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In my nearly two decades as an information architect, I’ve seen my clients flush away millions upon millions of dollars on worthless, pointless, “fix it once and for all” website redesigns. All types of organizations are guilty: large government agencies, Fortune 500s, not-for-profits and (especially) institutions of higher education.

Worst of all, these offending organizations are prone to repeating the redesign process every few years like spendthrift amnesiacs. Remember what Einstein said about insanity? (It’s this, if you don’t know.) It’s as if they enjoy the sensation of failing spectacularly, publicly and expensively. Sadly, redesigns rarely solve actual problems faced by end users.

I’m frustrated because it really doesn’t have to be this way. Let’s look at why redesigns happen, and some straightforward and inexpensive ways we might avoid them.

The Diagnostic Void

Your users complain about your website’s confounding navigation, stale content, poor usability and other user experience failures. You bring up their gripes with the website’s owners. They listen and decide to take action. Their hearts are in the right place. But the wheels quickly come off.

Most website owners don’t know how to diagnose the problems of a large complex website. It’s just not something they were ever taught to do. So, they’re put in the unfortunate, uncomfortable position of operating like country doctors who’ve suddenly been tasked to save their patients from a virulent new pandemic. It is their responsibility, but they’re simply unprepared.

Sadly, many website owners fill this diagnostic void — or, more typically, allow it to be filled — with whatever solution sounds best. Naturally, many less-than-ethical vendors are glad to dress up their offerings as solutions to anyone with a problem — and a budget. The tools themselves (search engines, CMS’, social apps) are wonderful, but they’re still just tools — very expensive ones, at that — and not solutions to the very specific problems that an organization faces. Without proper diagnostics to guide the configuration of tools, any resulting improvements to the user experience will be almost accidental.

Sometimes design agencies are brought in to fill the diagnostic void. And while not all agencies are evil, a great many follow a business model that depends on getting their teams to bill as many hours as they can and as soon as possible. Diagnostics can slow the work down (which is why clients rarely include a diagnostic phase in their RFPs). So, many agencies move to make a quick, tangible impression (and make their clients happy) by delivering redesigns that are mostly cosmetic.

A pretty face can last only a few years, but by then the agency is long gone. Invariably, the new owner wishes to make their mark by freshening or updating the website’s look. And another agency will be more than happy to oblige. Repeat ad nauseam, and then some.

Oh, and sometimes these redesigns can be pricey. Like $18 million pricey.

See why I’m so grouchy?

Forget the Long Tail: The Short Head Is Where It’s At

Whether you’re a designer, researcher or website owner, I’ve got some good news for you: diagnostics aren’t necessarily difficult or expensive. Better yet, you’ll often find that addressing the problems you’ve diagnosed isn’t that hard.

And the best news? Small simple fixes can accomplish far more than expensive redesigns. The reason? People just care about some stuff more than they care about other stuff. A lot more. Check this out and you’ll see:

This hockey-stick-shaped curve is called a Zipf curve. (It comes from linguistics: Zipf was a linguist who liked to count words… but don’t worry about that.) Here it is in dragon form, displaying the frequency of search queries on a website. The most frequently searched queries (starting on the left) are very, very frequent. They make up the “short head.” As you move to the right (to the esoteric one-off queries in the “long tail”), query frequency drops off. A lot. And it’s a really long tail.

This is absolutely the most important thing in the universe. So, to make sure it’s absolutely clear, let’s make the same point using text:

Query’s rank
Cumulative %
Query’s frequency
Query

1
1.40%
7,218
campus map

14
10.53%
2,464
housing

42
20.18%
1,351
web enroll

98
30.01%
650
computer center

221
40.05%
295
msu union

500
50.02%
124
hotels

7,877
80.00%
7
department of surgery

In this case, tens of thousands of unique queries are being searched for on this university website, but the first one accounts for 1.4% of all search traffic. That’s massive, considering that it’s just one query out of tens of thousands. How many short-head queries would it take to get to 10% of all search traffic? Only 14 — out of tens of thousands. The 42 most frequent queries cover over 20% of the website’s entire search traffic. About a hundred gets us to 30%. And so on.

It’s Zipf’s World; We Just Live in It

This is very good news.

