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ISSUE 05 - Q1 2003

Business-centred design
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 Usability)

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.

Removing obstacles

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 substantially.

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.

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 from Clickz.com, 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 their sales.

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.

Amazon.com is 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 with you.

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.

Text: Henrik Olsen

 
"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."

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