For example, navigation on the top of the page and on the left are common enough that we can reasonably expect the majority of our customers to find navigation in those places.If we veer from those types of conventions, though, we have to remember that we’re messing with that knowledge in the head.

But we have to be careful with conventions as there are many site practices that might be second nature to us and not to our customers. I once watched a usability session where on-screen instructions directed the customer (a 40ish or so middle class man) to select “the drop-down box.” He searched around the page looking for a box labeled “drop-down” and didn’t find one. That terminology wasn’t familiar to him. Some of our everyday language isn’t as common as we might assume.

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While many of the concepts from Don Norman’s book have already seriously changed the way I look at the world (I think my wife may be getting annoyed at my now constant commentary on the design of every door we see), I most appreciate the relatively simple concepts of “knowledge in the head” and “knowledge in the world.” Forcing ourselves to identify what elements of our sites’ designs require which of those concepts will lead us to create significantly more usable sites for our customers. And more usable sites will absolutely lead to more sales. Woo hoo! Bonuses for all!

What do you think? Do you see your site differently in the context of these concepts? Do you have other concepts you like to use?


Social, mobile and other bright, shiny objects

It’s official. Social media and mobile commerce are this year’s bright, shiny objects. I recently attended a couple of industry conferences where those two topics dominated the agendas, and the trade mags and email newsletters are full of articles on everything social and mobile.

Heck, I’ve also written a white paper and blogged about social media.

Don’t get me wrong. I think social and mobile are important opportunities for us to improve our businesses. I just don’t think we should focus on them to the exclusion of some of the core aspects of our sites and businesses that still need a lot of work.

The level of our success with any of these new technologies is going to be limited by the effectiveness of our core site capabilities and constrained by any internal organizational challenges we might have.

Here are some topics I’d love to see get a little more press and conference content time:

  • Usability
    From my vantage point at ForeSee Results, where I can see customer perceptions at many different retailers, it’s clear that our sites have not come close to solving all of our usability issues. In fact, I’ll go as far as saying improving usability is the #1 way to increase conversion. I’m currently reading a book called “The Design of Everyday Things” by Don Norman. The book was written in the ’80s (I think) so there’s no mention of websites. Instead, he talks a lot about the design of doors, faucets and other everyday objects and, most interestingly, the psychology of we humans who interact with these things. The principles he discusses are absolutely relevant to web page design. Other books, such as “Don’t Make Me Think” by Steve Krug and anything by Jakob Nielsen are also great sources of knowledge. I’d sure love to see us cover these types of topics a little more in our conferences and trade mags. Also, how do different retailers approach find and solve usability issues? In the end, if the experiences we create aren’t usable our social and mobile strategies won’t reach their potential.
  • Organizational structure
    How often do we come back from a conference with great new ideas about implementing some new strategies (say, a new social media or mobile commerce strategy) only to run into competing agendas, lack of resources or organizational bureaucracies? Discussing and writing about organizational structure doesn’t have the panache of social media or other exciting new frontiers, but there’s little doubt in my mind that the structure of our organizations can make or break the success of our businesses. When we were first setting up the organization for the new Borders.com, we spent a LOT of time studying the structures of other companies learning about the pros and the cons from those who lived through different schemes. It was hugely useful and more interesting than you might think. Mark Fodor, CEO of Cross View, just wrote an excellent piece for Online Strategies magazine that discussed the hurdles involved in going cross-channel and included a very good discussion about the need for mindset shifts. I’d love to see these topics further explored in interactive environments at industry conferences.
  • Incentives
    Books like Freakonomics make strong cases for the fact that incentives drive our behaviors. I’d love to hear how other companies set up their internal incentive structures. And there are multiple types of incentives. Certainly, there are financial incentives that come in the form of bonuses. But there are also the sometimes more powerful social incentives. What gets talked about all the time? How do those topics of discussion influence people’s behaviors? How do all those incentives align with the needs generated by new strategies to maximize the power of social media or mobile commerce?
  • Data/analytics storytelling
    We have so much data available to us, and we all talk about being data driven. But how do we get the most from that data? How do we use that data to form our strategies, support our strategies and communicate our strategies. John Lovett of Web Analytics Desmystified wrote an excellent piece on telling stories with data recently. There are also several great blogs on analytics like MineThatData, Occam’s Razor, and the aforementioned Web Analytics Demystified. I’d love to see more discussions in trade mags and conferences about how to get the most from our data, both in analyzing it and relating the findings to others.
  • International expansion
    We used to talk a lot about international, but it doesn’t seem to be a big topic lately. Yet the opportunities to grow our businesses internationally are immense. So, too, are the challenges. Jim Okamura and Maris Daugherty at the JC Williams Group wrote an absolutely excellent white paper late last year on the prizes and perils of international expansion. Jim did have a breakout session at last year’s Shop.org Annual Summit, but I’d love to see more discussion from retailers who have gone or are going international to learn more. Or it would also be good to hear from those who simply ship internationally or those who have decided to stay domestic to learn more about their decision making processes.
  • Leadership
    Leading lots of people and convincing big, disparate groups to do new things is hard. I just read the book Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard by Dan and Chip Heath. There are some amazing tips in that book about implementing change in organizations (and in other parts of life, for that matter). I would love to see more discussion of these types of leadership topics that help us all implement the changes we know we need to make to take advantage of new opportunities like social media and mobile commerce.

