1: The Gap Between What Customers Want Online and What They Get

A common problem when businesses launch new Web sites is that customers simply don't use them. Marketing can get people to come to a site, but the vast majority of the users marketing attracts hit the home page and bounce out, or perhaps click through a few pages of content before leaving. And then, they don't come back.

The problem is simple: sites don't provide what users want. Many companies don't bother to ask prospective customers about their goals. Perhaps they make assumptions about what the customer ought to want, or perhaps they are focused on the ways in which the site meets the needs of the business. Whatever the case, they don't consider what's in it for the customer, and as a result, fail to deliver value that would sustain a user base.

During the internet boom, this happened in many firms at the same time: they were fascinated with what the internet could do - specifically, what the internet could do for the business - and made huge investments in capabilities that were ultimately rejected by the users They hype of the moment cause them to consider the internet to be different from any other channel - when in reality, it's much the same: if your product isn't valued by the customer, or if the difficulty of obtaining it outweighs the benefit, people won't buy and the business will fail.

Compounding the problem is the rush to be the first-mover, which led many companies to pay more to do things quickly, and neglect to invest the time in doing them well. Not only was the result a failure in the short-term, but it damaged the potential of future success. A customer who has had a bad experience on a site is unlikely to return in future when the problems have been fixed.

Companies that have survived the rout, and those that have succeeded since, have taken from the experience a sense of the importance of user experience. In order for a site to be used by customers, it must be of use to them, and usable by them.

In effect, success for the user means "extreme usability" - a Web site that makes it easy to accomplish useful tasks with a minimum of friction. However, a site designed exclusively or users may not be a wise investment of company resources: operating a site that incurs costs and produces no revenue detracts from the value of the company that "invests" in a money-losing venture. (EN: The author doesn't go into detail, but the dot-com crash saw the fall of many sites that were fun and engaging, but weren't able to generate a profit for the operator.)

The author defines "user experience" as the relationship between customer and firm, as created by the various interactions between them, which in turn are facilitated by the interfaces the company provides for the customer. A "successful" user experience must satisfy the goals of the user and drive profitability.

The user experience includes all contacts between the customer and the firm. It's not merely the process of ordering a product online, but any communication such as researching product information, sending a follow-up message, etc. are part of the experience. (EN: to which I would add that contacts outside the electronic channel are also part of the experience - but my sense is the author is focusing on the electronic channels specifically, so I'll make this my last remark in that regard.)

A Lack of Tradition

Research into what the customers want online is critical to planning a successful Internet experience. There is no substitute for getting customer input, from the very beginning of the process.

Retailers such as Barnes and Noble and Starbucks invest a great deal fo attention and expense into delivering an in-store experience, and this is largely to credit for their success in winning customer preference. However, the notion of "experience" in a brick-and-mortar outlet is fairly well-known and has evolved over centuries (or millennia) - and the notion of a "store" or a "restaurant" is fairly well established.

There are no such established or long-standing formats for the Web - everything is experimental and new, which underscores the need to be painstaking in considering and executing a Web site or mobile experience.

Incremental and Evolutionary Design

The author advocates incremental and evolutionary design: a company can build a site, test it, measure results, and refine it. While costly, it's significantly less expensive than doing so in other channels. Because the interactions of users on a Web site can easily be observed and measured, it should be possible to rapidly and constantly evolve and improve the site.

It can be enormously expensive to conduct extensive research, and doing so may be too expensive to deliver an acceptable return. With this in mind, firms should seek to deliver good experience, but only those that are "good enough" to deliver on short-term business goals and satisfy customers - but then continue to invest in evolving the experience over time.

(EN: I can see where the practical concerns of budget might lead to this approach, but my sense is that this is dangerous in two regards. First, businesses tend to feel their work is done when the site launches, and getting them to come back and invest more dollars is difficult when they're getting "good enough" results from the initial site - and even if the returns are not very good, they are more likely to declare the venture to be a failure than to seek to improve it. Second, determining what is "good enough' can be tricky - a customer who is disappointed with an online experience is not likely to return in future to witness that the experience has been improved. As a result, setting the bar for "good enough" should be based on input from customers, not the business, and should; also be done with a careful eye on the competition.)