Want to improve your website’s search performance? Don’t rip out the search engine and buy a new one! Start by testing and improving the performance of the 100 most frequent queries. Or, if you don’t have the time, just the top 50. Or 10. Or 1 — test out “campus map” by actually searching for it. Does something useful and relevant come up? No? Why not? Is the content missing or mistitled or mistagged or jargony or broken? Is there some other problem? That, folks, is diagnostics. And when you do that with your website’s short head, your diagnostic efforts will go a very long way.

The news gets better: Zipf is a rule. The search queries for all websites follow a Zipf distribution.

And the news gets even jump-up-and-down-and-scream-your-head-off better: Zipf is true not only for your website’s search queries. Your content works the same way! A small subset of your website’s content does the heavy lifting. Much of the rest has little or no practical value at all. (In fact, I’ve heard a rumor that 90% of Microsoft.com’s content has never, ever been accessed. Not once. But it’s a just a rumor. And you didn’t hear it here.) Bottom line: don’t redesign all of your content — focus on the stuff that people actually need.

You’ll also see a short head when it comes to your website’s features. People need just a few of them; the rest are gravy.

And there’s more. Of all the audience types that your website serves, one or two matter far more than the others. What tasks do those audience types wish to accomplish on your website? A few are short-head tasks; the rest just aren’t that important.

As you can see, the Zipf curve is everywhere. And fortunately, the phenomenon is helpful: you can use it to prioritize your efforts to tweak and tune your website’s content, functionality, searchability, navigation and overall performance.

Your Website Is Not A Democracy

When you examine the short head — of your documents, your users’ tasks, their search behavior and so forth — you’ll know where to find the most important problems to solve. In effect, you can stop boiling the ocean…

Ocean

… and start prioritizing your efforts to diagnose and truly solve your website’s problems.

Now, let’s put these short-head ideas together. Below is a report card for an academic website that starts with the short head of its audience:

In other words, of all the audience types this university website has, the three most important are people who might pay money to the university (applicants,) people who are paying money now (students) and people who will hopefully pay money for the rest of their lives (alumni). How do we know they’re the most important audiences? We could go by user research; for example, the analytics might suggest that these audiences generate more traffic than anyone else. Or perhaps the university’s stakeholders believe that these are the most important ones in their influence and revenue. Or some combination of both. Whatever the case, these three audiences likely swamp all other segments in importance.

Then, we would want to know the short-head tasks and information needs of each audience type. We might interview stakeholders to see what they think (column 2). And we might perform research — user interviews and search analytics, for example — to find out what users say is most important to them (column 3).

Of course, as the good folks at xkcd demonstrate, stakeholders and users don’t always see things the same way:

That’s why talking to both stakeholders and users is important. And once you’ve figured out the short head for each, you’ll need to earn your salary and, through some careful negotiation, combine your takes on each audience type’s needs. That’s what we’ve done in column 4.

Finally, in column 5, we’ve tested each task or need and evaluated how well it works. (Because it’s a university-related example, letter grades seemed appropriate.) You can do this evaluation in an expensive, statistically significant way; but really, enough research is out there to suggest that you don’t need to spend a lot of time and money on such testing. More importantly, these needs and tasks are often fairly narrow and, therefore, easy to test.

So, after testing, we can see what’s not going well. Finding information on “mentoring” is hard for applicants. And current students have a devil of a time when they “look up grades.”

Now we’re done diagnosing the problems and can begin making fixes. We can change the title of the “Paired Guidance Program” page to “Mentoring.” We can create a better landing page for the transcript application. The hard part, diagnostics, is out of the way, and we can now fix and tune our website’s performance as much as our resources allow.

From Project To Process To Payoff

These fixes are typically and wonderfully small and concrete, but because they live in the short head, they make a huge and lovely impact on the user experience — at a fraction of the cost of a typical redesign.

The tuning process itself is quite simple. It’s what we used to arrive at the report card below:

If you repeat this simple process on a regular basis — say, every month or quarter — then you can head off the entropy that causes fresh designs and fresher content to go rotten. Thus, the redesign that your organization has scheduled for two years from now can officially be canceled.

Your website’s owners ought to be happy about all this. And you should be, too: rather than tackling the project of getting your website “right” — which is impossible — you can now focus on tweaking and tuning it from here on out. So, forget redesigns, and start owning and benefiting from a process of continual improvement.

