Butterflies aren't free

It's easy to see what's wrong with the infamous 'butterfly' ballot in Florida. Your web store has 'butterflies' of its own to make the web buying a easier. But too often, the mechanics of those web butterflies just get in the way of customers' ability to buy.

          The US presidential election should have been history. Instead, candidates and political operatives and judges have battled over problems created by a lousy user interface.

          It’s easy, in hindsight, to see what’s wrong with that now infamous "butterfly" ballot from Florida. In order to make the type larger and easier to read — a laudable goal — the ballot designer juggled the layout, which made it less obvious which hole should be punched for each voter’s candidate of choice.

          Result: The butterflies apparently confused 19,000 voters enough that their ballots were thrown out.

          Were those voters stupid? Were they addled? Did they just not get it? That’s not the point. They were voters. No matter how much better it was supposed to be, the mechanics of the butterfly ballot shouldn’t have gotten in the way of their ability to vote.

          Your web store has butterflies of its own. You just don’t call them butterflies. You call them animations, or image maps, or Boolean search engines, or site-navigation tools. They’re supposed to make the web buying experience more entertaining, more fun, a better "user experience."

          But way too often, the mechanics of those web butterflies just get in the way of customers’ ability to buy.

          We’re not trying to make it hard for customers to give us their money. But somehow, we do. Navigating many web stores is still miserable. Finding basic information on products — prices, sizes, what they’re made of, what they work with — is often impossible.

          And finding the products themselves can be a nightmare when the only choices for site navigation are retrofitted search engines and random clicking. Am I supposed to click on that dancing product montage, or is it just a show? In which of those categories at the side of the screen is my product? If the search engine doesn’t turn it up, does that mean this web store doesn’t have it?

          Sure, those butterflies can make a web store more visually appealing, more entertaining, better structured. And that’s a good thing — but not if it makes the site hard to use or drives customers away.

          If butterflies are getting in their way, those dancing animations and complicated site designs could cost you dearly.

          How do you know if they’re helping or hurting? There’s no design principle, no logical syllogism, no simple rule that guarantees a site will be easy to use. There’s only one way to know: You’ve got to test it. On real users. And keep testing it, monitoring how many of your potential customers walk away in apparent confusion and identifing what’s pushing them out the door.

          OK, there is one principle: You want your customers’ money. Anything that helps them give it to you is good. Whatever gets in the way is bad.

          Convinced? That’s just the first step. Next is convincing the people outside IT who are involved in your web store. The consultants, the marketing people, the graphics designers — all the people who are most likely to add butterflies to your web store.

          You’ve got to get them onboard with the idea of user testing — early and ongoing. And you’ve got to get them focused on a single idea: Nothing is more important than helping customers give you their money.

          Not beauty. Not legibility. Not entertainment value. Not logic. Not whiz-bang flashiness.

          Just the ability to do business.

          Everything else is secondary. Because if customers can’t figure out how to buy what they want from your site, they’ll dump you and get it from your competitor.

          And you won’t get a recount.

          Hayes, Computerworld US' senior news columnist, has covered IT for more than 20 years. Contact him at frank_hayes@computerworld.com.

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