Why won

Many businesses were surprised by how difficult it is to sell products over the Internet. Admittedly, you’d have to pay people to cart away some products, and people sometimes just browse the Web to confirm that they’re getting a bargain at local stores. But some otherwise sensible businesses neglected a key rule: the more difficult you make it to buy your products, the fewer you’ll sell.

Jared Spool, founder of User Interface Engineering (www.uie.com), has devoted considerable effort to understanding how people use – and fail to use – the Web. Recently, he described how each step in the purchasing process discourages some potential buyers, eliminating them the same way the mesh of a sieve prevents large grains of sand from passing through.

You begin losing customers when they reach your home page and can’t find what they’re looking for. If that product doesn’t immediately appear on the screen, and they don’t know its name, some try out links to different parts of your site until they find one that leads to the product.

If they know the name, they may instead try the search function and hope they spell the name correctly. Unfortunately, frequent Web users know how unintuitive many links are, and how frustrating search engines can be. Many customers quit after following links deep into your site without finding what they seek or search until they exhaust all possible spellings. Sometimes they alternate between these approaches.

Both obstacles can be overcome if you study the words visitors actually use to describe their needs. Search engines and links fail when your Web pages use only the words you chose; with no synonyms, anyone who relies on words you didn’t include in your site won’t find what they seek. The solution? Hire a professional indexer who understands how people use words to create a traditional “back of the book” index for your site or to help you choose keywords.

More customers disappear after they find a product – and an array of alternatives. Even those who know they can display each product in its own browser window find that alternating among all these open windows gets frustrating, and either print the pages or try to memorize the differences between the products.

Few sites support the most common shopping behaviour: displaying products side by side for easy comparison. Assuming you actually permit such comparisons, you may eliminate more customers by failing to provide the information they need to make a decision, or providing useless information. To know what criteria people use to compare products, you’ll have to ask them.

Those who decide to buy, however, face another obstacle when they reach your online cash register and discover it takes longer to fill in pages of personal information than to shut down the computer and visit the local mall. You could solve this problem by convincing buyers to set up an account so future purchases take relatively few keystrokes, but only repeat customers will be motivated to do so.

Concealed shipping charges also sabotage many sales; displaying these charges on the same page as the product, or linking to a shipping cost calculator that opens in its own window, might prevent this. Those with the tenacity to actually complete an order often receive the wrong model, colour or size. Understanding what buyers expect to receive, and how to ensure that they get it, solves this problem; failing to do so leads to product returns, lost sales and perhaps even lost customers.

In one study, Spool found that only 34 of an original 100 eager buyers successfully obtained the product they sought. How these statistics compare with those for traditional stores is a matter for another study. Here, the important point is that each part of the sieve can be understood and eliminated or minimized – but only if you’re willing to act as a user’s advocate by identifying the obstacles and proposing solutions. I’ll discuss a few more details in the next article.

Hart (geoff-h@mtl.feric.ca) is a translator, technical writer, editor and a senior member of the Society for Technical Communication. He lives in Pointe-Claire, Que., where he works for a forestry research institute