by Tom Snyder on Nov 30, -0001


Late last year IBM spared no expense to position itself as an Internet leader. National television ads and other marketing campaigns helped e-commerce grab the public eye.

However, there was a small fly in the ointment — by their own admission, IBM’s own Web site was a mess.

The most popular feature was a search function.

Why?

“People couldn’t figure out how to navigate the site,” admitted Carol Moore, IBM’s vice president for Internet operations. Second most popular feature? The “help” button…because the search technology was so ineffective.

The Solution? At a cost estimated “in the millions” and a process taking over 10-weeks, the computer giant’s Internet staff of more than 100 employees redesigned the site.

Before they began to promote the new site, they let the current visitors gauge the effectiveness of the new design. The result: In the first week after the redesign, use of the “help” button decreased 84 percent, while sales increased 400 percent.

For years, Internet users have complained about how hard it is to use most Web sites. They’re frustrated by things like convoluted navigational schemes, ineffective search engines, and long waits for pages to download. If your site is still just a small brochureware Web site, those problems may not mean any more to you than your Web site does (which apparently is not very much). But with most large companies finally taking their sites seriously and well-funded competition proliferating on the Web, those shortcomings are increasingly recognized as real threats to your bottom line, and maybe even the future of your company.

As more sites seek profitability by expanding their product offerings — and customers struggle to click their way through complex product listings and non-intuitive links — Web site design is looming as an ever-more crucial facet of your business.

The customer’s experience on the Web can make or break a business. There was $3 billion lost on the Web last year because of poor design — sites not realizing that if they just make it easier for the consumer to buy, they’ll make more sales.

IBM’s redesign focused not just on the e-commerce section of the site, but on each of the more than one million pages on that site. The project involved several components, including information architecture — or the arrangement of information within a site — navigation, graphic design and the selection of words and photographs for each page.

IBM took their task seriously. The first order of business was to create some cohesion at the site. It had been designed by committee – each section had been designed by a separate team. The fragmentation was apparent: Information was arranged differently from section to section, search results were inconsistent and pages loaded at different speeds. “It may sound obvious,” Ms. Moore said, “but things have to work the same everywhere on the site for people to feel comfortable.”

Web developers wrestle constantly with fighting factions in the companies whose sites they design. Different departments and individuals often struggle for control over Web site projects, insisting on their design and navigation ideas, and in most cases, all of them are incorrect, inappropriate or both. Companies that don’t have a company with Internet, e-commerce, commercial design and programming experience (or dismiss the experience of a Web developer that does) almost always do it wrong.

IBM assembled a team made up of people from several departments, including programming, information technology and marketing. The team then developed a sound plan to get everyone on the same page and see where they needed to improve. They then changed the site’s navigation and improved its search technology. The results were less time spent at the site, but increased sales and customer satisfaction.

As in the case of IBM, the customer experience is better and faster on more focused sites. The bad, unintuitive or clumsy ones either come back to a better focus or they die out.

If another site has a similar product to yours, but is easier to navigate, loads faster or looks more professional than yours, why wouldn’t people do business with that site?

Last year, when Travelocity, a travel Web site, realized they needed to update their site, they used focus groups, with the marketing and programming people behind a one-way mirror. It was hard for the ones responsible for the original site to hear people call their baby “ugly.” But they needed to get outside of their own bias and self-focus, and do what their customer wanted.

The focus groups told them things they didn’t realize, because most of the respondents said they would never email a site owner and complain. They’d simply just go find a site that made it easier, and/or faster.

The legacy of first-generation non-e-commerce sites is partly to blame for the current state of e-commerce site design. A lot of sites started simply as informational sites, but then grafted e-commerce onto themselves, and have ended up with split personalities. Many sites haven’t been updated in years.

Companies are reluctant to part with Web pages they spent thousands (or millions) of dollars to develop, even if the pages do not add to the site’s functionality. You can use that as a great excuse to leave it the way it is, but the user doesn’t care about your history or your cost. They just want a site that works.

Some lessons to be learned?

1.) If your site has evolved over the past few years, it’s time to take a step back and make sure that it navigates the way it would if you were building from scratch today. Only a seasoned Web developer can look at your site and know for sure.

2.) Your Web site is not the right arena for a “turf war.” If you have dueling departments fighting for control by each having their own internally designed areas on the site, it will look disjointed and will fall short of your goals. Pick a leader, and work together. If you can’t agree on that leader, have your Web consultant evaluate your organization and everyone’s strengths and weaknesses, and all agree to honor their recommendation for the one to be in charge.

3.) If your budget allows it, do a consumer focus group on your Web site (either actual, proposed or both). If you can’t afford to do a focus group, then rely on the expertise of an experienced Web design consulting firm. This isn’t about your likes, dislikes or personal taste, it’s about delivering a professional Web presence that meets the needs and expectations of your Web site visitors.

4.) The stakes are too high to fall in love with an old, bad or unintuitive site. Every day represents damaged credibility and missed opportunities. You’d be amazed at how many people are visiting even the most poorly marketed sites.

Your site is creating hundreds (if not thousands) of “first impressions” every day. What impression is your site making?