Friday, February 20, 2009

Data-Driven Design: Five Must-Haves for Online Retailers

During our economy's high times — oh yea, in case you forgot, that included careless consumer spending and huge credit card debt — online retailers neglected their websites' user experience. Heck, I might too if my site was generating hundreds of millions of dollars as-is!

It wasn't unusual for consumers to tolerate non-intuitive online product browsing, hunt for hidden calls-to-action, agonize over registration forms with too many or irrelevant questions, and endure shopping carts with more steps than the Philadelphia Museum of Art. But what I found interesting was that consumers were very often motivated to buy online, regardless of these faults. Eagerly spending on the latest cashmere sweater, cell phone or over-sized plasma tv, they only occasionally groaned about the user experience.

Consumers are now selectively spending every penny. Their tolerance for a poorly designed, untrustworthy, and "not-worth-the-hassle" online experience has completely diminished. Not to mention the still-lingering fears over site security and identity theft. Conversion rates have recently plummeted as much as 50-75% year over year for some of my clients. Suddenly, measurement and optimization are the topic of discussion, from board meetings to cocktail parties. Marketers are talking about web analytics tools like they're the latest Spring fashion that everyone's got to have! Organizations have hired - or are hiring - website analysts (go check the job boards if you don't believe me) to evaluate and maximize their online revenue. Well, at least that's the desired effect. The fact is that retailers are still lacking effective website optimization programs.

My prescription: Optimize your website right. Optimize now. And optimize often. While it's easy to look at an online retail experience and conclude that it needs work, without data that says so, it is particularly challenging to pinpoint the precise reasons that make it so bad. This in turn makes it difficult to embark upon site revisions.

What are the friction points within each page of your online shopping experience? A methodology needs to be in place that determines what is wrong, how to fix it and prioritize site changes. Studying actual visitor behavioral data is a crucial first step to understanding what is wrong with your website.

Interestingly enough, hardly retailers have access to within-page user behaviors. And sadly, most don't even have their web analytics tool installed properly. Regardless of what your vendor told you, professional installation is required (ie. this is not your IT team). I swear, I honestly see marketers staring at only high-level dashboards all day, just gleaning how users arrived and what page they droped-off from. Ahh yes, so very insightful.

To ensure future success, here are five must-haves for online retailers:

1) actionable within-page data
2) qualitative visitor attitudinal data
3) benchmarks that provide context to the data
4) best practices / design know-how
5) a method to easily test new page layouts and design elements

Once the above five tenets of data-informed design are mastered, consider targeting site content to visitors based on their geography. I also recommend huddling with your media team to match creative, messaging and offers featured in the campaigns that sent consumers to your site in the first place. Then, strategically plan and develop new site-side changes for each online and offline campaign throughout the year.

My rant is by no means a detailed instruction manual on how you should proceed. Putting together a custom-tailored website optimization program is not going to be easy. You may or may not even have all the right people on board to execute efficiently and effectively. If anything, I hope this is a wake-up call for retailers to take action.