USER EXPERIENCE IN BUSINESS WEBSITES

Usability and Design.

–   Internet Marketing and Design.
–   Why being a successful brand matters.
–   User experience and Design; Do aesthetics has anything to do with usability?
–   First impression on the home page.
–   User experience principle
–   Learning From Professionals
–   Summery


A great-looking website may achieve the goal of shaping and delivering a strong brand.
(Dmitry Fadeyev, Smashing Magazine- Usability Post ).

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Preface

This essay is aimed at small businesses and start up companies. I believe that many new companies focus on offering new technology, providing the best product and service at a competitive price, developing business plans and investing heavily in good Internet marketing. However, at the same time these companies neglect design, visual appeal and user experience of their websites. As a result, all that hard work is put at a risk and could be negated in a few seconds: usability problems and the design of their website may cause the visitor to immediately lose interest and leave. With proper attention to design, they could gain a sustainable competitive advantage and corporate identity.

In the first part, I would like to discuss the user experience of business websites, focusing on usability, aesthetics and design. I will start by introducing the concepts of Internet marketing and consumer behavior. I will then examine two examples of strong brands with phenomenal website design and contrast 
them with a retail business website with poor usability experience, in order to expose the user experience problems.

In the second part, I will examine how the design influences the users and what makes a good design usable by discussing user experience principles in modern web design. One of the most important aspects of the design that I will discuss is the first impression the visitor gets from seeing the home page. And finally, I have interviewed several professionals in the field of B2B and B2C marketing.

Internet Marketing and Design

Consumer behaviors are rapidly changing and more and more of the businesses gets conducted online. The consumers increasingly research their purchases online before spending money, and are using the web intensively to compare and find the best product. People look for good service or compare prices to make sure their money is well spent. From furniture suppliers to financial consultancies, there is a great need for websites that are designed and developed to support this research process and to promote sales.

According to SEMPO (Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization), there are literally billions of websites. By the latest reports, over 14 billion searches are conducted online monthly by customers around the world. One of the reasons that Internet marketing is so critical is that it can reach a consumer at the precise moment that he or she is looking for a specific service.

According to the Australian Centre for Retail Studies, (From Monash University Business and Economics) about 50% of people who make purchases in physical stores research their purchases online before buying. The findings show that once someone has made a decision to buy, they research online just before purchasing in store. Most people do online research a week before the actual purchase, many on the day before and quite a few on the actual day of the in-store purchase!

Now the question is what about those businesses that do not have a well-known brand yet or new companies and services that are new in the market, and offer especially unique and new visions. One of the ways to help consumer’s research their purchase is to let them use the business’s website. But with so many different websites and brands, how can you get people to come to your website?

It is extremely hard for a non-well known company to be found online, and if the user cannot find the company’s website, he may go to the competitors. There are many methods that can help bringing people to a website, among them advertisement and Search Engine Optimization (SEO). If a company wants to go the advertisement way (for example, Google AdWords), it pays the search engine for showing links to their website for carefully selected search tags. This works well but can be very expensive.

Another approach is to use the services of Search Engine Optimization companies. These companies promise to fine tune the web site so that it displays prominently within a search engine’s results page. As a result, when someone types relevant keywords into a search engine, the company’s website will be displayed on the first page of results, and ideally within the first few options!

It is interesting that the same research by Australian Centre for Retail Studies found that 55% of people research ‘generically’, using non-brand keywords as search terms. This means that people are looking online for solutions (products and services) but not necessarily for specific brands. So both SEO and Google AdWords are important tools that help users in their online research of a company’s products.

Still, why being a 
successful brand matters?

Time is money! For Business to Client relations and especially Business to Business relations, the consumer would be highly demanding and expect to have a very satisfying experience and good service. Research shows that business clients would prefer to invest their money on brands because of their perceived reliability and can save you time and money.

According to the article by Kevin Randall, Brand Channel Research and Analyzes; in order to stay alive in the highly competitive market of Business to Business
communication the company should become a reliable brand that can provide to their costumers relevant vision, good value and completely satisfying experience which is attractive enough from the client perspective over a long term. “ Client’s loyalty drives brand economic value according to leading marketing and brand valuation experts. In addition, he notes that branding today is a strategic tool that helps the supplier cut through the morass of the market, get noticed, and connect with the customer on many levels and in ways that matter. A strong brand becomes the customer’s ‘shorthand’ for making good choices in a complex, risky, and confusing marketplace”.

In today’s highly competitive market, many business websites may offer similar products and services however not the same user experience and design. To get noticed requires standing out.

Let us examine an example of Apple who has one of the most recognizable brands and uses phenomenal design. They provide a wide selection of products and offer good services and supports to the clients on their website. Nevertheless, they succeed in keeping their website simple, minimalist and clear. Every product they offer is proudly showcased on the website. It receives full attention and feels like a very expensive and unique diamond you will want to try. They get the customer’s attention with gentle visual appeal, harmonious colors and simple typography.