Special Thanks – Illustrations

Eva-Lotta is a UX Designer and Illustrator based in London, UK where she currently works as an interaction designer at Google. Besides her daytime mission of making the web a more understandable, usable and delightful place, she regularly takes sketchnotes at all sorts of talks and conferences and recently self-published her second book. Eva-Lotta also teaches sketching workshops and is interested in (something she calls) visual improvisation. Exploring the parallels between sketching and improvisation, she experiments with the principles from her theater improvisation practice to inspire visual work.

(al)

© Louis Rosenfeld for Smashing Magazine, 2012.

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Product pages for e-commerce websites are often rife with ambitions: recreate the brick-and-mortar shopping experience, provide users with every last drop of product information, build a brand persona, establish a seamless check-out process.

As the “strong link in any conversion,” product pages have so much potential. We can create user-centric descriptions and layouts that are downright appropriate in their effectiveness: as Erin Kissane says, “offering [users] precisely what they need, exactly when they need it, and in just the right form.”

Beyond that, a user-centered creation process for product pages can help brand the information as well as reduce the content clutter that so often bogs down retail websites.

User-centric product copy garners positive results because it anticipates the user’s immediate reaction. As Dr. Timo Saari and Dr. Marko Turpeinen, authors of “Towards Psychological Customization of Information for Individuals and Social Groups” suggest, individual differences in processing information implicates dramatic variances in type and/or intensity of psychological effects, such as positive emotion, persuasion, and depth of learning (2).

We can describe products in various ways. Highlighting certain aspects of a product will elicit different reactions from various users. Gearing product descriptions to a particular audience encourages those users to effectively process the information, heightens persuasion, and increases the potential to predict what the users want (but didn’t know they needed). The effort required of user-centric product descriptions demands that we understand how certain descriptors, contexts and inclusions of details affect the target user, and that we then put our discoveries into action.

This article offers a user-centric guide to producing product pages and provides examples of successful e-commerce websites that present user-centric approaches to product page descriptions and layouts.

Get To Know Your User

Approaching product page description and layout from a user-centric perspective demands that we have a rich understanding of the target user. As Saari and Turpeinen suggest, Web customization starts with some type of model, be it individual, group or community. With your user models in place, you can best assess what they need and how to write for them.

In her book Letting Go of the Words, Web usability expert Janice Redish suggests these strategies for getting to know your target user:

  • Scope the email responses that come through the website’s “Contact Us” form and other feedback links. Consider the profiles of the senders. You can discover commonalities in lifestyle, technological capability, education level and communication preference through these channels.
  • Talk to the customer service or marketing employees at your company. Don’t approach them with a broad demand to describe the typical client. Rather, ask questions about their interactions with clients. Who is calling in? Who is stopping by the office? What queries and complaints are common?
  • Offer short questionnaires to visitors to the website. Redish suggests asking people “a few questions about themselves, why they came to the site, and whether they were successful in finding what they came for.”
  • If possible, acquire a sense of the client simply by observing the people who walk through the front doors of the business. This is a great way to pick up on key phrases, jargon, emotional behavior and demographics.

Once you’re able to confidently brainstorm the major characteristics of your target user or group, then developing the models to guide the writing process comes next.

Keep in mind that gathering and compiling this information can take as little or as big an investment of time and money as you (or the client) can afford and still be effective. As Leonard Souza recently noted, even stopping in a nearby coffee shop to engage five to ten people in your target demographic can yield useful insight. With a bit of flexibility, you can find learning opportunities that are convenient and on the cheap.

The models created from your user research can be fashioned into personas, which Souza describes as “tools for creating empathy among everyone in the project.” Use personas to guide user-centric copywriting by establishing very specific user goals and preferences.

A persona is a fictional person amalgamated from the characteristics of your target user. You can get creative here with the persona’s name and image, but not too creative. The persona must be mindfully constructed according to the age, education, family status and other personal details culled from your research.

Now that you have a persona to please as you construct a product description and layout hierarchy, staying user-centric is that much easier. Take a look at the product description from Lululemon, a British Columbia-based yoga-wear retailer:

Product page for lululemon.com
Product description from Shop.lululemon.com

The product description assumes that the reader knows a specific set of jargon: How many non-yoga participants would know what downward-dog means? Or “pipes”, as the “Key Features” section refers to arms? This content drives right to the needs and preferences of a very specific user. She wants warmth (four of the “Key Features” note the thermal quality of the product), convenience (pre-shrunk fabric, easy layering), and motivation for an active lifestyle (she recognizes the yoga jargon and enjoys giving her “pipes some air time”).