The author also comments that Internet projects are akin to new businesses: it is highly unlikely that a new Web site will attract a throng of customers right away, and it may take time to build long-term relationships with customers. This is particularly true of internet-only firms, as they cannot leverage customer relationships built in other channels.

Egregious Errors

The author mentions some of the more egregious problems encountered with e-commerce sites: the site is "down for maintenance," the user encounters a dead-end 404 error during the checkout process, the user is asked for a credit card number before knowing the total cost, etc. Simply stated, these errors are not tolerable. Not only does it lose the immediate sale, but it's unlikely a customer who encounters such a problem will return.

Companies wrongly expect that users will endure a certain level of frustration in order to use their sites. Unless you are the only source available to them (which is highly unlikely), customers will not hesitate to go directly to a competitor and, if the experience they have there is acceptable, to remain regular customers of the competitor (making it all the more difficult to attract them in future). The author provides a few examples, such as a bouncer who yanks a customer out of the check-out line and physically tosses them out of the store - which seem a bit silly, but are in fact an accurate equivalent to what customers are expected to tolerate online.

New Media Experiences

The Internet channel offers a number of unique challenges for which there are no real-world equivalents, and the other new media that are evolving (such as mobile) will put businesses even further into unfamiliar territory. Companies that are just now beginning to cope with mouse, keyboard, and monitor may have to develop experiences that accommodate other forms of communication - the customer may be using voice or gestures, and there may be only an audio channel to communicate information downstream.

(EN: An interesting analogy is the Internet for the disabled. Developing an experience for a user who cannot see a screen, or who can only interact with a two-button joystick, pose unique challenges. In that way, companies that seek to provide an experience that is accessible may be better prepared for other media as well.)

The author notes that "borrowing" conventions from one medium for another isn't always a good experience. It is frustrating to use a numeric telephone keypad to navigate a Web page and click "links" and then have to use the same keypad to provide alphabetical inputs. (EN: book was written in 2002, before cell phones had full keypads - so in this case the gadget has evolved to the interface rather than the other way around. The author still makes a valid point, but it's noted that there will be exceptions)

As such, there is no single body of "best methods" for developing user experience that will span all channels - you must consider each channel in and of itself, designing to that medium, to arrive at a best method for the channel in question.

Sidebar: ROI for UX

The author provides a sidebar on calculating return on investment of user experience, but it turns out just to be ":return on investment" for anything: determine the additional income or saved costs, and discount it by the required rate of return, to arrive at the net present value of future cash flows from the user experience project.

(EN: the problem is not the math, it's determining the values for the calculation. Can we really say that providing additional product images will lead to $200K per month in additional sales? Can we say that providing an online feedback form will really eliminate five positions in a call center? Where do we get such numbers, supported by credible evidence?)

Iterative Design Process

The author cites a few reasons other than cost that the user experience strategy must involve iterative design: the nature of the business will change, the customer preferences will change, technology will evolve, and the competitive environment will change. As such, UX design is not a simple, once-and-done task, but an ongoing process of iterative development.

Also, since the medium is new, there are not centuries of history to draw upon for best practices. UX design is, by nature, a trial-and-error process and firms are discovering the best methods as they go along.

The author refers to amazon.com, the "gold standard" of e-commerce, and a firm that is constantly observing user interaction with its web site and making adjustments and improvements - and it has over time made a number of mistakes.

Site Visitor Analysis

The author cites the drop rate for online transactions - which has been steady at around 42% for a number of years. (EN: the author does not explain the statistic, but I recall it being based on the percentage of users who place an item in a "shopping cart" and leave without making a purchase) It's assumed that "many" of these customers will pick up a phone to complete their transaction - but even if this is true, the cost of taking a phone order is much higher than the cost of taking a Web order.

With this in mind, analytics have been developed to pay closer attention to interactions that precede the sale, such as the look-to-buy ratio for products, such that even when a customer leaves an online store without making a purchase, valuable information can be gleaned from their on-site behavior that can improve the overall performance.