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The user is not distracted by anything but the product itself. There is no unnecessary text and content, no ‘frills, bells and whistles’, only a few items that direct the user exactly where he or she needs to go without leaving any dead-ends. As a result, the user does not get lost on the website, an is encouraged to browse more and more. And mostly it’s not just because the Apple’s website is so usable and their products are so beautiful. The main reason of their success is their whole creative thinking approach; by trying to be different and make us act different, in the way that we really enjoy it due to its ease of use, functionality and creative environment that it provides.

A less obvious example of an excellent website is adidas.com. The demonstrates a flair for style and interactivity. It encourages the visitors to stay and explore the site by adding fun, enjoyment and technology.

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The ADIDAS MADE FOR BEIJIN website’s homepage uses a smart combination of fluid, elastic layout inside of a fixed and familiar navigation. The layout comes to live under the mouse and encourages the visitor to try and look at all the elements of the page, just to see what gems are hidden in them.

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The huge product collection of Adidas is organized in usable categories symbolized by original end even funny illustrations influenced from the Chinese art. This categories helps keep the product collection well organized, simple and readable overview but still very pleasing and creative. It is not surprising that their website won an award for the best retail website, outstanding achievement in web development by The Web Marketing Association. (2009)

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Of course, the website, while being extremely well designed, is not perfect. One notable problem is the sound effects embedded practically everywhere. This might be fine for teenagers who explore the website in the privacy of their homes, but imagine somebody trying to browse it in the office environment.

To contrast these examples, I consider the website of Tesco as less usable and not designed well. According to Dave Chaffey Tesco`s case study for Internet Marketing from 2008, Tesco is one of Britain’s leading retail groups. The good points are that Tesco has a very functional website that provides the visitors with meaningful and useful services. It enables online shopping and has a sophisticated system for monitoring customers who are registered at the online store. In addition, it offers Clubcard loyalty scheme’s customer base to encourage the customers to shop online. The website remembers the client’s favorite products and offers a really functional discounts and club card points with relevant products promotions.

Tesco is one of the websites that I use a lot but unfortunately, I do not enjoy it very much.
 Having good marketing only is not enough. After testing their website for a month I was surprised from the really poor usability experience and their lack of design thinking.  My first online shopping order with Tesco took more than three hours to complete.
Apparently, I am not alone. According to tests performed by whatprice.co.uk, the first attempt to order a delivery with Tesco normally takes over two hours. Moreover, this research does not take into account how long it will take to shop to a user that not familiar with the Tesco products. The website offers very poor display and descriptions for its products, making it hard to understand what is the product they are providing. I really believe that Tesco has to optimize their website to be more friendly and useful. 
One thing they could do is make more clever search toolbox that can recognize products better. Another huge improvement would be to use bigger and higher quality images and write clearer product descriptions. Also, it is important to improve the navigation structure of the website to make it clearly organized.
Even if some of the improvements are done, I believe the website will provide a much more enjoyable user experience. It is not clear why Tesco does not invest more efforts into improving the design of their website. Their competitors’ websites are already way ahead in the online shopping experience. Tesco must be aware of the huge number of customers that shop with them using the website. They have a strong marketing department, and it should be obvious from the statistics on the number of hits how many online visitors they have. In addition, they conduct frequent customer surveys but I don’t see results taking hold in the website design. And it’s not like online customers are not important for them. According to Robin Goad, Research Director, Hitwise, the latest UK Internet traffic measurements from October 2008 showed that the online business conducted by supermarkets has been continuously growing since 2005 (and I believe this trend is only going to get stronger).

User Experience and Design

Do aesthetics have 
anything to do with usability?

Many business websites that we interact with as consumers, such as buying tickets online, searching for lawyer service or comparing product prices, are not necessarily designed in a way we would prefer. A big amount of the business websites has been developed as systems to perform or deliver information and sometimes it seems that companies may develop a website just because it is a trend to put it on the business card. Some websites deliver inaccurate, outdated or just plain wrong information and some may not deliver it at all. Good marketing may bring in some traffic but good design and enjoyable user experience may improve the user satisfaction and make them stay longer and come again and again. The user experience and the web design should be the central concern in creating a company’s web site. It is not just about buttons and menus. The goal is to create a web site which will be simple and easy to use, effective, safe, easy to remember and enjoyable from the user’s perspective. All of those could influence the success of the company’s web site and could be one of the factors that breaks or makes it. You may not have a second 
chance to make a good first impression!

