By Kevin Scoresby

Imagine you own a new shopping center. A brilliant marketing strategy has resulted in a flood of daily visitors; but you have few repeat customers, and although some spend time browsing and selecting items, relatively few actually buy. In fact, there are twice as many abandoned carts as there are shoppers making a purchase.

This situation would be unacceptable to any storeowner, yet it’s par for the course online. A recent study indicated that poor Web site design prevented 65 percent of motivated shoppers—consumers with money in hand—from purchasing from major e-commerce Web sites. Other studies on shopping cart abandonment rates provide similar results: two-thirds of consumers who initiate an online purchase do not carry it through to completion, and poor design is often the cause.

Shopping cart abandonment is just one indication that a site needs design improvement. In this article we’ll explore other indicators of site usability problems and strategies for fixing them.

A success story
Let’s start with an example of success: Frontgate sells products for upscale homes via their catalogs and Web site, but prior to a redesign, their site was not providing the kind of return the company expected.

In investigating what needed to be fixed, John DeCaprio, Frontgate’s director of e-commerce, says the “main trigger was and is the customer. Our customers expect to be catered to, and they need a site that lets them get in and be immediately successful. Customer feedback indicated that the site design needed improvement, and it helped get us moving in the right direction.”

But Frontgate didn’t rely solely on customers to tell them what the problems were. They reviewed a variety of data, including shopper conversion rates and site usage patterns, as well as what products—and product categories—were selling online vs. through the company’s call center. They began defining requirements for the redesign only after they had a clear picture of what was happening, says DeCaprio.

Frontgate has since reaped rewards in terms of increased online sales and customer loyalty—not to mention a national ADDY award in the interactive media category. DeCaprio attributes an emphasis on usability in the redesign as a critical factor to the project’s success.

“We continue to get customer compliments about the site’s clean layout and ease of use,” he says. “And we are seeing solid growth in the channel as we’ve continued to address usability issues.”

Why you need to know the customer
In working toward this kind of online success, the first step is to identify potential problem areas. If you find that task daunting, you’re not alone. A report by Jupiter Media Metrix indicates that about 75 percent of online merchants don’t try to understand the problems underlying consumer behavior, often because they are overwhelmed by the prospect.

The following four questions will help cut through the confusion. While not all-inclusive, I’ve found them to be enlightening as I’ve consulted with Frontgate and other companies.

1. What are customers telling you?
As Frontgate found, customer feedback is one of the best and easiest ways to target problem areas. Gather information from any channel that touches the customer—sales force, customer service reps, site feedback forms, etc. Find out what customers like, what they don’t like, and why. Then, look for patterns and overall themes.

Important note: Customer feedback is valuable for identifying where problems lie, but be cautious about letting customers determine how the site should be improved. In my experience, relying solely on customer suggestions nearly always results in side effects and creates more problems than it solves.

2. At what point are visitors abandoning your site?
Site log analysis tools can help identify key points where visitors commonly abandon your site. Once you’ve identified these points, you often can infer what the problems might be. The biggest red flag should be situations where users are starting a process (e.g., checking out, searching, subscribing to the newsletter) and then bailing out before reaching the end. Process abandonment is the most worrisome problem because it indicates that your site visitors had a goal in mind but were either unable to achieve it or were unwilling to continue when expectations were not met.

Remember, each customer has an overarching goal, and your site is only part of the process of achieving that goal. With this in mind, immediate abandonment may indicate that users are unable to quickly find what they are looking for or that they expected something different based on search engine results.

3. What kinds of mistakes do customers make?
The purpose of your site is probably to increase company profit—whether directly through online sales or indirectly through increased brand equity, reduction in costs of other channels, and so on. If poor site design allows (or causes) customers to make a mistake, they will become frustrated when the system requires them to correct their input. And when errors make it through the system, your company will end up with poor data. Either way, your bottom line is affected negatively.

Find out how clean your data is and what kinds of problems have occurred. Check the site logs to see how often an average user gets an error message. Then identify the page(s) that are causing the problem and redesign them to help make the customer successful. Avoid the temptation simply to change or augment the instructions. Instead, enhance the design and functionality to better match customer expectations. 

4. Why do customers choose channels other than the Web site?
Many companies get online with the hope of significantly reducing costs associated with call centers, help desks, and other channels. Then, when the return on investment is lower than expected, they simply conclude that the promise of the Internet was overstated. However, the truth is that the Internet’s promise has not been fully realized largely because of poor usability.

You can often find usability problems by looking at the all the ways and reasons people interact with your company. Identify the most common purposes for customers’ calls and ensure those needs are easily met online. If you already provide all necessary functionality, then there are probably still barriers that prevent customers from succeeding online—perhaps barriers caused by poor design. As much as possible, identify and remove those barriers.

Some people will always feel more comfortable speaking directly with another human being, but you’ll find that costs will drop significantly when the majority of your customers discover they can achieve their goals more easily online.

A final word of advice
Forrester Research reported that Fortune 1,000 companies average between $1.5 million and $2.1 million per year on site redesigns but that their “shot-in-the-dark” efforts often worsen  the user experience. My hope is that the above questions will help you avoid that trap by helping you make informed decisions about how to best improve your customers’ online experience.

These questions are a starting point, and you will want to pose additional questions that are specific to your situation. For instance, if your focus is on an internal application—such as a corporate intranet or a time reporting system—you will also want to ask questions like, “How can employee productivity be improved?” and “Why do employees need training?” With each question, be sure to consider trends over time, and look at whether things are getting better or worse.

Most companies understand how vital customer service is to their success. Yet many do not make the connection that an unusable Web site can do as much damage as a rude or unhelpful customer service representative. Consider that in a physical store, patrons are actually more likely to endure a poor shopping experience because (a) they’ve already invested time and effort to get there and (b) it would require a greater investment to switch to a competing establishment. Conversely, online patrons have invested very little, and it’s extremely easy for them to visit a competitor when their experience on your site goes sour.

The bottom line is this: If your goal is to maximize company profits, you should assign the same priority to providing a quality online experience for your customers as you do to providing quality customer service. After all, they are one and the same.

Kevin Scoresby, Ph.D., has worked in the usability field for 15 years and has consulted with companies from Internet startups to the Fortune 100. Most recently, he worked with Procter & Gamble where he served as the User Experience Lead for the redesign.