Astute web designers do more than just design with your customers in mind- they actually design with your customers- in person. Zef Fugaz looks at ways to get your users on board, and looks at New Zealand success stories.

This article originally appeared in Unlimited Magazine (June 2004)

The dotcom crash taught the young web industry some valuable lessons. To sustain your online business you need to plan ahead, set some goals, take a strategic approach. Alternatively you should have oodles of spare cash to burn while you tread water, or sink, in the deep end.

The good news is that your business can now benefit from the cautious new world of ‘sensible business’, where website budgets need to be justified and online ventures made sustainable.

What’s coming through loud and clear from weathered dotcom survivors is that businesses with an online presence need to ‘get inside the heads’ of their customers.

The United States has a thriving industry based on achieving just that. The likes of Cooper Interactive, Adaptive Path and Good Experience have adopted a variety of techniques to engage customers- then keep them coming back for more.

The IT industry calls this ‘user-centred design’ (UCD) or ‘goal directed design’. Many also simply refer to it as ‘usability’- the ethos that underlies the UCD methodology.

While a user-centred approach might sound blindingly obvious, the truth is that many designers (and business owners) cater ‘for users’ based on their own assumptions on what they believe ‘a typical user’ is like.

To truly achieve user-centred design you need to understand your customers and their many facets. One of the very first steps of your project should be to identify your target markets, interview a sample of each key user group, then conglomerate your findings.

The tool created from this research is a set of ‘personas’- archetypes based on common characteristics and goals of real customers. These personas effectively set the scene for the rest of your decision making and allow your web team to confidently design your site’s information, navigation and visuals based on (not only your business goals), but the goals of your customers.

A recent survey by Forrester Research (TechStrategy Report: December 2003) stated that “More than half of the companies we surveyed are using, piloting, or considering personas.”

Personas answer questions about your customers such as “What education or training have they received”; “What are they responsible for in their home life and work?” “How familiar are they using the Web?”; “What services/products similar to ours have they bought/used?”.

Te Ara : the Online Encyclopedia of New Zealand, due to be launched in the second half of 2004, has adopted this process.

“In-depth interviews were conducted with different groups of people – each representing one of the target audiences”, said Te Ara’s General Editor, Jock Phillips.

“From this we derived a profile of four user-types and developed a good sense of how to satisfy the user needs. Later we took eight subjects and observed them attempting to carry out tasks using a mock-up of the site. This helped refine the information architecture”.

The failsafe ingredient in all of this is ‘usability testing’- a method where your web team observe how users (preferably actual representatives of your personas) react to your prototype website designs- allowing you to refine the design prior to public release.

Phillips is convinced that good websites can only be designed with extensive use of usability testing.

“If those who prepare websites do so with ‘inside knowledge’ then they tend to assume knowledge. User-testing often exposes these assumptions and shows how the site will actually be experienced by people coming from outside”, said Phillips.

Despite the overwhelming evidence UCD works, there are skeptics who blame usability for ugly website design. But that’s not usability at work- simply bad visual design.

For a website to be usable, it must also be aesthetically pleasing, to a point. On the other hand – don’t be led astray by designers who put aesthetics first- if your website design is ruled by aesthetics it might be more pleasing to the eye, but awkward to use.

Unfortunately the local and international design industry frequently rewards eye-candy- resulting in beautiful yet often dysfunctional web designs upheld as industry leaders. But take a look at some survivors of the dotcom era- Trade Me, Woolworths Online, Yahoo!, Amazon- none of these could be regarded as eye-candy, but they don’t offend the eyes either. Their ongoing success lie in their services, ease of use, and fresh thinking to sustain customer loyalty.

Alwyn Moores, Online Services Manager of MarketNewZealand.com believes too many New Zealand business squander precious capital on something they’re not ready for.

“Don’t leap in – the web is not a magic bullet – it’s helpful but businesses need to decide for themselves. Upfront research pays off. Make sure you have what your market requires- how would they like to interact with your website?”

When designing their own website MarketNewZealand.com got users involved from the very outset.

“We held focus groups and surveys- brought in groups of exporters- we went to key markets overseas and interviewed buyers”.

Moores recommends the ‘E-business Guide’ that is available from the New Zealand Economic and Trade Development Agency. “This provides a step-by-step roadmap to help you make the most out of e-business”.

Canterbury of New Zealand’s online franchise is a prime example of an e-business with local and international buyers. They recently adopted a user-centred approach and are starting to notice the benefits.

Rebecca Holt, Website Manager, said, “Without our customers we don’t have a business, so it is really all about them and their needs.”

“We try to work the same way as a physical shop by providing a high level of customer service and always being there to answer questions and replying to our customers as soon as possible. We believe that dedication to our customers is what makes our online store work.”

A recent round of improvements to the Canterbury of New Zealand website focused on their customers needs including a new Help page and Store Locator which makes it quicker for customers to get answers to common questions.

The online franchise aim to double their revenue this year by growing the number of orders, as well as website strategies to get customers to place bigger orders.

“The purchasing process is also a lot easier now”, said Holt. “Customers can search for products and figure out postage costs without going any further than our shopping cart.”

Holt added that “Every online business should look into usability. There’s nothing better than getting a (usability) expert’s objective eye over your site. It stops you from resting on your laurels.”

Leaving users out of the equation can cost sales Mitre10 discovered, following a usability and statistics audit of their website.

The audit found that customers were leaving part-way through their online shopping experience.

Sian Jacobs, Mitre10’s Website Content Editor said “When we focused on the step-by-step clicks requ
ired for our users, we realised the shortcomings of our original design. Information was scattered and the site needed a simpler look that broke our content into more logical sections”.

Mitre10 changed the design by simplifying the navigation, following usability best practices for online shopping and reorganising the website’s content.

“We’ve seen improvement in all areas,” said Jacobs. “In the following months visitor numbers gradually grew and almost doubled. Users seemed more encouraged to engage in our website and to request information”.

Mitre10 also saw a substantial increase users signing up to receive newsletters by email.

“Online sales increased and we partly attribute this to the new layout of product information and shopping cart progression” said Jacobs.

Loyalty New Zealand Limited also benefited from a user-centred approach when they invested in a substantial redesign of the Fly Buys website in September 2001.

They relabeled the navigation, added customer self-service features and aesthetic visuals. Backed with timely marketing the site took off.

Glenda Swan, Communications Manager from Loyalty New Zealand Limited said that “In the following months visits to the site increased by an average of 150%, and continued to grow in some instances by more than 200%”.

In addition users were spending longer on the site, with 40% of users staying six minutes or more per visit.

“Our independent research showed that users were having a satisfactory experience during their visit and were prepared to explore the information and services on offer”.

The results were a dramatic increase in users viewing rewards, members requesting rewards, and new users becoming Fly Buys members.

“The website’s continued success can be attributed to the fact that the site’s design and features are meeting the needs and expectations of users,” said Swan.

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