Once a user gets to a company’s web site, the first impression they receive is from the homepage. It is the first and in some cases could be the only chance to catch the visitor’s curiosity enough to keep him browsing your web site. Experts disagree on how much time it takes for a person to form a first impression. Some say it could take three seconds, some say more. Yet, according to the research performed by the BBC News Channel in January 2006, it takes less than 50 milliseconds to form the first impression of the website’s visual look. If the visitor impressed enough from the first visual look of a website he will continue to the content and may continue to browse to other parts of the web as well. However if the first impression is negative, visitors will not continue browsing the web and leave the page before they even know what the company has to offer.

I personally strongly believe that a website is a window into how the business is run as a organization. I assume that if a business cuts corners on their website, they also may cut corners with their products and services. Even if this assumption is wrong, it is certainly the effect that a sloppy website will have on its visitors. Moreover, the visual layout of a website and the presentation influence indirectly on every visitor. Websites that are not highly usable may cause the business to go out of business in a matter of weeks. For these reasons, user experience on the home page should not be an after thought in a website design.

User experience principles

There are many aspects of the user experience that could influence on user performance and should be considered in a web design. One, with high importance is letting the users effectively access the information they need. By having an easy to learn interface, not confusing by too much or too less indicators and navigation links and feedbacks to the user about what is happening and how to proceed.

Clarity is another key concern. Many companies make the mistake of putting too much stuff and information on their home page. Some think that it provides them an advantage by letting the visitor see a lot at a glance. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work like this. Overloading the visitor with information only makes it harder to find the stuff that is necessary at a given time. In any case, it is known that people have no inclination or time to read contents of websites; they scan them quickly, looking for fixed points that can guide them to necessary points in the rest of the page. The less unnecessary stuff displayed, the more efficient is that process.

A great example of a clear website is the Google’s homepage. 
In its standard incarnation, it consists just of a single search box and a “Search” button. It is absolutely impossible to get lost there, and it is immediately clear to the user what he needs to do to interact with the website.

Now lets take it to a museum websites, their, search box is relatively hard to spot. For example the homepage of MOMA.org it is really hard to spot their search box. Or Coudal.com a really great idea for a website that include a big collection of galleries and exhibitions information, but I did not know from where to start and I am not sure they have a search box.

Of course, museum and other business websites is not just a search engine, but due to problems in their visual design, when you go to their website you forget what you wanted in a first place. They make the search box so hard to find that it might take a minute or more to spot. And let’s not even get started with other examples of poor web sites, which do not provide a search box and clear information. Perhaps it’s exactly why Google, Apple and other companies with strong usability are so much more successful.

So, companies need to make sure that the product or the service information is clearly displayed, easy to read, and easy accessible. One important thing that should be clear and easy to find on every page is the company information. It needs to be available on every page, with contact details and have a link to company’s information such as the address (possibly with the map), phone numbers, email addresses and so on.

A third important factor is the productivity and functionally of the website. The website should support the user and save his time by providing the appropriate shortcuts and functions. As a good example, consider one of the biggest Internet shopping sites, Amazon.com. Besides providing excellent navigation and powerful search, it remembers the users’ details from visit to visit. It then uses this information in subsequent visits of the site, offering useful product suggestions, and helping users enter the necessary details for the purchase. In fact, Amazon allows the users to perform a purchase with just a single click.

Yet another factor in website design is related to the safety and confidence of the visitor when using the website’s services. For example, placing a button like “delete” or “log out” near to frequent actions like “save” might lead to accidental mistakes, resulting in user frustration. Moreover, these dangerous actions, no matter how well separated, will still sometimes get activated by mistake, and it is important to provide clear mechanisms to undo their effects. A good example of safety related design is related to the process of placing online orders. The users need complete confidence and transparency to be sure that the order they are placing is precisely what they want. So, the order page must be clear about any additional charges (such as shipping and taxes) that are going to be added, and it must be obvious to the user whether the next mouse click will complete the transaction. In many cases, the users try to place an order just to see if the process looks trustworthy, what are the shipment options and so on, and stop the process of placing an order just before its completion. Making it unclear whether the next action is going to complete the order will scare such users away, and they will also be unlikely to place real orders with the website. And even more, if a website tells the users exactly how and when they can cancel orders already placed, the users will be more likely to actually make a purchase.

Last but not least, websites need excellent graphics and photography for aesthetic looks and emotional appeal. Concept developments, in terms of contribute to making a user experience pleasurable, satisfying and enjoyable experience. layout, position and the structure to all the visual elements in the interface. Decide the relationship between shapes, size, color and textures to indicate importance, attract attentions and think of convenient clickable areas. The best result would be to have advised with a professional web designers and developer who can combine all the elements to the right visual appeal and consider the responsiveness, technology required and effectively allow the user save time and effort through shortcuts and smart design.

