Site Design Tips That Improve Sales

Aug 5, 2004

James Maguire

Research has long shown that the leading factor in persuading shoppers to buy from an e-commerce Web site is ease of navigation -- findings that were supported in a recent survey by Jupiter Research (which is also owned by the publisher of this Web site). In other words, customers are saying "make your site easy-to-use, and you'll earn our sale."

If usability is the key to a better bottom line, then what specifically will improve your site's ease of use?

For that, we turn to the preeminent figure in the field of user-friendly online design -- Dr. Jakob Nielsen, whom the New York Times called "the guru of Web page usability." He holds 73 U.S. patents, most for making the Net easier to use.

Nielsen speaks in serious professorial tones, but his advice is more than academic: companies pay him bundles of cash to teach them how to improve their site's sales.

First Things First

Before changing anything, Nielsen recommends that e-tailers take a simple step to examine their site's current level of usability: run a user test. Find one willing test shopper -- not an employee -- and plop them down in front of your site to get immediate, real-person feedback.

"It's still interesting how many e-commerce sites have never done this -- just sat down with users one at a time and watched them shop on their site," Nielsen says. The best way to do this is to grab as many guinea pigs as possible and record trends as they develop, he says.

Don't use a focus group, or a group of any kind, he adds. You want to see how users shop as if they were at home.

You should be on the lookout for potential problems in several key areas. In Nielsen's view, e-commerce sites lose sales for three major reasons -- which calls "the laws of wanna-be e-commerce." Namely, that's poor merchandizing, providing information ineptly, and not appearing credible to shoppers.

Everything should be easy to find -- yet many sites still fail to follow this simple rule, according to Nielsen. The problem is often a case of poor product categorization, he says.

"Things need to be where people expect to look for them -- often, businesses use very odd categories that make no sense to the average consumer," Nielsen says.

Another way to stave off user confusion is by allowing product winnowing. A site must enable customers to quickly narrow down its list of product to the desired item. A site with a sprawling product catalog can satisfy a broad range of customers. However, he says, it can also be confusing if that list can't be easily narrowed by searching shoppers.

"Don't offer people too many choices or you're just going to stun them and they'll go away without buying," he says. Instead, if a customer can easily find those size-ten shoes in summer styles, your sales will improve.

Information Please

Assuming users can narrow down large product lists to locate products in which they're interested, site designers must overcome a second hurdle.

"Assuming I can find it, do I have enough information about it to make me feel comfortable this is actually what I want?" Nielsen says.

Two classic mistakes in product descriptions are created by, in Nielsen's words, "the overly eager marketing person or the overly geeky tech person."

The tech person will write 100 basic facts down, "but not in a way that the consumer who's not highly educated can understand them," Nielsen says. And the marketing person "will write in florid language about how wonderful it is, without ever getting to the specifics."

Rather, descriptions must be written in the middle ground between these two. First, describe the product in comprehensible specifics. Then, offer the ability to delve into more specific product details for those who want it.

See the complete story on JupiterMedia's


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