Customer-Centered Web Design: More Than a Good Idea | 2 | WebReference

Customer-Centered Web Design: More Than a Good Idea | 2

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Customer-Centered Web Design: More Than a Good Idea

The Importance of Customer-Centered Design

Over the years we have learned that the criteria for building customer-centered Web sites are based on providing a positive experience for all customers, whether those customers are there to find information, to be part of a community, to purchase items, or to be entertained. This focus is called customer-centered design. Customer-centered design increases the value of Web sites through better design and evaluation. It is about how you empathize with customers—how well you understand their needs, the tools and technologies they use, and their social and organizational context. It is about how you use this understanding to shape your designs and then test those designs to ensure that the customers' needs are met.

Why go to all this trouble? What will happen if you don't? Suppose your site overruns its budget or schedule. Management could pull the plug before it is completed. Or what if your Web site is finished but turns out to be too hard to learn or use? Customers might visit your site once and never return.

With customer-centered design, you do the work up front to ensure that the Web site has the features customers need, by determining and planning for the most important features and by making certain that those features are built in a way that customers will understand. This method actually takes less time and money to implement in the long run. In short, customer-centered design helps you build the right Web site and build the Web site right!

Here's an example that underscores the importance of customer-centered design. Several years ago, IBM found that its Web site was not working well. Quick analysis revealed that the search feature was the most used function. The site was so confusing that IBM's customers could not figure out how to find what they wanted. IBM also discovered that the help feature was the second most popular function. Because the search feature was ineffective, many people went to the help pages to find assistance. Paying close attention to customer needs, IBM redesigned the site from the ground up to be more consistent in its navigation. A week after launching the redesigned site, customers' reliance on the search and help features dropped dramatically and online sales rose 400 percent.

This is just one of many stories highlighting the increasing importance of good design. But does good Web design really affect the bottom line? You bet! Web sites founded on solid fundamentals and extensive customer research can make the difference between success and failure. A clear, easy-to-use, and customer-centered Web site can help garner better reviews and ratings, reduce the number of mistakes made by customers, trim the time it takes to find things, and increase overall customer satisfaction. Furthermore, customers who really like a Web site's content and quality of service are more likely to tell their family, friends, and coworkers, thereby increasing the number of potential customers. A great example of this result is Google, which has become the dominant search site with little or no advertising. It simply works better than most other search sites, and customers tell their friends about it.

There is also a strong correlation between increased satisfaction and increased profits for commercial Web sites. Underscoring this point, our research shows that increasing customer satisfaction by just 5 percent can lead to a 25 percent or greater increase in revenues. There are two reasons for the revenue increase and the related increase in profits. The first is that customers can find products and services more easily and are thus more likely to return in the future. The second is that support costs are reduced because of a lower number of phone calls, e-mails, and instant messages to help desks, as well as a lower number of product returns.

The stakes are higher now than ever before. Commercial Web sites that are not relevant, fast, trustworthy, satisfying, and easy to use will have a hard time attracting new customers and retaining existing customers, especially if competitors are only a click away.

Providing Tangible Value

Yahoo! is one of the top Web sites today, and it's likely to remain near the top for the foreseeable future. Why? Is it because it has slick graphic design? Hardly. Yahoo!'s homepage uses graphical images sparingly, and most of its other pages have even fewer. Even though Yahoo! was once pointed to as the poster child of boring interfaces, its mostly text interface still is very quick to load because it has so few graphics. So why is Yahoo! so popular? It's pretty simple actually: Yahoo! provides quality services that are useful, fast to download, and easy to use. One of the reasons it is such a popular Web site is that interaction design and usability research are integral parts of Yahoo!'s development process. Yahoo! identifies its customer needs through field studies, interviews, and usability evaluations, and then it tailors its designs to match those needs.

People will leave your Web site if they

  • Are frustrated
  • Think that navigating the site is too difficult
  • Think that you don't have the product or service they want
  • Get big surprises that they don't like
  • Feel that the site takes too long to load

You cannot afford to abandon a single customer.

Even if your site does not have direct competitors, as is the case with educational institutions and corporate intranets, it can benefit from being customer centered. Simple, clean, and well-designed Web sites can cut down on wasted time for customers, reduce Web site maintenance costs for clients, and improve overall satisfaction.

Our First Steps toward Unifying Design, Usability, and Marketing

In 1997 we noticed that a few companies had dramatically jumped ahead of the competition and were now leaders on the Web. These companies had publicly stated and acted on making the customer experience their top priority, and they raised the bar for everyone.

While we were actively helping clients develop sites in an ever more competitive environment, we realized we had to move beyond the traditional boundaries of usability, market research, and software design. It was not an easy task, because our clients had committed to these means at varying levels, in different parts of the organization that usually did not talk to one another.

Drawing on our experience in design, consulting, marketing, communications, and human–computer interaction research, we evaluated our clients' Web sites on many levels. We discovered that although a customer focus existed, often it was not reflected on the Web sites. We also discovered that some clients were not improving the customer experience on their Web sites at all. This was not surprising, considering that these companies did not have a clear Web strategy. It was not uncommon for a client's Web design team to have an inadequate budget and little authority to integrate operations with the rest of the company.

Sometimes our clients were simply too busy trying to stay afloat to care about getting a full wind in their sails. One Web business we studied thought that it was doing very well with its health-related news, information, and products. It was receiving thousands of Web-based orders per week. It spent heavily on advertising to draw people to its site, and as advertising spending increased, so did sales. Our team evaluated the ease of use of the site, doing some customer research over a short period of time (later we'll explain how you can run studies like this yourself). We looked at many factors, from first impression, to ease of use, to overall satisfaction.

We found some surprising results that led us to important conclusions. The developers of the site had done a great job of creating a powerful first impression. All the customers in our research panel liked the site, thought it looked easy to use, and said it appeared to have relevant content.

Next, however, we asked the same customers to use the site to carry out a realistic task: finding products for the common cold. Only 30 percent of the customers could find any products at all for colds, or for any other medical condition. This research suggested that about 70 percent of customers who came to the site to solve particular health problems could not find what they were looking for, revealing that, despite the company's perception that its Web site was serving it well, a substantial amount of revenue was being lost to user interface problems. The cost of dissatisfied customers' abandonment of this site could have reached into the millions of dollars over the course of a year.

Our experience with the health site is not uncommon. The bottom line is that poorly designed Web sites frustrate people, fritter away customer loyalty, and waste everyone's time.

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