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Turn on tune in and… drop off

Getting people to visit your website is only half the battle; it’s just as hard to convert them to customers once they’re on it. Kate Hennessy asks the experts how site navigation plays a vital role.

Former United States President George W. Bush didn’t appreciate it when a journalist threw a shoe at his head in December 2008. But website usability experts believe shoes – especially old, well-trodden ones – can provide valuable business insights. In fact, if you’re a small business owner and the shoes belong to your customers, you should be begging to have them thrown at you!

Improving usability is about making it easier for people to do what you most want them to do on your website. This might be buying your product, calling your sales team, comparing your prices to the competition’s, or learning more about your operations.

If your website is slow to load, unresponsive, uninformative, irritating, or in any way obstructive to these aims, your potential customers will whack the back button, fast, and find another website that better meets their needs.

Yet many SMEs struggle with website usability. It appears that while they understand their customers’ needs on other fronts, this doesn’t necessarily translate to them understanding their customers’ needs in the online environment.

“Most businesses don’t have website usability experience or skills,” says Alan Jones, online product strategist at Pollenizer. “They design a website that works for them, instead of for their customers.”

To understand what works for your potential customers, the unanimous response from the website experts we consulted is that you need to step into their shoes.

I’m in business because… ?

Good usability design pairs up the core aims of your website with a suitable information architecture (how the information is arranged) and clear navigation (how you move from place to place), plus other sensible usability practices such as short pages (just one or two-page scrolls in length).

But first, you need to know what your core aims are. Steve Baty, principal at Meld Consulting, recommends you answer the following three questions: What do I need my website do to? What can it reasonably support? And what will visitors to the site expect to achieve?

“The nice stuff about this groundwork is it’s probably the same stuff you went into business with,” he says.

“You had an idea about a product or a service targeted to a particular market so it’s not a big stretch to apply that to your website. [If you take the time to] think about what you’re trying to do instead of where you’re trying to do it, a lot of the other stuff falls into place.”

Write a sentence, suggests Baty, which clearly states why you have a website.

“If you can’t articulate this then everything you do from that point runs the risk of being misdirected,” he says. “You need to think harder. Is it to sell products? Raise awareness? Provide customer service? Or a combination?”

Once you’ve established your core aims, you need to know who is coming to your website and, more importantly, why they are coming to your website.

“People are trying to find you for specific reasons, particularly if you’re a small business,” says Baty. “If it’s product research, for example, you need to provide them with accurate information and present it in an organized way.”

Most web metric tools will reveal the popular keywords that people use to get to your site and the landing pages they arrive on. But the journey doesn’t end there.

“No one will get a sense of achievement from having merely found your website,” says Baty. “You can still go back from that point. You need to deliver, then send them on their way.”

In fact, getting customers to the site is only half the job.

“It’s easy to get excited when you see early evidence that your online marketing is working,” says Jones. “But ultimately it’s not about page views or visitor rates, it’s about converting visitors to customers.”

“…ultimately it’s not about page views or visitor rates, it’s about converting visitors to customers”

All paths lead to home

Shane Morris, Microsoft Australia’s user experience evangelist, points out that visitors usually locate your website through a keyword search and often ‘land’ two or three layers deep, leap-frogging the home page. This has important repercussions for usability.

“Every page needs to be viewed as a possible landing page,” he says. “As such, two things need to be covered on each page: Who is this company? What do they do? You also need to let them know where they are inside the website and where they can go next.”

Your popular landing pages should reflect the keywords that got people there.

“If I search for ‘Annandale florist’ the two things that should immediately jump out on that landing page are ‘flowers’ and ‘Annandale’,” says Baty. “If they don’t jump out, you have a usability problem. When I land, does the site give me context very quickly? Does it give me the confidence it’s worth sticking around on and buying from?”

But I already have a website!

Starting from scratch is not always an option for businesses that already have a website. So how do you know if your current site is failing and bad usability is to blame? Your website analytics can help identify ‘red flag’ problems, according to James Breeze, chief experience officer at Objective Digital.

“If people are starting a process – like signing up to a mailing list or buying something – and they’re dropping off during the process, you probably need to make some usability improvements,” he says.

You can gather a lot of information from family, friends, and current customers, he says.

“Give them the top three things you’d like your customers to do and assess how smoothly they
can do it.

“There are plenty of changes you can make without dramatic changes to the actual code. Fonts, copy, and colors can go a long way, as can removing old or extraneous content.”

Use a product like Google Analytics to define one or more conversion goals, recommends Jones, and see how your website scrubs up.

“This may or may not be an online transaction. It could be filling in an online request for information, sending an email, or following you on Twitter.”

Whether you’re building a new website, or re-jigging your current website, you can take on a large part of the groundwork in-house. Where a large company might trial a beta version of their website within a lab, complete with one-way mirrors and expensive eye-tracking equipment, small businesses can get many benefits of website usability testing without having to spend big bucks.

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