Ten steps to a website design that works

Follow these tips and the world will beat a path to your URL

The internet has brought a lot of business to My1Stop, a Kansas printing company. About half of its US$20 million (NZ$26 million) in annual revenue comes from web traffic, says Michael Joseph, vice president of e-commerce.

Given these figures, My1Stop can’t afford anything less than a top-notch site. And although it won a 2006 Web Marketing Association award for outstanding achievement in website development, its workers know that’s not what drives business.

“The company that takes the best care of the customer is going to win, and e-commerce is not an exception to this rule,” says senior programmer Mike Wulz. But what does it take to deliver that kind of customer service in cyberspace? Here are 10 steps garnered from those who run and evaluate top corporate websites:

1. Build it for users

Development needs to support what users want, not necessarily what the company wants to promote, says Kerry Bodine, an analyst at Massachusetts-based Forrester Research. “You design with your users in mind at every key decision point,” she says.

It sounds simple, but it often requires a shift in thinking. “Developers are very focused on building the technology and not necessarily looking at whether it makes sense to the user,” says Helen Galasso, vice president of interactive marketing at New Jersey-based Coldwell Banker Real Estate. “I had a developer say, ‘If [the users] can’t figure out how to use it, then they shouldn’t use it.’ That’s what you have to combat.”

2. Listen to users

Forrester has reviewed more than 200 websites and found that a mere 2% pass its usability tests. Companies could do better if they recruited actual users to test their sites, Bodine says. “You want to see where they stumble, what they’re confused by,” she adds, noting that the companies with the highest-ranked sites run usability tests frequently.

3. Make information easy to find

Users want a website they can easily navigate, says Jeff Sluder, digital brand manager for PG.com, the website for Procter & Gamble, based in Cincinnati. “Site visitors are frustrated when they land on a page, realise it is not what they thought it would be and have to use the Back button and try again. Usually, they will simply leave and go on to the next site on their search engine’s list,” he says.

The web team at Merrill Lynch agrees. It designed its site to remember the page each customer uses when visiting ML.com. “They’re often trying to log on to one of the smaller sites, such as ML Direct,” says Joseph Infozino, director of Merrill Lynch corporate technology. “So the first time, they go to ML.com, but the next time, we remember to bring them right there to save them a click.”

4. Accommodate all users

The average age of people filling prescriptions on Medco.com is 54, and 20% of those individuals are over the age of 65, says Tom Feitel, chief web officer at Medco Health Solutions, a pharmacy benefits management company in New Jersey.

To empower people with vision problems or other disabilities, Medco designed an accessible website. For example, it eliminated drop-down menus, which can be challenging for those whose hands shake. It expanded the size of certain images and changed the colour palette and font sizes to make the site easier to navigate and read.

Web administrators should also make sure their sites can be used on computers of varying capabilities and with a range of connection speeds, says Terry Golesworthy, president of The Customer Respect Group, a Massachusetts-based firm that focuses on how corporations treat their online customers.

5. Be responsive

Coldwell Banker developed a program called Lead Router to ensure that its real estate agents don’t miss any potential leads generated online, says Charlie Young, senior vice president of marketing. The tool converts online inquiries into text messages that are sent to agents’ cellphones within ten seconds. “Not only are we able to answer virtually all of our leads,” Young says, “but most of them get answered in eight hours or less.”

The companies with the best websites don’t restrict contact with their online users to the internet, Golesworthy says. They post their brick-and-mortar contact information as well as email addresses. They have formal systems for handling incoming messages, thus guaranteeing customers a response, and the top sites also have instant online chat features.

6. Show up the Joneses

Too many web managers base success on internal measurements, such as how many hits they get on their sites. Instead, measure your site against those in your peer group and top sites from companies in other sectors. “Your customers’ responses to your website are based on where they’ve been,” Golesworthy says.

7. Build trust

Most consumers no longer fear doing business online, but they still need to be convinced about security. “That’s a biggie, particularly in the consumer sites,” Golesworthy says. “People have read about identify theft, privacy issues and spam.” The best sites clearly explain their security, privacy and marketing policies right upfront.

8. Assign ownership, but work as a team

“You have to think of the website as being the primary way people find out about your company. And if that’s how you think about it, why should it be handled by the tech people?” Golesworthy says.

Two years ago, Esteban Borrero, vice president of solutions delivery at McKesson, a health care services and IT company in San Francisco, passed responsibility for the website over to corporate communications. “For me, it was clear that communications does a much better job at that,” he says.

9. Set priorities

One of the biggest challenges facing website administrators today is the volume of requests they receive for site changes. “You can get requests from anybody and everybody,” Galasso says.

So don’t blindly gear up for every change request. Instead, ask: what is the purpose of this? Is this what consumers want? How does it rank with my other requests? Better still, develop a process.

10. Watch for the next big thing

A great website is never static. But identifying the next big thing — and determining whether it’s the right tool for your users — requires an investment. Coldwell Banker is developing a plan to pair several staffers with the company’s development partners to generate ideas for future implementation. Time-to-market for online tools now ranges from three to 18 months, Young says, and he hopes to cut that by 25% to 50%.

“There are always ways to improve the website,” Galasso says. “We have to make sure we’re always where the consumer is — or ahead of them.”

Five common design flaws

Those who build and review top-of-the-line websites note five common design flaws. Here are the five big don’ts of website design:

Don’t ignore search. About half of users rely on the search function to get around a site and to locate the information they want. If your online search function isn’t sophisticated, you’ll frustrate and lose users.

Don’t bury information. People don’t want to navigate, even if navigation is easy; they want to find the information they seek.

Don’t provide too much. Irrelevant information and marketing material turn customers off. Give them what they want and clear out the rest. Keep the site up to date.

Don’t forget low-bandwidth users. Your site shouldn’t be too hard for use by the 25% of computer users who still have dial-up internet access.

Don’t just use text. Incorporate video and other graphic elements to deliver your message.

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