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Riding the ClickPath to Success

By Elizabeth Charnock

There’s a great disparity between online and offline transactions. Studies show that only 2% of website visitors perform a transaction vs. 50% of visitors to “brick & mortar” shopping malls. Why the great difference? And, even more interestingly, how much of this difference can be overcome?

There are many obvious reasons for the difference. A visitor to a real-world mall probably is more committed, simply because he had to make an effort to get there. Further, real-world merchandise can be seen, touched, smelled, heard and taken home for immediate gratification. But do these reasons really explain the more than tenfold difference in purchasing behavior? There is increasing evidence that this is not the case.

Both real and virtual businesses strive to make the shopping experience as pleasant as possible, but the real ones have an edge: tens, and arguably even hundreds, of years of experience learning how to lay out their stores to maximize conversion rates.

Surfing Is Not Aisle-Cruising
For example, “surfing” or casual browsing is equally problematic in the brick & mortar world, which over time has found ways to combat it. There’s good reason that modern department stores have byzantine pathways, or that it’s so easy to get lost in Las Vegas casinos. Such measures aid in making the casual visitor see a variety of different merchandise in the hope of eventually capturing their interest. However, Web businesses must find their own approach to this problem. Lacking the ability to manipulate the physical space surrounding the users, e-businesses must entice users with the notion that each additional click will bring them closer to their goals.

On the other hand, in both the real and virtual worlds, customers often have a plan of action before they arrive. In such cases, the previous arguments lose much of their weight. On a website, most “directed” users are likely to begin their visit with a keyword search. Or, they may start directly down a path to a particular goal, which they will not diverge from until the desired goal has been achieved. This is a good part of the reason why 50% of website visitors use keyword search, while the other 50% make use of whatever navigation bars are provided.

When users do not manifest purposeful behavior patterns, there are usually two reasons: (1) Either they have a specific goal and cannot immediately see how to achieve it; or (2) they’re merely “surfing.” In either case, another 50% rule kicks in: on average, for each extra click that a user performs, there’s a 50% chance they’ll bale on the site.

But virtual businesses do have some clear advantages over their brick & mortar counterparts, at least in theory. These include a vastly larger selection of merchandise, and convenience. However, these advantages are rarely fully leveraged in practice. For example, a seemingly infinite number of choices may be extremely offputting to users. And convenience is not just a question of whether one has to get in a car, but also of one’s confidence that they can easily achieve the desired objective on the Web. There is no convenience without comfort.

So how can a Web designer get the highest possible yield out of his/her site? Here are a few important tips:

The Web isn’t a world unto itself: Benchmark your performance not against other Web businesses, but rather against your brick & mortar counterparts or parents. While the conversion rates may not be the same, they should trend together.

Be sure you understand where the trouble spots are, and what percentage of your users were likely impacted by them. This is critical since users who become disoriented or confused will be far less likely to persevere and buy.

Get tools that can tell you not just about what went right 2% of the time when people purchased, but also analyze the much more interesting 98% of the time when people did not purchase (or do whatever else that was considered important on the site).

Make sure the Top Three user tasks are so incredibly obvious on your site that it’s impossible for users to miss them. A good way to test this is by recall: perform a simple ad hoc test by asking people unfamiliar with the site what they can do on the site after showing the home page for a minute and then removing it from sight. If most people can correctly recall those 3 all-important things, it ensures that there’s no Web equivalent of a “signage” problem.

Be sure that you yourself have tried to perform each important task on your site. Have your friends do the same; for large revisions, consider an inexpensive usability test. Such tests can often be done very cheaply, and can provide significant anecdotal insight into potential design pitfalls.

Who is Elisabeth Charnock?

Elisabeth Charnock is co-founder, CEO and VP of Engineering at San Franciso-based Troba, whose software helps companies quantify their website usability and customer-satisfaction levels. Before founding Troba in the spring of 1999, Charnock held senior engineering-management positions at leading tech companies, including Sun Microsystems and Hewlett-Packard. Additionally, Charnock is a published author in the field of Human-Computer Interaction (HCI).