Suppose you need a book on JavaScript. A new bookstore has opened around the corner from your office, so you decide to check it out.

When you arrive, you find a line of chorus girls blocking the entrance. The dancers are beautiful, and the performance is impressive, even flashy.

And while you don’t have time to watch, you still have to wait out the performance to get inside.

In the store, you see that the shelves aren’t arranged in any recognizable order. When you ask an employee for help to find the book you want, he motions toward the back of the store and says, “It should be back there somewhere.”

You wander through the mess and eventually locate your book. When you check out, the cashier begins asking you for personal information.

“Why do you need my age and level of education?” you ask. “I just want to pay for the book and walk out with it.”

The cashier shrugs: “I don’t know. I just need to find out before I can ring it up.” You walk out, scratching your head, wondering how long they’re going to stay in business.

While no one, no matter how clueless, would operate a brick-and-mortar store this way, many commercial Web sites make corresponding mistakes. It’s not nearly as foolish to make such blunders on the Web because they’re not always so obvious; nonetheless, they can have the same results: People will get fed up and move on to your competitor.

Common mistakes
Even as competition for customers reaches an all-time high, many companies are still making the same mistakes with their sites, said Steve Telleen, Managing Director of the Web Site ScoreCard program at Giga Information Group.

“They pour hundreds of thousands of dollars into content and functionality, then ignore basic usability and comfort issues that negate their investment,” Telleen said.

To help businesses come up with remedies, Giga advises companies to focus on avoiding common mistakes made by Web sites. Telleen says the mistakes are divided into two categories: navigation mistakes and abuse mistakes. In general, navigation mistakes result from the failure to implement features commonly found on Web sites that make it easy for visitors to find what they want. Abuse mistakes result from the implementation of features that make it more difficult for visitors to reach a successful outcome on your site.
This article offers basic suggestions on improving e-commerce from your Web site. Other articles will focus on other navigation mistakes—like not including a site map—as well as discussing bandwidth and privacy concerns.
Provide clear action and audience paths
The first navigation mistake is not providing clear action and audience paths on the home page. Telleen points out that visitors should be able to look at the page and immediately find the answers to a few key questions. What can I do here? Does this apply to me? What invites me to click deeper?

Tellen also suggests that clear action verbs should be used to describe your links to keep from confusing your visitors.

For example, a potential customer might consider it a waste of time if, while using an online banking site, he can’t tell whether a link allows him to manage his account online or receive customer-marketing information. You can help him out simply by labeling the link “Manage your account” rather than using the single, ambiguous word “Customers.”

Dave Hunt, senior Web developer at Louisville, KY-based Micro Computer Solutions, a computer services company, expressed some surprise that this turned up on a list of common mistakes.

“I think that since the e-commerce push has come into play, people are now focusing on a newspaper or magazine look and feel, where all the information is easily read,” Hunt said

However, Hunt acknowledges that if a site fails to provide clear links and paths, it’s a fundamental flaw.

Catch mistakes in the design stage
Such errors would tend to begin in the design stage, said Harley Manning, a research director at the Forrester Research.

“The design process should start out with identifying your users and their goals,” he said. “If you’re a targeted user, and it’s not clear what you should do to achieve your goals, that design was fundamentally flawed.”

Manning suggests that navigational aids should be recognizable to your audience, keeping in mind that your audience will expect your site to be consistent with emerging standards. For example, most users have been trained now to look to the upper left-hand corner of the page for the Home button.

“When I look at the site, it’s more important that I recognize things that I want rather than that it be in any particular format,” Manning said. “For virtually all Web users, something that says ‘Home,’ or a little stylized Home icon, is going to carry incredible meaning. But it’s not just the word or image. It’s also where it might be on the page.”

Hunt also points out that the importance of easy navigation increases with the size of the site. “As you get larger, you have to have well-defined and well-described links,” Hunt said.” If you have a small site that’s likely to grow, you should reevaluate navigation at each step along the way.
Do you know of a Web site that is difficult to navigate? Tell us about it. Send us the URL and tell us why you think it doesn’t work. We’ll compile them into our own list of dos and don’ts and put it up on our site.