A rich understanding of the user has made this product page effective and delightfully specific to both the user and the brand.

Master S.M.A.R.T. Content and Layout

Without specific, measurable, actionable, relevant and trackable user goals driving the copy on the product page, the information will sag. I draw here from Dickson Fong’s enlightening article “The S.M.A.R.T. User Experience Strategy“ to suggest that care should be taken to develop user goals that guide the writing process for product pages.

The S.M.A.R.T. formula will keep you on track as you plot out product details and decide what descriptive angle to use.

Fong provides an excellent user goal for a product page: “I want to learn more about this product’s design, features and specifications to determine whether it fits my budget, needs and preferences.”

This will help you create a checklist when assessing what to present first and what to offer as optional information when structuring the layout of the page (more about that in the “Create Information Hierarchies” section below). It provides direction when you’re writing content and helps you focus on the benefits to the user. And as Darlene Maciuba-Koppel suggests in The Web Writer’s Guide, “In copywriting, your end goal is to sell benefits, not products, in your copy.”

For users, benefits and accomplished goals go hand in hand. A product that doesn’t fit their budget, needs or preferences offers them little benefit. So, in order for S.M.A.R.T. goal-driven product pages to serve user-centric purposes, the text must follow suit. Fong suggests presenting relevant content details that are specific to the consumer of that product type.

Let’s take Fong’s S.M.A.R.T. user goal for product pages and assess the specifications at play on the following two pages from Dell:

Product page for Dell.com
Product page for Alienware on Dell.com

Featured on Alienware, Dell’s computer subsidiary for high-performance gaming, the description for this desktop computer has been tailored to the primary browsing goal of a very specific user. The needs and preferences of the user have already been predicted in the bullet-point outline, highlighting optimum graphics and top-notch liquid-cooling capabilities, thus harmonizing the checklist of features with a checklist of benefits for the user. A number of the product’s features could have been highlighted, but for optimal ease, the specifics most likely to help the user accomplish their goals are featured.

With the next Dell desktop computer, another goal of the target user is covered in the description:

Product page for Dell.com
Product page description for Inspiron 570 on Dell.com

With a noticeable absence of technical details and a heavy emphasis on product personalization, this description plays to a user with very different needs than the Alienware shopper’s. Even the tabs have been re-arranged to best meet the user’s goals. The Inspiron 570 page shows “Customer ratings” as the first tab, while the Alienware page offers “Design” first and then “Tech specs.”

These decisions are all geared to accomplishing very specific user goals: find the required information and assess the benefits.

Use Personal Pronouns

Consider again Dell’s description of its Inspiron 570:

Make It Yours

The Inspiron 570 desktop is everything you want and nothing you don’t. Available in vibrant colors, so you can complement your style or stand out from the crowd. Plus, you can build your desktop according to your needs with a choice of multiple AMD processors and NVIDIA ATI graphics cards as well as other customizable features. So whether you are surfing the Web, emailing friends and family, downloading music and photos or blogging about it all, the Inspiron 570 desktop can handle it.

Your wants, your style, your needs, your friends and your Internet past-times. Including the title, eight instances of “you” or “your” turn up in this 86-word segment!

Personal pronouns in product descriptions are perfectly appropriate and quite effective at engaging users, because, as Redish states, “People are much more likely to take in [messages] if you write with ‘you’ because they can see themselves in the text.”

With Dell’s content, the personal pronouns target a specific user (one who is savvy enough to download music and email and who is interested in customization and feeling unique), while also managing a broad gender appeal.

Outdoor equipment retailer REI employs personal pronouns in its online product descriptions, creating dynamic scenarios aimed at a specific user:

Saranac product description
Product description for REI.com

The description asserts that this canoe will help you navigate a waterway that “you’ve recently noticed,” anticipating a specific user reality (or dream).

The product showcase is devoted to the user’s needs and showing how the user will benefit from purchasing the canoe. Using “you” is the clearest and most direct way for this retailer to grab the user’s attention and to convince them, at any time of the year, that this canoe is the right buy.

Angie King backs this up in her article “Personal Pronouns: It’s Okay to Own Your Web Copy.” She suggests that using first- and second-person pronouns helps users connect with the content, and “reflect[s] the way real people write and speak,” fostering an immediate connection.

For a product description to speak directly to a specific user or group, the “you’s” should flow freely.

