Usability & E-Commerce in the Credit Crunch

Introduction

The current economic climate is a difficult time for any business, and for any individual. So why is it that while one time high rolling retailers such as Zavvi and Woolworths have both gone into administration, web-based retailers such as Play.com and Amazon have both just seen some of their best figures to date. Although it is certain that there are many reasons for this, this article will delve into the e-commerce world to look at website usability as a factor in the success or failure of a business.

Against the background of poor sales and failing retailers you might wonder whether companies can afford to focus on the usability of e-commerce. After all if large retailers with an established web presence can go to the wall, shouldn’t companies be merely focusing their efforts on staying in business? The answer is that, yes, companies definitely need to be focusing on maximising sales and keeping costs down, but a usable and effective e-commerce solution will play a key role in this.

It’s a confidence thing

Research has consistently shown that e-commerce sites that aren’t usable suffer from poor sales and are far more expensive to support. At this time where consumers are particularly cost conscious and unsure whether to spend what money they do have, usability issues can shatter their already fragile confidence and prevent them from making a purchase.

Don’t lose me

It is very important that the site itself is not the reason to cause customers to abandon their purchase. It may seem obvious, but common pitfalls can include:

  1. Having no clear route to purchase;
  2. Providing confusing and ambiguous product information;
  3. Having a lengthy and convoluted checkout process.

An uncertain and uncommitted customer is less likely to accept any usability hiccups like these and ultimately will be less likely to buy anything. Consider Confused.com’s recent high profile marketing campaign which puts ‘ease of use ‘at the forefront of its message and shows how it can be used as a positive differentiator in a crowded and commoditised market place.

I want Value or Quality, both if I can get it

Site owners need to recognise that customers are increasingly value conscious and target their promotions accordingly. For example, Play.com focuses heavily on deals and discounts. This, coupled with an aggressive advertising campaign ensured they were well placed to survive the lean Christmas period.

Stack them high and sell them cheap isn’t the most original plan however, and it didn’t save Woolworths or Zavvi, so it’s interesting to see that trends are also emerging that suggest that people are increasingly focusing on quality products that will last rather than budget products that may be less durable.

This provides site owners with two potential strategies for targeting customers, but in each case the clarity of communication and how it is converted into a sale will be key. The usability of this experience will be paramount.

What should I do?

Based on our extensive experience of providing usable solutions Nomensa have identified several key guidelines to help e-commerce site owners ensure that their site doesn’t suffer from the most common usability pitfalls.

  1. Ensure that there is a clear call to action to make a purchase – if the customer can’t work out how to buy your product then there is no chance of making a sale;
  2. Ensure that customers can see a price for each product – this may seem obvious, but there are many sites that are guilty of this cardinal usability sin;
  3. Ensure that product information is accurate and up to date – if customers don’t trust the information provided about a product they are far less likely to buy it. Conversely providing accurate, useful and trustworthy information enhances a company’s reputation and encourages repeat business. Simple things like typos can be enough to undermine customer confidence and trust. A strong editorial review workflow can help to avoid this.
  4. Encourage and support user reviews – reviews are a great way of helping customers to understand how good a product is and whether it is right for them. By providing customers with access to unbiased reviews from other customers it is possible to enhance customer confidence and consequently encourage making a purchase.
  5. Optimise the Checkout process –collect only the information that is necessary, if you really need a certain piece of information that customers may be wary of providing (e.g. date of birth) explain why this information is needed. It is also important to note that optimising the checkout process is not necessarily a case of reducing the number of steps; a single very long form can be as off-putting as a large number of steps. Our advice would be to identify the distinct stages of the checkout, produce the most logical flow through these stages and consolidate stages where possible and appropriate, at all times ensuring that the customer is only asked for the information vital to making their purchase. It is also important that the customer is aware of which stage they are at in the checkout process and how many more stages there are to go.
  6. Analytics can tell you what is happening but they cannot tell you why. Real customer research, for example through usability testing will reveal the facts to build the case for, and direction of, change. The resulting clarity makes investing in development easy and confidence in ROI high.

Follow the leader

Innovation is great, creativity a brilliant differentiator, in recent years however, if in doubt copy the market leader; after all they didn’t get there by chance. It can be argued that in the pure-play world the stand out retailer is Amazon. Although not all will agree with this, and certainly the site has become a bit bloated in recent years but there is no doubting that buying an item on Amazon couldn’t be much easier. Take a look back at our key guidelines using Amazon as a case study:

  1. Ensure that there is a clear call to action to make a purchase - Check - The user will find that there are ‘buy’ buttons everywhere, and in addition to this clear links to the users’ current basket and checkout.
  2. Ensure that customers can see a price for a product - Check - Amazon’s prices, second-hand prices, Marketplace seller prices, (perhaps too many prices!) but you certainly aren’t left wanting for one.
  3. Ensure product information is accurate and up to date - Check - information is contributed by manufacturers as well as Amazon’s own reviewers
  4. Encourage and support user reviews - Check - Amazon was one of the pioneers of user reviews and feedback.
  5. Optimise the checkout process - Check – Amazon patented One Click purchasing, need we say more?

Conclusion

As arguably the market leader in e-commerce world, the success of Amazon can in part be attributed to the usability of the site, where the ease of browsing and paying for a product does nothing to deter the user.

The critical thing here is to try to help your customer make a purchase, not just throw your products out there and hope that people will buy them. Sites with good usability, that make purchasing quick and simple will generate more sales and encourage customers to return. Those that don’t risk losing customers at a time when they can least afford to.