The Internet is littered with the Web sites of powerful companies that threw lots of money into having a “Web presence.” It’s amazing how many companies still don’t understand the fundamentals of how the Web works. For example, an article, “Branding and Usability,” shows that high-quality graphic design may help with marketing, but it doesn’t help users locate information. According to the article, “We’re finding that a site’s usability can dramatically affect branding. And the graphical aspects of the site—such as logos or evocative pictures—have much less effect on branding than we expected.”

Yet flashy, slow-loading image maps and splash pages, which are pages that provide a graphic inviting users into the site, abound. The power of the Internet begs for fast, user-friendly interfaces. Complicated pages that load slowly and are difficult to navigate simply fail. Let’s look at some of the most important factors in a user-friendly Web site.

Size does matter
According to the 10th annual GVU (Graphic, Visualization, & Usability Center) WWW UserSurvey , the top two problems reported in using the Web were slow ads (62.3 percent) and page loading speed (61.4 percent). Users simply hate to wait for a large page to load.

According to Vincent Flanders’ Web site , the top 50 visited Web sites have learned this lesson—these sites average only 47.8 K in size. It should be a clear indicator to e-commerce companies that Yahoo!, which is consistently one of the top three Web sites on the Internet, uses minimal graphics and keeps its main page as simple as possible to present information quickly and effectively.

When you juxtapose Yahoo!’s success (Yahoo! accounts for more than 45 percent of all search engine referrals, according to StatMarket ) with the fact that its Web directory only indexes 1.2 million of the estimated 800 million pages of information available on the Internet, you can begin to appreciate the importance of a good user interface. Until the Internet’s bandwidth opens up significantly, e-commerce sites would be well advised to keep their main pages small, simple, and fast-loading.

“Give me a tall ship and a star to steer her by…”
Another essential factor in a good Web site user interface is easy site navigation. For a Web site to be user-friendly, it must have a consistent layout and navigational links so visitors don’t get lost. Once again, Yahoo! is a good example, relying almost exclusively on simple, visually discernible text links that make recognizing and getting information fast and easy. In addition, the site must be kept up-to-date. In the 10th annual GVU WWW User Survey , 57.1 percent cited broken links as the third most common problem in accessing the Web.

Too many hoops
The fourth most common complaint (49.7 percent) in the GVU survey concerning access involved site registration. Internet users tend to be impatient—they come to the Internet to access information quickly. E-commerce site developers should keep their company’s main goal in mind: to introduce visitors to your product/service and cajole them into making a purchase. Requiring users to provide dozens of fields of personal information or running them through a long click trail to get the information they want is a sure way to lose Web customers. Strike a balance between obtaining information and keeping a customer. In addition, make sure that upon return visits, customers don’t have to jump through additional hoops, such as user ids and passwords, to access the information they want.

Conduct a user test
One of the most important steps you can take to ensure the viability of your Web site is to stage a user test. You must remember that your company’s Web site developers and chief officers see the Web site through a very myopic view. To get a better sense of how the site really works, hold a user test that you can observe. You can hold a user test at expositions that your company attends or by specifically inviting people to your company. During the session you can observe users navigating your company’s site and ask them to fill out a user survey afterward. Just think of a user test session as a kind of open house for your Web site.

There are many other factors involved in making a user-friendly Web site, and we’ve listed some helpful strategy and design resources below. A smooth user interface is essential to any good e-commerce site. Company officers must remember that a Web site is a doorway to products and services. A user-friendly site invites the customer in. A clumsy interface with slow response times and hard-to-access products and services leaves a user at the doorstep. In short, Internet technology provides the power to access many new markets, but only to e-commerce sites that know how to treat the customer.

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