I know a lot of these topics are more business basics than retail or e-commerce specific. But the reality is we need to be our absolute best at these business basics in order to implement any of our new ideas and strategies. I personally always enjoy talking to other retailers about some of these basics, and I certainly never tire of reading books that expand my horizons. I’d love to see more about these topics in our conferences and trade mags.

But these are just my opinions. I’d really love to know what you think. As a member of the executive content committee for Shop.org, I’m actually in a position to influence some of the excellent content that my good friend Larry Joseloff regularly puts together. But I’d love to know if you agree or not before I start banging the drum. Would you mind dropping me a quick comment or an email letting me know if you agree or disagree. A simple “Right on” if you agree or a “You’re nuts” if you don’t is plenty sufficient; although, I certainly appreciate your expanded thoughts if you’d like to share them.

Please, let me know what you think of my little rant.


A Convenient Truth

Easy buttonConvenience. We value it more than I think we sometimes realize. We’re willing to pay more for it, and we’re willing to sacrifice quality in exchange for it. So it stands to reason that delivering convenience for our customers can lead to a pretty profitable equation for retailers.

Consider the convenience effect of some of the more popular innovations in recent years:

  • Mobile phones. We love our mobile phones,  even though they’re more expensive and of significantly lesser sound quality and reliability than land lines. And now we browse the web on our tiny smartphone screens.
  • Digital music. While it’s getting better, the sound quality of digital music is not as good as CDs (and some people say CDs aren’t as good as LPs). And we happily listen to our iPods over poor sound quality earbuds because they’re a lot more convenient than bulky headphones.
  • Camera phones. Digital photography with nice SLR cameras is finally nearing the quality of film, but cameras on phones have a long way to go to get to that same level of quality. But it sure is easy to post photos on Facebook and Flickr from a camera phone.
  • Diet pills.  OK, these aren’t as widely adopted as the previous examples (yet), but they’re the easy way out for weight loss even though there are some less-than-pleasant side effects. (Hint, you don’t want to sit next to an Alli pill taker on a long flight.) Of course, if you’re not into pills maybe you can still avoid exercise and get some six-pack abs with the Vibro-Belt.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the immense convenience of e-commerce and the effect it’s had on retail. But we cannot rest on our laurels as the desire and demand for convenience knows no bounds.

The threshold for inconvenience continues to get ever lower. We often complain about how many clicks it takes to get to what we’re looking for on a web page. Think about that for a moment. The energy required to cause our index fingers to press a button too many times is irritating. Some might say it’s not the energy, it’s the time. OK, fair enough.  Then the “waste of time” threshold starts kicking in when we are forced to wait three to four seconds for a page to load. We’re busy! We haven’t got that kind of time to waste!

