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Simple fixes for floundering websites

Simple fixes for floundering websites Linda Eskin

A good user experience is the same as good customer service. It's fundamental to the success of your business. You need to ensure your site is treating your customers well, just as you would expect of any other representative of the company. In this article, we'll consider several ways to uncover problems that your site visitors encounter, as well as approaches to fixing these issues.

I recently told a friend about some ideas I heard during a brief website design seminar. He commented that it seemed like really elementary stuff. Indeed, it was. But the elementary stuff needs restating from time to time. It's important to address basic issues before getting carried away playing with slick new features or major redesigns. The fact of the matter is that many sites don't have the basics down -- and it could be costing them business.

A brick-and-mortar business is a good analog for a website. No business has unlimited time or resources, so it's important to triage and prioritize problems that are affecting your reputation, growth, and bottom line. If the front door sticks in a manner that causes potential customers to think you are closed, or a store aisle is blocked by a stack of boxes, you have no business picking out trendy new paint colors for the storeroom walls. You should get after fixing the front door and moving the boxes.

So while it's great fun to take on big, dramatic changes, take a little time first to handle simple issues that make such a big difference to your customers. Even if you have a major site update planned, taking these steps now will help you discover how your new site can better serve your customers, and therefore your business. And the habits you adopt for continuous improvement will serve you well now, and will flow right into any new design as well.

So let's look at ways you can go about finding the problems, as well as six guidelines for fixing them.

1. Understand your audience
One simple-yet-effective way to discover major issues with your site is to take a good look at it from the point of view of the people who visit it. To do this, you need to consider who they are and what they need. You probably have a fair idea of who visits your site, but you may tend to focus on one group to the exclusion of the others. Or, as many organizations do, you may be focusing on the message you are trying to convey and neglecting the actual needs of your site visitors.

For example, a site selling high-tech medical equipment may naturally be focused on its cutting-edge technology and the benefits to researchers and medical personnel. However, the site would also need to address the logistical concerns of hospital administrators, give oversight boards what they need to justify purchasing or funding decisions, make documentation and service information available to existing customers, provide information for the media, and speak to prospective employees and investors.

It is worth writing out a brief description of each kind of person who visits your site. What are their concerns, with regard to your business? How web-savvy are they? How old are they? What is their level of education? Include a representative photo and give each person a name to make them more vividly real for your team. Post these descriptions in your office, so you and your team can always keep these people in mind. Consider each kind of visitor as a different audience. They will have different needs, different backgrounds, and speak different languages. As you update and improve your site, you will want to keep each of them in mind.

2. Listen to your customers
Your customers are probably already telling you where the problems on your site reside. So listen up, and tell your team to do the same. For instance, you might hear from a shopper: "Awesome, I never knew you sold pet supplies, too! I've been going clear across town." Or a caller might ask, "What's your address? I've looked all over your site and there's no map." Never mind that there actually is a map; the point is that your customers aren't finding it. You're hearing from the one who cared enough to call. Others might have just gone to buy from your competition.

Incidentally, over the years, I have heard many marketers say something to the effect of, "It's right there on our site. The users are just too dumb to see it." Fair enough. Let's recognize that 20 percent of your site visitors have the internet savvy of a clam, and they couldn't read your email newsletter even if they could figure out how to sign up for it. But here's my thump upside the head for you if you find yourself thinking that way (and we all do, from time to time): Do you want their money? Give that a little thought.

You can also give your customers a direct feedback channel. It could be as simple as an email address, or a sophisticated online feedback system. Website visitors might have requests you could never anticipate, but they'll likely be happy to tell you if you ask.

3. Get your whole team involved
No one person, however well-versed in design or technology, is uniquely qualified to spot all the problems a website might have. Everyone on your team views the site from his or her own angle, and as such may have valuable insights into how the site can better serve your customers. Everyone on your team can and should contribute to making improvements. The first thing to do is to invite their input, let them know you value their contribution, and give them an avenue by which they can share with you any issues they discover.