And finally the entire design would be not enough if the company do not invest in the right content that can help to visitors navigate their way to information.

Learning from professionals

For this research, I have conducted an interview with Tzion Hadad, Founder and CEO of an Israeli start up company name Cirrinet. It is an online Social Business to Business Networking website. Its idea is to empower small to medium businesses who could quickly and effectively reach their business development, sales and marketing goals. give both the companies and their suppliers the possibility to expose their businesses by adding active business connections and gain from connecting their company to the global Business to Business networks.

Tzion specializes in management of Business to Client relations and some Business-to-Business marketing since 1992 of small to medium companies. He believes that a visual look of a corporate websites must reflect their industry, the company vision and its values. It is the first and main source of information and one of the most influence aspects on the first impression of the client.

One interesting observation made by Tzion is that visual design will mainly influence new visitors, and have less effect on existing consumers and partners.  Tzion graded the factors that would influence him personally during a visit to a website before deciding whether he is going to spend any of his money. The most influential factor, given hundred percent of importance is the content and familiarity with the brands. At the second place, with ninety percent of importance, he said he will be influenced by the site’s usability, the visual look, and only then from the user recommendations.

But professionally, for his company website it is very important for him that users will have enjoyable and satisfactory experience from their companies website. He would use Google Analytics to get rich insight and website traffic statistics in the same time to evaluate the marketing effectiveness. He keeps focus on giving the highest attention to the usability and to the visual attractive look.

The same answer was given by Eyal Pushkov, the R&D Manager (Research and Development) who has seven years experience in the corporate web developing industry. He developed the systems of Cirrinet from scratch and one of the main features isthe search tool that the business user could use to find other business connections by best match and recommendations from customers. This way the user could  expand the market reach, create customer surveys, communicate regularly with partners and maintain business connections.

Eyal said that mostly he gives the priority to the usability and how good the website looks. In addition, he described that he believe that a visual look of a website should be important as much as, and even more than the company’s office. In some industries, the office environment must be organized and well designed, it should have a fancy look or to be located in the prestigious area of the city, and only then the company will have respect and long term clients. Especially with business clients, the first impression is very important and influence on their decisions. And if the companies invest so much effort into the design of their physical office, they should also pay attention to their online face, which is presented to many more people. As a Russian proverb says, one is greeted by his looks but treated by his intelligence.

He also use Google Analitycs and believes that a company should update their websites regularly by making surveys and testing their system.

When I asked him “What are the first steps when beginning a project for client and what are the biggest challenges”? He said that the firsts steps are meeting with the client. The big challenge is to understand his requirements and what he needs. The second part is to make a research on the clients market and get an overall profile of their users and strong values. Then comes the brain storming and concept development.

And What would influence you mostly as a consumer when choosing a company?

Before making any purchase he personally make good search on the Internet. I may be influenced a lot from everything; the usability, the visual look, the content, the familiarity of the brand and especially from other visitors recommendations. In his opinion, the first impression of the visual appeal and the content on the website is vitally important. However, in the same time to keep the clients satisfied for a long term and make them loyal even harder. You should be socially involved, increase the relationships because the competition is always there. The reputation and the recommendations is highly important.

By their latest company’s survey in 2010 about Business to Business marketing over the Internet. 59% of the survey response were Small- Medium Businesses, with 10 to 50 employers. 79.9% of them said they are invest in internet marketing, when the biggest percent showed that social networking and recommendations are helped them to get new customers more than advertising.

Consider another interview with Gillian Crampton Smith, founder of Computer Related Design Department at the Royal College of Art in 1991. And director of the Interaction Design Institute Ivrea (Italy) and The University of Architecture and Design in Venice. She believes that with nowadays technologies we have amazing range of possibilities to develop software that are usable and enjoyable but they often not well designed for users. She points that good design is partly about systems that usable and work well. However it is not just about the tools anymore it is also about how it looks, what it reminds us and what it refers to in our cultural environment in which we live.

Summary

In this paper I tried to explore the importance of visual design for the creation of business websites. The design can make a lot of difference, attracting users and therefore helping bring more business for the company, or pushing them away with bad usability and unappealing looks. Some companies are not aware of the need for good design for their websites, others just don’t know how to do it. More than anything I believe that businesses should consult with professional web designers that can provide a lot of help for businesses to make their websites look good and help attract new customers and keep the existing ones.

Bibliography:

Smart Company- Australia’s leading website for SMEs featuring business news. John Wiley and Sons, Ltd. – Interaction Design Book- beyond human- computer interaction. 2009 The Smashing Book. – Smashing Media 2009 
Dmitry Fadeyev Dr. Dave Chaffey – Digital Business Marketing Research. Website Optimization. BBC NEWS – First Impressions Count for Web
. Brand Channel Web Marketing 
Association`s Web Awards


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