While "location, location, location" was once the mantra of traditional business, the concept has little meaning online. Because the Web provides universal access, many companies assume they can only compete if their products or services are more unique and/or better priced than their competitors'. What they don't realize is that ease-of-access is still a very important distinguishing factor—and all the more since so few companies are leveraging it.
Web site accessibility = usability
A consumer's experience within a Web site can have just as much of an impact on a company's bottom line (for better or worse) as a consumer's experience inside a physical store.
A usable site increases its company's market presence by:
- facilitating consumers' goals (including their purchase goals)
- increasing customer retention
- inviting repeat BulletUnspaced
- enhancing brand loyalty
- increasing productivity
- decreasing support costs (and costs associated with alternative forms of access, such as phone, fax, and mail)
Usability: the good and bad news
Despite the tremendous potential to increase marketshare by increasing usability, the Web remains difficult to use—especially for less technical users. The good news is that the general shortage of usable Web sites means there's a tremendous opportunity to capture online marketshare by increasing usability.
How to build a usable Web site
While it would be impossible to provide a definitive list of guidelines to fit every need, here are a few high-level suggestions to consider as you're developing or retooling a Web site.
- Hire a usability/human factors specialist.
"Good design" is like a good furniture arrangement: There's no such thing. Guidelines are good, but since Web design is not formulaic, companies should engage someone who has the background and experience to know when to follow guidelines and when to break the rules.
- Understand your users.
Rather than simply disseminating company-focused information, companies must identify who their users are and what services or information they need. They should understand how users think and talk about those services/information, and how they expect to access it.
- Keep it extremely simple.
Simplicity is no reflection on your users' expected abilities. Rather, it's an acknowledgement that people are busy and don't have time to learn the intricacies of every site they visit.
- Create different sites for different product sets.
In the physical world, having "everything under one roof" increases consumer efficiency. But online it's different. Because of the increased difficulty in finding what you're looking for, a site that sells many different products can actually be less attractive than one that focuses its product set.
- Let users be anonymous.
Users must be given the right to dictate the degree of information they're willing to disclose. Occasionally, required registration is appropriate, but you'll lose potential consumers if you force them to divulge information without legitimate cause
- Evaluate other similar Web sites.
Even companies that aren't direct competitors may have sites that can provide valuable information. When in doubt, follow patterns established on high-profile Web sites.
- Take the time to get it right.
Given the accelerated nature of the Internet, there may be a temptation to deploy first, and ask questions later. It takes time to develop a usable site, but the vast majority of companies who take the time actually save in the long run.
- Place the burden on the technology.
People and computers are very different, and one or the other (or both) must make accommodations when communicating. Decision makers need to consider the cumulative effects of poor design, such as weighing whether saving several weeks of programming effort is worth losing $200 per day in sales.
- Humanize the technology.
Forward-thinking companies are looking for ways to leverage technology and provide Web users a more emotional experience. Consider ways to cater two two types of people: those who want to get in and out, and those who want to build a relationship.