My favorite example of the power of convenience is the Kindle. Amazon managed to make the paper book seem inconvenient. If that doesn’t tell you that just about everything can be made easier, I don’t know what will. People (and I’m one of the them) are willing to drop hundreds of dollars for a book reading device that still doesn’t format as well as a paper book. But it’s so light and so much easier to hold in one hand than a hardcover book. You can lay it flat on the table. You can carry lots of books around easily, which is very nice for a traveler like me. And you can get books in an instant with the wireless connection, which is soooo much more convenient than plugging the device into a PC for a sync. I sometimes feel ridiculous saying things like that, but I’m not going back.  And I’m not alone; people write long blog posts professing their love of the convenience the Kindle brings.

But this post isn’t a social commentary. It’s about recognizing an opportunity to make money.

So, how can we focus our businesses on the convenience opportunity? Here are three places to start:

  1. Start with website usability
    We should start with our sites because they are the low hanging fruit. The promise of convenience with e-commerce is high, but all too often we put obstacles in our customers’ way, many of which I’ve written about previously. Where are we causing customers more clicks than necessary? Why are we requiring all those clicks? Is it a lack of planning on our part, or are we putting our immediate priorities ahead of our customers’ needs? Have we overwhelmed our customers with choice? How can we make narrowing our selection easier and quicker? And let’s not forget site performance. How fast are those pages loading?
  2. Re-examine the store experience
    We need to continue to think about how our in-store experiences can be easier and more convenient for our customers to shop. Paco Underhill provided some great tips in his book,  Why We Buy. We can also look to a cross-channel strategy to allow technology to provide some conveniences. How can we bring customer reviews and recommendations into the store? Is “buy online pickup in-store” a desirable convenience to offer? How about accepting payment via mobile phone or PayPal in our stores?
  3. Consider our customers’ lives – what could make those lives more convenient?
    What’s life like for our customers? If she is a busy mother of young children, can we do more to help her easily put together some nice outfits for the kids (or herself) to free up time for answering emails, paying bills, or maybe, just maybe, giving her time to relax in the bath? Does it make sense to give our customers the ability to automatically replenish certain items at certain intervals? If we think hard, we can probably find ways to improve certain tasks that don’t currently seem difficult. If the book can be made more convenient, there are no limits.

Sometimes I think we get so caught up in our metrics and the particulars of our businesses that we forget about our customers’ needs. After all, retail is really a service business. Customer convenience can and should be a key part of our value proposition. When we find ways to make our customers’ lives easier (even by just a little bit) we are providing services and products our customers will be willing to buy — and at prices that are nice for our bottom lines.

What do you think? Is customer convenience the right strategic target for us? What ideas have you implemented to improve convenience?


My Favorite Sites of the Year

It’s the end of the year and the end of an amazing decade for e-commerce. So, in keeping with the time-honored tradition of awarding “bests” at the end of the year, I’m listing some of my favorites sites and site features of the year. I always enjoy discovering new sites and techniques when I read other people’s lists like this, so I hope you’ll find something interesting in my web award show.

The overall best e-commerce site award goes to:

Moosejaw.com

Moosejaw has it all. They’ve done an excellent job creating a very intuitive site that provides lots of options to narrow your selection; you can easily sort by price, color, size and brand. They have lots of what they call “custy reviews” available for their products, and you can even choose a “custy reviews” search/browse results page that highlights recent reviews in the product listing. Moosejaw has a great checkout process that does a good job of guiding the customer through the process, and their error messaging is clear and easy to understand. And no commentary on Moosejaw would be complete without mention of their Madness section, which is full of wacky content that keeps you coming back for more. In a final stroke of branding brilliance, Moosejaw provides free Moosejaw flags to anyone who requests them, and encourages people to take photos of themselves with Moosejaw flags at the height of their adventures, literally, like at the top of a mountain. What a brilliant way to make your customers your greatest marketers. As a final point of support for this award, when I asked people around the office for their favorites sites, Moosejaw was by far the most common choice.

Runner-up

Net-a-Porter

Net-a-Porter shows they understand how their customers shop, and they understand that the self-service experience of the web requires extra attention. They have a prominent “What’s New” section, and their landing pages get right to the products (without lots of “window” signs screaming about promotions). Each item in the listing has an alternate view when hovering over it, which is becoming fairly common, but Net-a-Porter uses and alternate view that features the item being worn rather than just showing it from the back. When you click through to the product pages, there are many more product views and some items have an excellent video of a model walking in the clothes so customers can see how the clothing looks in action. Finally, there are details about how items fit and an invitation to contact a “Fashion Advisor” for more help if you need it.