Use Information Hierarchies

Adopting a user-centric approach to the layout and copy of product pages helps you tackle the challenge articulated by Kean Richmond: “How do you cram so much information into a single Web page?”

In addition to technical specifications, shipping information, item details and preference options (and don’t forget that compelling product description), product pages must also list every describable service that the product performs for its user, including customer benefits (as Darlene Maciuba-Koppel explains, too).

By all means, provide the user with every last detail possible. Answer every conceivable question, or make the answer visible for discovery. Do so with information hierarchies that are based on a rich understanding of targeted users. This will keep each page tidy and drive users to complete your business goals.

In a structure in which, as Kean Richmond states, “all the important information is at the top and [the rest] flows naturally down the page,” details that might not be a top priority for the target user can be tucked into optional tabs or presented at the bottom of the page. The key is to gauge the structure of the page with the sensibilities of the targeted user in mind.

Look At User Context

Here’s where you become a mind-reader of sorts. Erin Kissane points to the approach of content strategist Daniel Eizan in understanding what specific users need to see on the page in order to be drawn into the information. Eizan looks at the user’s context to gauge their Web-browsing behaviors. Eizan asks, What are they doing? How are they feeling? What are they capable of?

Establishing user context aids in planning an information hierarchy, and it is demonstrated by small and large e-retailers. On the big-box side, we have Walmart:

Product page for Walmart.com

By making the price and product name (including the unit number per order) immediately visible, Walmart has anticipated a possible user context. A Walmart visitor searching for granola bars has perhaps purchased the product before. With the unit price made visible, perhaps the anticipated user is judging the product based on whether this box size will suffice.

Details such as “Item description” and “Specifications” are options that are convenient to the user who is making a large order of a familiar product.

The user’s context shapes the hierarchy: the user seeks a quick calculation of units per product versus price. The targeted user does not immediately need an ingredients list, allergy information or a description of the flavor. But if they do, they are available in a neat options-based format.

Walmart has built its reputation on “Everyday low prices,” and the brick-and-mortar philosophy has crossed over to its website. Walmart anticipates users who have some familiarity with its products and who have expectations of certain price points. These factors play into the information hierarchy across the website.

Now look at the product page of a different kind of retailer, nutrition bar manufacturer Larabar:

Product page for Larabar.com
Cashew Cookie product page from Larabar.com

Here is an online presentation of a retail product that is similar to Walmart’s Nature Valley granola bar (though some might argue otherwise).¬†However, the information hierarchy clearly speaks to a different user — a specific user, one who might be looking for gluten-free snack foods or a vegan protein solution. The Larabar user’s context is much less urgent than the Walmart user’s. The product page does not reveal pricing or unit number. Ingredients are visible here, with simple images that (when scrolled over) provide additional nutritional information.

The anticipated user has more time to peruse, to browse several varieties of product, and to read the delightful descriptions that help them imagine the tastes and textures of the bars.

This user might be very much like the targeted Walmart user but is likely visiting the Larabar website in a different context. This product page offers more immediate information on nutrition and taste, selling to a user who is perhaps hunting for a solution to a dietary restriction or for a healthy snack alternative.

However, the red-boxed “Buy Now” is positioned in a memorable, convenient spot on the page, leaving no guessing for the user, who, after reading a description of this healthy bar full of “rich and creamy flavor,” will likely click it to find out the purchasing options.

With these two pages for (arguably) similar products, we see two completely different ways to structure product details.

Both are effective — for their targeted users. A person seeking gluten-free snacks for a camping trip might be frustrated having to search through the hundreds of granola bar options on Walmart’s website. But they wouldn’t be going there in the first place; they would use a search engine and would find Larabar.

Information hierarchy solves the content-overload challenge that can overshadow the process of constructing a product page, and it is an opportunity to bolster user-centric copy and layout. As mentioned, the key is to gauge the user’s context.

Conclusion

While a user-centric consideration of product pages is not the only way to go, it does provide a focused approach that has appeared to be effective for some pretty successful e-commerce players. Consistency in product pages is key, especially when building a brand’s presence; a reliable guide can ease the writing process. The user-centric method does require some primary research, but this lays a sturdy foundation by which to gauge every bit of content on the page according to how it benefits the user.

As Maciuba-Koppel says, as a content writer or designer, your goal should not be to sell products, but to sell benefits.

Now watch the conversions multiply.

(al) (fi)

References

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