Let's say your company has a warehouse manager. That person may get calls regularly from trucking company dispatchers who can't find your warehouse because the street is so new it isn't shown in online maps yet. Or the manager may see frustrated customers who went to the showroom to pick up their order instead of the shipping dock. Your warehouse manager is in a great position to help you solve these real-life manifestations of website inadequacies. Be sure these types of people have an avenue to share what they know. And when they do, respond with gratitude and action (or at least with an explanation of why you cannot or should not do what they suggested). You never want your people thinking (or saying to customers), "Yeah, everyone has that same problem. I told somebody about that last year, but they never fixed it."

4. Review the content
Content encompasses all the information on your site. It may be copy, photos, diagrams, audio, or just about anything else. Content (or the lack of content) often causes major problems for your site visitors, and it is the easiest, fastest, cheapest element to fix -- yet it is often taken for granted and overlooked.

Ask yourself: Does the site give the correct impression of what your business is all about? Is it immediately obvious what the site does? Is it a store? Can visitors find your service manuals? Check the status of their en-route shipments? Do the images support the message you want to convey? Is the copy easy to read and understand? Is the content what your site visitors want, need, and expect? Does the copy address their concerns?

This is where understanding your audience comes into play, and it's another case where your own observations won't be the most reliable. If you can, get actual members of your target audience to use your site, while you watch. This is always fascinating, and often disheartening, as they ignore what you thought was such a clever feature, and instead use something else in a way you never envisioned. The insights from just an hour or two of this kind of exercise can give you an abundance of fodder for improving your site. If you cannot get any real representative audience members, a "next best" approach is to have someone (again, possibly a new employee or temp) role play on behalf of that audience. It's not ideal, but it's a good deal better than doing nothing.

A simple, organized, well-thought-out site will serve your customers well. Aesthetics are a critical aspect of communicating your message and engaging your customers, but even great design cannot overcome an underlying lack of information, frustrating features, or a site that gives the wrong impression (or no impression) of what your business is all about.

Be sure to focus on the really basic information, too, as this is often what your customers need when they visit your site. For instance, local small businesses, such as restaurants or boutiques, often neglect to mention where they are. They give their street address, but not the city and state. They give their phone number, but leave off the area code. They assume people visiting their sites already know.

People are emotional creatures. It's easy to think everyone is purely rational and logical when making business decisions, but it isn't necessarily so. Insult or patronize your customers at your peril. If they feel frustrated, conned, or ignored, they may give up on your site and buy from your competition. Be sure everything about your site shows that you like each person who visits, and that you want them there and value their time.

5. Address credibility issues
The perception of your company's (and your site's) credibility is crucial. People want to trust you, feel safe on your site, and feel good about doing business with you. You can help them in several ways.

Assure your visitors that their personal information is secure and will be kept private. Don't expect people to notice the "https://" in the page URL. Point out security features clearly anywhere that concern might arise. Include the logo badges of any site security services you use. Similarly, have a plain-language privacy policy that explains how any data will be stored and used. Link to it not just in the footer, but everywhere you ask site visitors to share information with you.

Include photos of your facilities and of actual staff members to help site visitors make a connection and experience your business as a real place with real people who care. Consider the difference between a faceless online store selling cute garden sculptures, and the same store with photos of the artists at work, the smiling shipping team, and a wide shot of the showcase garden at the main store. Of course, always provide contact information, including a phone number and a street address.

Be sure everything on your site reflects your stated commitments to quality, integrity, and attention to detail. That is, your online presence needs to "walk the talk." Typos, broken links, and poor-quality images reveal carelessness and introduce doubts about doing business with you. Using copy lifted from another site or a photographer's watermarked proof photo shows a much deeper problem.

6. Test everything, often
The simplest way to find problems is to go out and hunt them down. Pick a page, or pick a feature, and go over it in detail. Is it clear where all the links go? Click them. Do they work? Look for things that could be frustrating or confusing. Does everything on the page load quickly? Are instructions or descriptions clear? Can you get to the contact information? When you search for a product, are results relevant? Some of the worst problems are easy to find, but many companies never go looking for them.

