Designing web sites that sell
In traditional user-centred design, focus is on users’ needs
and their use of the product, while marketing is left to the marketing
department. On the web, usability and marketing go hand in hand. Whether
commercial or not, a web site has to meet the need of its users and
at the same time convince them to take action, for the objectives behind
the site to be meet. As Brian Eisenberg from Clickz.com
writes in his article Beyond Usability:
Usability by itself only reduces your customers’ frustration
level. That’s important, of course, but still a far cry from guiding
your customers into doing what they want to do and you want them to
do: buying (Bryan Eisenberg, Beyond
For a site to meet its strategic objectives, it has to orient and
direct its target audience through the process of conversion, whether
that conversion is buying a product, subscribing to a newsletter, making
a phone call, or exploring related information. To incorporate such
objectives, we have to think beyond the boundaries of ease of use.
Offline retail has a long tradition in monitoring customer behaviour.
Paco Underhill’s book, Why
We Buy, has been given some attention in the interactive design
community. When you read his book, you realise that the fist step in
designing an effective store layout is to remove obstacles that hinder
customers in buying. One example is the butt-brush effect.
During a study for Bloomingdale in New York City, Underhill and his
team noticed something weird about a tie rack positioned near the entrance
on a main aisle. Shoppers would approach it, stop and study the ties
until they were bumped once or twice by people heading into or out of
the store. After a few such jostles, most of the shoppers would move
out of the way, abandoning their search for neckwear. As soon as the
tie rack was moved to a spot off the main aisle, where shoppers could
study the neckwear in peace, sales from the rack went up quickly and
The findings from this study don’t apply directly to online
shopping experience, since we have your butt comfortably seated in your
chair, when we go online. But it tells us something important about
customer experience: The first step in making shoppers buy is to remove
the obstacles that make them give up their search for products they
would otherwise have considered buying. It also tells us that the way
to spot such obstacles is to monitor customer behaviour.
In the online world we have numerous of examples of butt-brush-like
obstacles. One example is a study of online shopping behaviour conducted
by the usability consultancy UIE, which showed that 66% purchase-ready
shoppers dropped out at various stages in the shopping process. Some
of them because the site couldn’t deliver a product, which matched
their requirements, but most of them because of various obstacles such
as bad design of product lists, inadequate product information, convoluted
checkouts, and wrong deliveries.
The usability community has been aware of such problems and their
impacts on the bottom-line, and a user-centred approach is perfectly
adequate in finding such problems, since it has the tools and methods
for studying users’ ability to accomplish tasks.
But as Bryan Eisenberg said, there is more to it than lowering customers’
frustration level. An effective site also has to persuade. For offline
retail stores, the key is merchandising.
Every day, we fall victim to merchandising. We go to some store to
buy something specific and leave with a lot more than we intended buy
- or with something more expensive. We can try to rationalise
away the extra spending, but from the retailer’s point of view,
our shopping binge is an outcome of a successful store planning, which
is designed to support up-selling, cross-selling, and impulse buying.
Retail stores know that the arrangement of their products is business
critical. No product is placed by accident. According to Martin Lindstrom
the tool which drives sales in offline retail stores is the planogram.
A planogram is a detailed and thoroughly thought-through
map that determines where every product in an establishment should be
situated. It illustrates not only in what area every product should
be placed but also on which shelf every item should be accommodated.
Shelf by shelf, aisle by aisle, the planogram assigns selling potential
to every item in a store. (Martin Lindstrom, Planogram
Power, Part 1)
The planograms are based on decades of accumulated knowledge about
our shopping habits derived from thousands of interviews and observations
of customers’ in-store behaviour. Shops all over the world have
designed their stores in response to these findings in order to increase
Lindstrom suggest the concept of webograms as a tool for optimizing
online conversion rates. The key is to investigate, analyse, and understand
customers’ behaviour on the site and design up-selling, cross-selling
and impulse buying opportunities according to these findings.
the web’s undisputed champion in the discipline of merchandising
and monitoring online customer behaviour. In their book store you’ll
find numerous of merchandising strategies, such as recommendations,
targeted promotions and cross references to books that other customers
bought, and books with similar author or subject. They use a lot of
time studying and measuring the effectiveness of these strategies.
UIE's site is an
example of a more simple merchandising strategy. After doing a
study on seductive design, which showed that users won’t be
lured away until they’ve accomplished some or their entire initial
goal, they started promoting courses, seminars and other related materials
following their popular articles. It can be as simple as that.
Persuasive architecture and the buying process
The outcome of a webogram is what Bryan Eisenberg calls a "persuasive
architecture." He blames information architects for not understanding
the aspects of online merchandising.
I have tremendous respect for information architecture (IA)
as a discipline and as a profession. But I’m going to ask information
architects to take the bulk of blame for the lack of persuasive architecture
on commercial sites (Bryan Eisenberg, Qualified
Answers to Persuasive Architecture)
Things go wrong when information architects look at content solely
as a structure that has to be organized into vertical hierarchies. According
to Bryan Eisenberg, we have to think in terms of iterative decision-making
processes, when designing a persuasive architecture:
Web pages must grab the user's attention and instill an
interest to move forward. This is an iterative process. The site creates
and nurtures a visitor's desire for the product or service until the
decision to take action occurs, all the while making certain that the
entire experience is satisfying. (Bryan Eisenberg, Conversion
Is Music to My Ears)
When designing a persuasive architecture, we have to understand and
account for every step in the buying process and design for effective
calls to action, even if this action is simply to move on to the next
step in the process.
We also have to realize that the way people make buying decisions
can be highly complex and irrational. Factors such as trust, comfort,
confidence, and ease of the process are often more important to the
customer than price and hard facts. The persuasive architecture has
to account for these aspects. It has to create trust and confidence,
demonstrate value, and guide the customer through the decision-making
process. If you never get to prove to prospects that you are competent
and trustworthy, they will never get to feel comfortable doing business
Is customer-centred design bad?
Does all this talk about business objectives and merchandising imply
that we have to loose our virginity as the users’ advocates and
start acting like aggressive and manipulating sales people? Bryan Eisenberg
assures us, that manipulation is not the way to go.
Keep in mind that "persuasion," as I use the term,
does not mean manipulating or misleading. It is a particular way of
communicating so that when you prospects ultimately take the action
you want them to take, it is because they understands that action is
in their best interest. Prospects who feel manipulated will take action:
They’ll leave. And buyers who realize afterward that they’ve
been manipulated won’t buy again, at best, and at worst will return
the purchase and say nasty things about you. (Bryan Eisenberg, Conversion
Is Music to My Ears)
People want to be sold to. We want to be suggested alternatives, even
if they are more expensive. We want to know about complementary stuff,
which can enhance the value of a product and give us a more complete
solution. It’s bad service and bad business to hide away this
kind of offers.