Latest hot trend tests usability of Web sites

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E-tailers grapple with everything from out-of-sight marketing costs to troubles with shipping. But another problem is close to home: Sites are hard to use, and that's turning off customers.

Thirty leading e-commerce Web sites are riddled with flaws, concludes a soon-to-be-released site usability report.

The study by Forrester Research and User Interface Engineering (www.uie.com), a Bradford, Mass., usability testing company, is based on the experiences of 18 customers who were given $50 to buy things online.

Amazon.com, L.L. Bean's site (www.llbean.com) and REI.com were among the 30 sites surveyed. Forrester will issue the full report card later this month, but all sites had flaws. Shoppers in the test ran into dozens of problems that ranged from locating products to finding enough information to make a purchase decision to checking out.

TESTING HAS `BECOME HUGE'

"Every single one of these sites had problems," said Harley Manning, research director at Forrester of the study due to be released later this month.

Worried about underperforming online operations, e-tailers and Web publishers are turning to companies that specialize in testing the usability of Web sites. Usability testing has "become huge" for marketers, Mr. Manning said.

The category is flourishing in a year when sites with slashed advertising budgets are trying to generate as much revenue as they can. How fast a site downloads, how easy it is to navigate and how promptly a customer service rep replies to an e-mail all are critical factors.

After testing numerous sites, certain things become apparent, Mr. Manning said. For instance, Forrester and User Interface found marketers asking for credit card numbers before showing customers order totals was a major reason for abandoned shopping carts.

"Who gives someone a blank check?" Mr. Manning asked in explaining users' taking offense.

BOTHERSOME DETAILS

Unreadable text was another major flaw. The problem: "type that is too small, or the color of the type and the color of the background are so close you have to strain to read it," he said. Mr. Manning highlights Barneys.com, designed by Kioken Design, New York, as a particularly illegible site. "You go look at it and tell me if you can figure out what the hell is going on."

"If you can't find it you can't buy it," Mr. Manning said.

Part of the problem with sites might be marketers are so rushed they're overlooking the details.

Donn Seidholz, CEO of Net in Focus, said he started his Somerville, N.J., company in March to fill a void. It's backed by Edison Media Research.

"It struck us as odd that companies spend millions on testing products," Mr. Seidholz said, "but in the Internet world -- in the quest to be fast and first -- sites were being put up without a thought to the strategic focus of the brand."

Net in Focus, whose clients include CNN, Delta Air Lines and the Chicago office of Leo Burnett USA, conducts usability focus groups at 250 computer labs around the world.

GROUP DYNAMIC

While Mr. Seidholz admitted the obvious drawbacks of on-site testing, such as geography and logistics, he touted its advantages.

"People can't type with the same speed and emotion that they think," he said. Also in an online setting, "You can't work off the group dynamic" in which one person brings up a point and several other people in the group will agree or disagree.

Online focus groups and data gathering are inexpensive and growing in popularity. Greenfield Online, for instance, offers Web site evaluations in which people are recruited online to test a site for ease of use, such as how easy it is to locate a particular product or service on a site; graphics; and clarity.

"We think that it's a little more realistic with a person sitting at their own computer and in their own work space," said Susan Roth, director of qualitative research at Greenfield Online, noting that home computers and Internet connections typically slow the Web surfing experience.

With the dot-com shakeout," People are taking a little more time to do it right. That's one of the reasons they do Web site evaluations so they can show it to venture capitalists to get more funding," Ms. Roth said.

If dot-coms are going to do that, Ms. Roth strongly advises they invest in quantitative research, which makes up the bulk of Greenfield Online's business, to back up qualitative findings. "To really put some weight behind it and make a decision on it, you should have some quantitative research."

NETRAKER'S PLAY

Another company using the online model is NetRaker Corp., which was founded in 1998 and offers an application that automatically polls Web users through pop-up windows.

"We're trying to be the J.D. Power of the Web," said John Burshek, chief research officer at NetRaker.

Just last month NetRaker (www.netraker.com) released a study that compared the shopping experiences on Amazon.com, America Online and Yahoo! Shopping. With responses from 259 Web users, it found that while AOL's site loaded the fastest, overall it ranked last among the three in performance. Yahoo! came in first, closely followed by Amazon. AOL was a distant third. The sites were rated on several criteria including content, navigation and design.

Usability is such a difficult-to-measure thing that people's reaction to a site's visual design varies depending on whether they're from the Southeast, West Coast or New England, said Mr. Burshek.

While there's a place for online polls, some industry watchers argue usability testing is something that should be handled by specialists who approach the testing as a science. Human Factors International, Fairfeld, Iowa (humanfac

tors.com), is one such company. Its clients include Dell Computer Corp., Hewlett-Packard Co. and Staples. Human Factors' revenue rose 70% last year primarily from an increase in Web design evaluations. It will critique existing sites as well as work with companies in designing sites from the ground up.

"Our brand is understood as being first and foremost scientific," said Jay More, president of Human Factors. "We apply a scientific base knowledge in designing a Web site." While 80% of problems on a site relate to users' ability to locate a product, the remaining 20% are related to design, color and layout, he said.

"A very typical problem is if you have a button that looks like a button and is really an emblem. The design isn't intuitive and that slows [users] down further," Mr. More said.

ORGANIZATION KEY TO SALES

For Staples, Human Factors helped the retailer organize its site. "They have thousands of [products]," Mr. More said. "If it's not organized properly, people will just leave."

One might ask why more marketers aren't building better sites to begin with. Mr. Manning said the problem is complex.

"Clients are often their own worst enemies," he said, adding that Forrester has seen marketers turn down their agencies' requests for usability testing of a site, only to wonder why it stinks when it does go live.

Furthermore, there aren't a huge number of interaction design experts available in the field. Many interactive agencies are at fault, he said.

"A lot of agencies haven't internalized this yet," Mr. Manning said, noting that many are still approaching Web design as graphic design. "To think you're going to build your (online) brand with no content and big images, is the same as trying to deliver photos over the radio."

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