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Best use of video:

K-Swiss

I’ve always wondered why more sites don’t do what K-Swiss is doing with their product videos. Namely, use them as the primary image for the product when they’re available.

When you arrive at a product page that features a video (which, unfortunately, isn’t all of them) the video launches immediately and shows a model walking in the item. You can easily switch the view to see her walking from the front, from either side and from the back.  And best of all, there’s not sound that could get a workplace shopper in trouble. 🙂 K-Swiss also features multiple static images of product to ensure customers are getting as much information as possible.

Runner-up

Ice.com

Ice.com is also making excellent use of video and using it as their primary image when a video is available. And they’re getting great results. Ice’s Pinny Gniwisch reports conversion rates jumping a whopping 400% after customers view a video, and return rates drop 25% for products with videos. Video really helps give customers a much better understanding of what they’re buying, which helps to remove one more barrier to purchasing products online. I’m really impressed with the quality of the short videos they’re producing, as well. The folks at Ice.com clearly understand the value of video, and they’re making the right investment to improve their business.

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Most interesting merchandising tool:

Polyvore

Polyvore is not a retailer, but that doesn’t mean there’s not something to learn from or leverage what they’re doing. They call themselves “a fashion community site that lets you mix and match products from any online store to create outfits or any kind of collage. It is also a vibrant community of creative and stylish people.” They have a really cool drag and drop capability that let’s visitors “create looks” from product feeds from many different retailers. Essentially, the visitors become merchandisers, and they’re looks are posted to be voted on and commented on by the community. The best looks rise to the top. There are some really amazing collections, and of course each product has a buy button. Polyvore is now making their technology available to retailers, as can be seen in Charlotte Russe “Design Your Outfit” section.

Runner up:

Hunch

Hunch is also not a retailer, but as with Polyvore, there’s lots to learn and leverage. Hunch describes themselves as “a decision-making tool that gets smarter the more you use it. After asking you 10 questions or less, Hunch will provide a concrete result for decisions of every kind.” Basically, they ask you a series of questions and then provide product recommendations that match. The general concept is not new, but Hunch’s implementation is the best I’ve seen and it gets better the more it’s used. They’re using the community to build and refine the question sets, and they’re covering a massive range of topics. The whole experience is really addictive.

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Most proactive:

Restaurant.com

Poorly written error messages are the bane of the web and a shameful way to lose sales, as I’ve previously discussed. But even well written error messages can be annoying because they come after the fact. Restaurant.com has taken a proactive approach in their account creation process. As a visitor enters a form field, a small box appears to the right giving the user detailed descriptions about what’s expected to be entered and, when appropriate, giving the reason why it’s important. Try it out to see how helpful it is.

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I could go on and on about lots of great features on a lot of different sites, but the seven above really stood out for me as great examples worth checking out.

But there are tons of great sites I haven’t even seen.

What sites stand out for you? I would be grateful if you’d use the comments section to share your favorites with the rest of us.

“If it ain’t broke, you ain’t looking hard enough”

The poor economy has done nothing to lower customer expectations of online retailers, and recent mixed results data from ComScore and ForeSee Results indicate that retailers who continue to improve their customer experiences are pulling away from their competitors in both sales and customer satisfaction.

ComScore reports online retail up 4% for the holiday season. While an increase is always nice, this is a much lower growth rate than online retail has seen in the past. And last year’s comparison base was far from stellar. ForeSee Results shows a significant drop in customer satisfaction year over year. Since satisfaction is predictive of future financial results, a drop is concerning.

But still, I wondered how sales could be up at all if satisfaction was so far down.

