by Paul Boag
How much did you spend over the last year on customer acquisition? Most internet retailers spend sizeable amounts on SEO, PPC and other forms of online marketing. But what if you could reduce expenditure in this area, while still increasing the number and value of sales, as well as acquiring new customers?
Admittedly this may read like a clever hook to keep you reading. Nevertheless it is possible by investing less money in driving traffic and more in the site itself.
Why site improvements make all the difference
I am constantly surprised how little investment goes into improving the user interface of the average e-commerce website. This is strange because we know an easy-to-use and engaging user interface:
Increases repeat orders
A user is considerably more likely to return to your site rather than that of your competition, if your website is easier to use.
Reduces cart abandonment
Orders can be abandoned for a number of reasons, but one of the most common is frustration at the checkout process. A well-designed user interface reduces this friction and therefore cuts abandonment.
Increases the average order value
A well-designed user interface will up-sell and cross-sell at appropriate points within the sales process so increasing the average order value.
Encourages word-of-mouth recommendation
If users find your website engaging and easy they will recommend it to others. As any marketer knows, this kind of word-of-mouth recommendation is invaluable.
What then can you do to improve the user interface of your site and reap the returns?
A culture of ongoing investment
The first step towards a better user experience and all of the benefits that provides, is to establish a culture of ongoing site investment.
Many website owners still work on the principle of periodic redesign. In other words, every few years they invest a considerable sum of money into ‘redesigning’ their website. This approach has several flaws:
It is expensive, involving a large capital outlay and the replacement of the entire user interface, including elements that aren’t broken.
Users are uncomfortable with change and so these redesigns often alienate loyal customers.
For the majority of its lifespan the site is not performing at peek efficiency because it has been left to stagnate.
A better approach is to continually commit a low level of investment into the website to make a series of incremental changes. This approach:
Keeps what is working and incrementally improves what is not.
Makes subtle changes rather than overwhelming a user with a completely new user interface.
Constantly improves the website to ensure peak efficiency.
How then do you create a culture of ongoing investment?
A monthly user testing cycle
In his book Rocket Surgery Made Easy usability expert Steve Krug recommends a cycle of monthly usability testing. The approach he proposes is so easy and inexpensive, there is nothing stopping you doing it yourself.
He proposes having a set day each month when usability testing takes place. The testing involves inviting in three test participants each month and getting them to complete some basic tasks on the site. The participants are then monitored from an adjacent room by whoever wishes to observe. After the tests are completed (which can normally be done in a morning) the team sits down over lunch and discusses the results.
Just this simple exercise will identify enough improvements you can make to the site to keep everybody busy through the next month. Once the changes are complete you can retest the following month. Each month leads to more incremental improvements.
Not that face to face user testing is the only option for monitoring the effectiveness of your site.
Tools for learning about your users
I recognise it is not always easy to get test participants to come to your office every month. Fortunately there are alternatives for learning about how your users behave.
One such alternative is to carry out remote user testing with a service like usertesting.com. This allows you to assign tasks to a series of users who complete those them while being videoed. The users are encouraged to speak out loud throughout the session explaining what they are think and what they are struggling with. The videos are then made available for you to review.
Not that user testing is your only option. A lot can also be learnt by tracking real users as they navigate around your site. Tools such as Google Analytics allow you to access a wealth of information about user behaviour including which point in your checkout process they drop out.
Although Google Analytics can show you a lot there are other tools that show even more details. One example of this is a service call Click Tales. ClickTales offers a range of analytics tools. However, probably the most useful is the ability to ‘record’ user sessions and watch them back. This allows you to see videos of sample users navigating around your website in realtime. You can watch every click and selection they make.
All of these tools are invaluable in learning about potential issues with your website. However, finding solutions to problems can prove more challenging. How do you know if your solution is going to be more effective than what is currently there.
One option is multi-variance testing. In this approach some users are presented with one option while others see another. For example you might want to test multiple versions of a call to action button to see which is most effective.
Tools like Google Website Optimiser allows you to do multi-variance testing for free. But, these tools can prove a little tricky if you are not a techie. An alternative is Visual Website Optimiser, which is designed to make this kind of testing easy for all.
Multi-variance testing is great for testing small changes to your site (like product descriptions or call to action buttons). Unfortunately, if you wish to make larger alterations it can get expensive building multiple versions to see which performs best.
For testing ideas before you consider building them I recommend VerifyApp. This tool is ideal for testing mockups and offers a range of different tests which covers everything from visual hierarchy to where users would click.
Nothing stopping you
With so many tools available and so much to be gained there really is little to lose from experimenting in this area. I am confident that for many ecommerce sites this will bring a better return on investment than yet another PPC campaign.
Paul Boag is a co-founder of web design agency Headscape. He is the author of the Website Owners Manual and Building Websites for Return on Investment. He is also an international speaker, writer and host of the award winning web design podcast, Boagworld.