Tailor Web Sites to Customers' Behavior

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As e-tailers prepare themselves for the holiday season, many are looking to sharpen site design and improve e-commerce tools to make shopping easier. Beyond the need for black ink, these moves are generally an effort to identify likely prospects and marry enhanced functionality to their needs.


The task is daunting and expensive, because there is a spectrum of potential site visitors who must be anticipated and served. Among the most likely shoppers are:


• Info seeker. This is the first-time visitor who might not be familiar with your site. This user is more likely to be shopping for information than products. It could be a student writing a report for school or a journalist poking around in the company history and press release sections.


• Evaluator/competitor. This person is checking you out either to rate your site or to compete with you. He will go through each page and each process with an eye for details and a stopwatch.


• Looker. If you caught this user walking around a physical store and asked if he needed help, chances are the reply would be, "No, thanks, I'm just looking." However, like most offline "lookers," the online looker could easily spot something that leads to an impulse purchase.


• First-time buyer. This user may have converted from a looker into a buyer, or he may have come to the site to make a specific purchase. Either way, the important thing to keep in mind is that this is a first-time experience. In order to get over initial uncertainties about shopping online, this person, who has no intuitive feel for the process, will require a lot of hand-holding.


• Surgical shopper. This is the Web-savvy, power shopper who wants to get in, order a specific item and get out. Speed is king for this shopper. "Just give me what I want or help me find what I want -- quickly."


• Gift giver. As the name implies, this user is looking for a gift. It might be the last-minute Christmas shopper or someone looking for a birthday present. This kind of user may have a gift in mind, in which case finding it quickly is imperative. But it's just as likely that he has only a vague idea or a dollar amount in mind, so that a fair amount of guidance will be required.


• Comparison shopper. This user wants to learn everything there is to know about a product in order to make an informed purchase decision. "Help me compare your product to similar products in the market." The comparison shopper is concerned about value -- not just price. Given all the facts, the comparison shopper is willing to pay a little more if the quality/price point is right.


• Bargain hunter. Unlike the comparison shopper, the bargain hunter is always after the lowest price. Off-price sales are the only draw.


• Catalog requester/printer. This user may not entirely trust the online shopping experience, and wants either the comfort and familiarity of a paper catalog or the ability to print product descriptions to take to the store. "Make it easy for me to order a catalog and make it clear that I can easily print out or e-mail the information or images I want."


• Insider. This user may not be interested in purchasing products now, but he wants to be the first to know when something new goes up at the site -- whether it's a sale event, new gear or new features. This user wants to be part of the inner circle and requires frequent touches from the brand in order to feel connected.


• Order tracker. This is the user who comes to the site, makes a purchase, then needs to know the status of the order. "Did you get my order? Where's my package? Will it arrive on time?"


• Customer service seeker. This is the user with lots of questions: "Do you have it in my size? How do I return something? Do you have it in stock? What if I'm not satisfied?"


• Job seeker. This is the person who comes to the site looking for a job. "What kind of jobs do you have there? Are you looking for someone like me?"


Understanding these behavior patterns mandates specific commerce imperatives, which, in turn, require specific site functionality. It's a domino effect. And while few sites can be all things to all people, most have to try to overcome the huge abandonment and disastrous customer service issues that plagued the 1999 holiday shopping season.


Customers have basic needs that can be expressed simply, yet the simpler the need, the more complex the synthesis of strategy and technology must be. Here are examples of what imperatives simple visitor needs impose on site designers, strategists and technologists.


• Help me find exactly what I'm looking for. Allow access to a search field box on every page. Provide a clear, intuitive site index. Create multiple access methods to products, services and information. Invest in a robust search engine. Use thumbnail images to aid in browsing products. Devise intuitive product categorization and use familiar naming conventions. Simplify complex product lines.


• Give me relevant information. New users must see the word "register" in the navigation; registered users will see "my account." Implement a content management system which allows for user-customizable product presentation. Language should be clear and in the customer's voice. Welcome returning customers to the site by name. List products by usage or category.


• Serve me, don't hard-sell me. Provide links or buttons to receive additional information. Bake marketing messages into editorial. Use advanced presentation technologies, like zoom, to demonstrate product usage. The tone should provide customers with options rather than in-your-face selling messages. Recommend products or services related to various activities or lifestyles.


• Talk to me in a language I understand. Language should be simple and action-oriented. Error messaging should be friendly and helpful. Copywriting should be customer-focused. Product names, categories or attributes should be instantly recognizable.


• Make it fast. The number of clicks required to shop (or perform any desired action) should be no more than two. Minimize downloads. Monitor the size of images. Maximize server response time and efficiency. Place important content "above the fold" wherever possible.


• Help me when I need help. Put context-sensitive help buttons on the global navigation and on key pages. Provide access to live representatives and e-mailable customer service representatives. Write frequently asked questions in a helpful, clear tone. Offer a depth of product information.


• Show me, don't tell me. Clearly present navigation to facilitate intuitive movement through the site. Use "breadcrumbs" to help visitors know where they are and where they've been. Use illustrations of technical features rather than lengthy text descriptions. Use comparison charts to allow customers to browse across features, sizes, etc.


• Make it easy. Use short, descriptive links and navigation elements. Use the same navigation on each page and throughout the site. Commerce flow should be fast, easy and similar in sequence to the real world. Do not use frames. Create HTML templates so pages feel familiar. Create clean, uncluttered layouts and graphics. Location of content zones should be consistent as visitors move through the site. Use color as a signal device. Branding elements must be consistent with the offline brand. Avoid jargon.


• Give me the choice. Use rollovers to give more information without clutter. Use thumbnail images to preview product lines. Offer larger images on individual product pages. Provide the option of viewing low-resolution or high-resolution images.

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