But here's where this one gets a little tricky. You, of all people, are the least qualified to notice these problems, even when you are looking right at them. You already know how the site navigation works. The terminology used is second nature to you. You already understand all your product descriptions. You search for things by their correct names. You already know to enter your phone number in the only "correct" format that the form accepts. Sure, you might catch a broken link, but for the most part, you aren't the one who should be doing this testing.

Professionally conducted usability testing is obviously very valuable, and should be done from time to time. But you can still get good input from a variety of people. Ask every new employee to let you know if they notice anything with their fresh eyes. Each time you have temps in the office, give them this task if they have periods of downtime in their day. Each person will have a somewhat different approach, and you are bound to get valuable feedback from all of them.

When it comes to testing, don't consider it done after just one pass. Test your conversion paths frequently. Things can get broken when your site is updated or as external services change. It's very easy to happily assume that everything still works, when you could actually be losing customers and sales. Can customers (on a variety of computers, with a variety of browsers) go completely through all of your conversion paths? Can they download the free trial? Do all of your payment methods work? Test the entire process for each of these. Be your own secret shopper, and place an order. Do you get a confirmation email? A shipment notification? Is the information you would need present in those messages? Do all the links in them work?

Also test all of your communication pathways. Sign up for your own newsletter, and be sure that you get it. Submit a contact request, and see if anyone responds. Try your "chat now for help" feature. Is the representative able to answer your reasonable questions? You put a lot of time and money into implementing these features. Be sure they are serving you well.

Continually improving your site does not have to be an overwhelming all-or-nothing project. Every small problem you fix is one less problem your customers will encounter when they do business with you. Don't wait for the perfect time to get started. Begin now, even if it's only a few small steps.

Linda Eskin is a senior user experience analyst at Red Door Interactive.

On Twitter? Follow Eskin at @lindaeskin. Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.


Linda Eskin is a Senior User Experience Analyst at Red Door Interactive. Her goals are to increase conversions and retention, and reduce support costs, by making our clients' Web sites and applications work better for the people who use them. Her...

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to leave comments.

Commenter: Troy W

2009, October 26

@AndrewHazen--messaging on no-conversion is too risky, I think. You might make a happy customer annoyed. In my testing, I've also seen a recurrent behavioral pattern of people who specifically shop online because they want *no* contact with sales "help" of *any* kind. Grabbing them by the elbow as they try to leave your store may not work out well. I note also that these folks are more and more common as you go below age 35.
But the real problem--a devilish paradox--is that no matter what the response, it won't be useful. If you think the response is irrelevant or obvious, your faults as an organization are keeping you from changing it, and you can't overcome those faults alone. (Ask my fitness guy about me.) If you don't understand the response, you can't fix that either. This assumes the response is accurate. The response is probably NOT accurate, since you are asking a person who just failed to engage with you for his reasoned, time-consuming response to an intrusive question. If the response is not accurate--say, "Your site is confusing," when what the person meant is, "I couldn't find the sale some dude told me about Thursday," you can't do anything about that either. What do you do? In depth testing. It's always worth it. You can probe for deep responses and map the results...this way you ensure your answers are both accurate and actionable. A good test moderator is key.

Commenter: Troy W

2009, October 26

A nice overview of things to keep in mind about user experience!

When I moderate usability tests, one very common problem is to see users confused about the functions of a site because they look unfamiliar. For instance, a navigation menu might look like a Christmas tree in the middle of the page. Or a link might be red instead of blue, because red matches "brand colors." Or the link might not be underlined, because the graphic designer thinks underlining isn't hip. Unfortunately, without these standard clues, your user has no idea how to make your site work. In short, give your site a good visual identity, but make sure the stuff that works--that does things--clearly identifies itself as a button or clickable link (an "affordance," in fancy UXspeak). The easiest way to do this is often to use a standard presentation. Remember, an orange word that is really a link might only confuse 5% of people...but in a business that's about adding up 1%'s and 3.5%'s and 2%'s, that is a big deal.

