Is Your Website Design Driving Away Your Customers? Some Basic Usability Tips for Commercial Websites

Usability guidelines for designing a website selling products or services

Is Your Website Design Driving Away Your Customers? Some Basic Usability Tips for Commercial Websites

by Christopher Heng,

Following my article on Appearance, Usability and Search Engine Friendliness in Web Design where I discussed the importance of looking at the usability and search engine visibility when you create a website, I have received countless messages from visitors to asking me to review their site. While I do not have time to answer such requests individually, I decided that an article outlining some glaring usability flaws that I have found in a number of websites in general would be helpful. This article thus deals with the myths and fallacies commonly believed when designing a website to sell a product or a service.

Make It Easy for Visitor to Check Your Price List

Some websites try to hide the price list for their products. Some of these sites only display the price of the item after you hit the "Buy" or "Order" button, or worse, only after you have created an account on their site. Others have a price list, but bury the link to the price list somewhere deep in their site in a place not easily accessible from the main page or the products page.

I'm not exactly sure what the reason behind this is. Possibly, they think that if the customer does not see the price until they click the "Buy" or "Order" button, they will be more likely to buy the item. This reasoning is fallacious.

There are many types of visitors arriving at your site. Let's take the case of the window shopper. If they see something noteworthy on your site, they may make a note of the price so that they can return later if they want the item at some point in the future. If the price of the item cannot be easily found on your site, do you seriously think that they will thoroughly search the site just to find that elusive price tag? Or do you suppose that such a visitor will click the "Buy" button, just so that they can find the price tag at the end of the process somewhere? Or will they go through the bother of creating an account, revealing their personal particulars, just to find the price of an item?

Like the serious shopper, if they cannot find the price, they will simply go to another site. Remember: this is not a brick and mortar store we're talking about, where you need to take time and put in effort to travel to another store. On the Internet, your competitor is only a click away. And the search engines are more than happy to yield thousands of other sites selling the same type of goods or services as you. I realise that there are some brick and mortar stores (usually small concerns) who think that if they don't put a price tag, the customer has to find out the price from a sales person, who will then have the opportunity to persuade him/her to buy that item. Whether or not that is a good idea for a brick and mortar store (and I can think offhand of some types of customers that you will lose even there), it is a bad idea for a web store.

No matter how you look at it, every customer and potential customer will need to know the price of a product. Even the corporate customer buying for his/her company works to a budget. Making it difficult for your visitor to find the price list is a quick way to drive a potential customer away. As has been observed by many usability experts - the average Internet user has the attention span of a flea. If they can't find what they want within the first few seconds of glancing at your page, they will leave. And your competitors will be more than happy to attend to them in your place.

Provide Descriptions and Pictures for Your Products

I realise that the new web designer is beset with contradictory advice about how best to design their site. One set of such conflicting advice is the requirement to be brief and to-the-point so that you can catch that Internet visitor who will only give your web page a few seconds glance before deciding whether to stay or go elsewhere. Contradicting that is the requirement that you describe your products in depth and place pictures of your product, or screenshots if yours is a software product.

Perhaps one way to resolve this is to have a page listing all your products, with a brief description, thumbnail picture, the price and a link to buy the item. If this brief description interests the visitor, he/she can click the link and get a longer description and more information about the product.

A product page for each product, with a long description and pictures of the product, is indispensible. This is particularly so if your product is expensive, or has plenty of competition. Your long description and pictures of what you're selling is what cinches the sale. Potential customers will use the information on that page to decide whether or not to buy the item. They look at the page and compare it with the what is said about your competitor's product. It is thus in your interest to mention all the salient points about your product or service on that page. Think of it as the web equivalent of a salesman promoting a product to a walk-in customer.

An informative and detailed product page is not all you need. You also need to place your "Buy" or "Order" buttons both at the top and the bottom of the product page. If your product page is especially long, spanning many screenfuls, you may also want to consider placing additional buttons somewhere in the middle of the page. Do not force your customers to scroll to the bottom of the page before they can buy the item. You may have suffered countless hours drafting the description of the page. Do not pass the suffering to your customers by requiring them to read it all before they can order your product. Some customers are easily convinced, or they come to your page having already decided to buy. Make it easy for them to get to where they want to go within your site.

Allow Your Customers to Browse Your Site in Any Way They Choose

Have you ever encountered a "live" salesperson who drones on and on about a product, giving you little chance to jump in and tell him/her that you have already decided to buy the product? "I'll buy already!" you want to shout, but the guy insists on finishing his tome on the product.

Such a person, in real life, is probably seldom found. However, I have visited many websites that practise this very sales tactic. One characteristic of such websites is that the site has very poor navigational facilities. You cannot easily access other pages on the site except through a sequence of choreographed steps that the author has planned. First you have to read his introduction about the product. Then after a very long exposition on the first page, you are graced with a link at the bottom that takes you to a second page. Again, you have to endure the sermon on the second page before you can find the link to move on. Even if you have already decided to buy the product, you're forced to go through the whole sequence of steps before you can buy the product.

Such websites are reminiscent of the high-pressure sales tactics employed by some salesmen, and give visitors a bad taste. The usability of such sites is low, and the design of the site discourages impulse purchases.

One of the basic rules in selling something on the web is that you should not force your customers to click through many pages before they reach the "Buy" or "Download" button. It is never productive, leaves a bitter taste in some visitors' mouth, and drives off others. Sure, you may convince some people to buy the product after they read it all, but you are also convincing others that you're the sort of person they don't want to do business with. A website is different from a "live" salesman. People can leave any time during your sales pitch. And they do. Most people visiting a site to buy something are not there to read a long exposition. They are there to get a product. Delaying that purchase can only hurt your business. When I say that you need to give a product page with a detailed description about your product, I don't mean that you have to force everyone to read that detailed description before they can buy. Always provide a shortcut to the order form for your visitors.

Mandatory Items on the Site Navigation Bar

For a commercial site, certain links should be accessible from every page of your website. The easiest way to do this is to place them on your navigation bar. If you don't know what a navigation bar is, take a look at On the top left of every page is a series of buttons which give you access to the main pages of the site. Your navigation bar need not be on the left side as mine is. You can put it at the top, the right or the bottom as well. However, the following items should always be present:


On the Internet, customer service starts with a usable website. How you design your site will determine whether your visitor becomes a paying customer or your competitor's customer.

Copyright 2007-2019 by Christopher Heng. All rights reserved.
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