In the traditional channel, it's possible only to measure sales. But behavior online is easily observed and recorded, extensive research and analysis can be done on user data. Behavior can be observed in real time, and adjustments made and tested very quickly to determine their impact and improve the user experience.

It is possible to chart the user's course through the Web site, and examine each step along the path: the user who visits the home page and clicks into the product catalog, then to a product page, then place the item into the cart, then proceed to the check out, then complete the transaction. The "drop rate" can be measured at each step of the process, and each ratio can be improved. The same theory can be applied to non-sales activities, such as requesting a product brochure.

Relationship Impact

It is also critical to think beyond the click-stream of a single transaction to consider the impact of experience on the customer relationship. Does the Web site experience cause customers to return, and to place more trust in the firm over time?

It is generally accepted that the customer experience on a Web site may not lead to an immediate transaction, or even a transaction through the internet channel - some customers will "shop" online and purchase in a brick-and-mortar store (EN: the assumption here is that, if it weren't for the Web site, the customer would not have gone to the store - which may not necessarily be so.)

It's also noted that the Web site's "value" to the customer may be easy access to information, and the value to the business is the cost-savings of not having to provide that information via other channels (mail, fax, or phone). This is especially true of service interactions: even if the Web site doesn't "sell" product - customers gain the value of having round-the-clock access to information that will help them use the products better, vendors gain the value of not having to have staff handle inbound calls.

Ideally, the number of transactions processed online should cause a corresponding decrease in the number of transactions done in other media (e.g., by telephone). If both increase, this may be a sign of a significant problem with the user experience online - users are attempting to complete a transaction online, are unable to do so, and pick up the phone to do the same thing via phone.

(EN: an interesting notion, but this assumes a causal relationship that may not exist, believes that the number of calls is static overall, and assumes the company has neither gained nor lost any customers over the same period of time. I can accept that some customers will switch channels completely, but some will prefer the phone channel, and there may be instances in which it is more convenient for a customer to call. As such, it's reasonable to assert that there will be some decrease in call volume when transactions are available online, but it will not be a perfect correlation and causality cannot be assumed.

The Ultimate Success Measurements Are Financial

In the short run, improved user experience may be difficult to quantify - a customer who "likes" the web site experience isn't guaranteed to purchase more product. However, over time, the impact will have financial results: a customer who "likes" the site is less likely to defect to a competitor, and shifts more of his business to a channel that's less costly for the vendor.

(EN: The author elaborates on some of the metrics - retention, share of wallet, etc. - but of greater importance would be statistics that demonstrate that a customer who uses multiple channels gives more share of wallet to a vendor and remains with them for a longer period of time. I have heard such assertions made elsewhere, though I've not seen granular proof.)

Elegant Equilibrium

The author returns to the notion of "equilibrium" - that a successful user experience must deliver value to both the customer and the firm.

A company that too aggressively "pushes" its customers toward product sales will alienate its customers and ultimately fail. Likewise, an experience that serves only the customer and generates no value for the firm will ultimately fail.

(EN: The author uses the example of Napster, but that may be a bit weak, as it was ultimately legal issues that killed them. A better example might be Wikipedia, one of the most popular sites on the internet that has no revenue, and is constantly asking people to donate money to help them stay afloat. So far, they've managed to get donations, but it seems they come up short every two or three years and have to beg.)

Post-Launch Considerations

Web development projects place greatest emphasis on the launch - it's a significant event, and while it marks the end of a development effort, it is only the beginning of the site's operation.

Between launches and major design events, there's much to be done in the way of analyzing and reporting traffic patterns to tweak and fine-tune performance. There is a caution not to be too hasty: the data is available immediately, but it represents the first experience of users who are unfamiliar with the site, whereas the more important data for most sites to users who have "settled in" and are using the site regularly.

Server logs are an excellent source of a wide array of information, but additional marketing and usability research can provide qualitative feedback about the user experience that cannot be gleaned from log analysis.