A deeper look at the ComScore data shows the Top 25 retailers growing 13% while “Small and Mid Tail” retailers are declining 10%. Satisfaction scores are also split, but the differences we’re seeing seem to be more based on those retailers who are continually improving their sites versus those whose cost containment measures have slowed or stopped improvements. It appears that the retailers who closely measure the effectiveness of their sites from their customers’ perspectives and continuously improve their customers’ experiences are the retailers with increasing customer satisfaction scores. Those retailers who didn’t improve customer experience this year are suffering declining satisfaction scores. Many of those in the Top 25 are the retailers who have continued to enhance their customer experiences. Those enhancements are not only helping them to increase their sales, but because of the high visibility and usage of those tops sites, they’re also raising consumer expectations of all sites.

Customer satisfaction can be best defined as the degree to which a customer’s actual experience meets his or her expectations. Therefore, rising expectations can depress satisfaction scores if customer experience improvements don’t keep pace.

In the rapidly changing world of online retail, stopping or delaying improvements is like treading water in a swimming race. While you may temporarily save some energy, you will fall hopelessly behind and your only hope of catching up is spending a lot more energy than you likely saved treading water

Growing online retail businesses realize and fully embrace the need for continuous improvements, and they also realize that online retail in general is far from producing the level of customer experience truly necessary to provide excellent self-service shopping experiences. I recently heard Robin Terrell, Managing Director of John Lewis Direct in the UK (and Amazon alum), say “If it ain’t broke, you ain’t looking hard enough” in a talk about the need to improve customer experience. It’s a brilliant statement, and I totally agree with what he was saying.

So, “improving customer experience” is a huge and vague statement. Where do we start?

  1. Recognize that it’s broke and you ain’t looking hard enough
    We’re still in our infancy in online retail, and we’ve got a long way to go. We too often try to increase our sales by generating more traffic and don’t spend enough time converting the traffic we’re already got. Often, the obstacles to conversion are not the big, shiny, whiz bang functionality; they’re lots of little things that add up to big problems. Those problems are hard to see without a concerted effort, as I discussed in more detail in my Tree Stump Theory post and other posts on conversion.
  2. Truly learn how effective your site is from your customers’ perspective
    We can all identify lots of improvements we’d like to see on our sites, but it’s the improvements our customers most need that will drive our best growth. So understanding where we are and aren’t effective from our customers’ perspectives is critically important, but difficult.Focus groups and usability labs can be very helpful, but they can’t be our first or only methodology because it’s not possible to project learnings from a small group of people onto our entire population of customers.

    First, we need to quantitatively understand our effectiveness in the eyes of our total population, and that requires a statistically solid customer polling and analysis capability. Blatant and shameless plug alert: I’ve had great success using ForeSee Results in the past for exactly this purpose. Once we understand problem areas at a macro level, we can add a lot of color by interacting directly with customers in focus groups and usability labs. More details on this process can be found in my post entitled “Is elitism the source of poor usability?”

  3. Consider getting some help from usability professionals
    Usability audits are different from usability labs. Usability auditors are professionally trained to understand how people interact with websites. Many of them have degrees in Human-Computer Interaction, a field that truly seeks to understand how people interact with software. These types of people can really help to identify problems with our user interfaces that untrained eyes have trouble seeing but which regularly obstruct customers from accomplishing their tasks.
  4. Put in place a process to continuously improve
    This is really about budgetary and project management mindset. We must just accept the fact that we can’t tread water in a never-ending swimming race, and our only chance of competing is to keep swimming. We have to build our staffs, our budgets and our processes with the recognition that competing in the marketplace means continuously improving our customer experiences. Which leads to …
  5. Wash, rinse, repeat
    Since the leaders in the marketplace are running this same cycle, we cannot rest. We must continue to recognize our sites are broken, continue to measure our effectiveness from our customers’ perspectives, find problems, fix them and begin again.

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We’ve got a lot of data that shows that retailers who best satisfy their customers generate the best financial results. I suppose that statement doesn’t sound like rocket science. But understanding that satisfaction has a direct relation to expectations and that our customers’ expectations can change independent of what we do on our own site is important. The leaders are continuously improving their sites, and they’re improvements are raising our customers’ expectations. We’ve all got to swim harder to keep pace.

What do you think? What’s your view on the marketplace? How have you see customer satisfaction affect your business?


Retail: Shaken Not Stirred by Kevin Ertell


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