Commenter: Linda Eskin

2009, October 22

Hi Andrew, and thank you for your comments. Funny, some of us were just talking about that exact scenario today, where a company wonders "Gee, I wonder why we aren't getting any sign-ups." It's so easy to test what site visitors see, yet it gets neglected so often. I'm glad you were able to save those folks from their broken form!

I'm torn about "sorry to see you leave" kind of messaging. It's a bit intrusive, but then again you could salvage a sale - or a relationship - by jumping in and asking, basically, "How could we have served you better? Is there anything we can do for you?" It might catch people off guard, but it's hard to be offended by those questions. People who leave sites do so for a lot of reasons, not all of them bad. Maybe they found the phone number they needed, or got the product info they were after, and are off to the store to buy it, so I'd be sure to allow for responses like "I got what I needed, and am going away happy."

One thing I would advise strongly against is something I saw once when I was shopping online: A site followed up with a "special offer" that was a lower price than what I was just about to pay (and may have come back and paid later that day). Instead of feeling like I was getting a good deal, I felt like I'd narrowly avoided being a sucker and paying the price they originally asked. Now I don't trust that company, and am not inclined to do business with them.

Ideally, I'd try both with and without the follow-up messaging, and see how it works. So much could depend on the kind of site, type of business, the sort of people who visit, etc. Best to test it, and do whatever works.

Great question. Thanks!

Commenter: Linda Eskin

2009, October 22

Thank Rick. I love your attitude.

You're right - it's just human-to-human interaction. People who stop by a site aren't clicks or page views, they are individuals each taking the time to interact with the company/organization. Each has the potential to become a customer, fan, advocate, etc. None of them should be taken for granted.

Some of my favorite sites are the simplest. It's great if you can include great graphics and amazing design, but that has to go on top of a solid foundation. Plain-and-useful beats gorgeous-but-frustrating any day.

Commenter: Andrew Hazen

2009, October 22

Great article Linda - BRAVO!!

As the CEO of an Internet Marketing firm, we come across A LOT of this and you are 100% correct....we take for granted that https:// means the site is secure but the average web user doesn't know that and are looking for a SSL certificate or some credentials.

Testing is typically never done enough and sometimes can cost you big! I once met with a prospect who said they hadn't received a lead in over 60 days!!! I immediately jumped on their site and went to submit a form (i.e. TEST IT) and the form didn't work due to a simple glitch to be fixed....BUT it was because they didn't check their form when the leads stopped that they went 60 with NO inbound leads from the web....quite sad and Yes they became a Prime Visibility client and still are today.

What are your thoughts on surveys, offers, statements/messaging to web visitors who leave a site without converting?

Thanks and again great article...well done.

@AndrewHazen, Founder & CEO

Commenter: Rick Broider

2009, October 21

Bravo on fantastic insight Linda. We work with many clients through our managed live chat service who have fantastic looking websites, but had initially skimped on the basics that you mention.

I think that the elementary stuff really comes down to finding cost-effective ways to provide superior customer service through your website. Linda, you mentioned that you should really understand your audience and I agree, this is paramount! Many companies neglect to really understand their target audience, because, well it's a time consuming, ever changing task. We believe this can only really be accomplished through personal human-to-human interaction, like that which we provide to our clients' site visitors. Nearly ALL of our new Clients are very surprised when they find out why people are REALLY coming to their site and what visitors really need. You said it best, People different needs. Our whole business model is based on creating a better user experience for website visitors to ensure that every hard-earned Website Visitor counts . A good reason why we are so successful is because we help bridge the generation and knowledge gaps to ensure that every visitor leaves our client's website satisfied, regardless of how a website looks or how the information is presented.

I could go on, but I think you did a great job Linda. Thanks so much for sharing.
Rick Broider - http://mylivepro.com

Commenter: Linda Eskin

2009, October 21

Thank you for your comment Jan. Indeed, there is nothing new in the world. The basic principles of human interaction apply even in this shiny new flat world of rounded corners, and social media began when the first humans marked trails with piles of rocks.

Commenter: Jan Riley

2009, October 21

Great article!
I believe you really got to the heart of the matter
people buy from people
not websites
and businesses that are the most successful online ( an offline) use technology to communicate better - not to replace it