February 21, 2005

E-Commerce Programming Is About to Get a Lot More Complicated

By Evan Schuman, eWEEK

Webmasters no longer know what their customers are seeing when they visit their sites, and they have anti-virus, ant-spyware, anti-popup and alternative browsers to thank.

In the early Web days, all that an e-commerce site developer/programmer needed to worry about were operating system version and browser.

Worst-case scenario: They could create different full versions of their sites for Mac or Unix, Netscape or IE. With just about a dozen or so versions of the site and programming to detect which version to display, Webmasters could be confident that the site would appear to customers as intended.

Then came swarms of spam, viruses and spyware to take advantage of the new, uninitiated masses just learning e-mail. Then, of course, came vendors selling anti-spam, anti-virus and anti-spyware packages. Good-bye to simplicity.

Another problem has been that customers had quite a few options as to how their system would display fonts, play multimedia, and interact with Java and its limitless alternatives. Even today's browser options are multiplying, with IE no longer having the "cornered the market" overwhelming dominance that it enjoyed just a couple of years ago.

Tower Records has tried to replicate how people see their Web pages, in an attempt to identify and isolate site-design glitches leading to user errors. But even Tower's efforts have been limited by choices end-users make ... and some they donÕt.

Under the "some they don't" category goes a wide range of operating system and browser patches that automatically change settings and add security features, all of which have an unknown effect on how pages are displayed.

Add onto that the impact of VPNs, firewalls and other pure-security devices and it's becoming clear that when an end user sees exactly what an e-commerce Webmaster intended for them to see, it's nothing more than the greatest stroke of luck.

I'm reminded of the movie "WarGames," where a huge server designed to simulate military assault scenarios does it so realistically that it almost triggers an actual military response to a simulated attack.

Critics of the movie said it was unrealistic because software could never do things its creator didn't intend. Actually, the movie was unrealistic for 50 reasons, but the software's unintended ability was one of the few true-to-life parts, as anyone who has tried installing Windows knows far too well.

It's not that the operating system does so many unintended things as it interacts with other applications in unanticipated ways. That's not surprising, in that no operating system developer could possibly anticipate every possible app and every possible setting of those apps.

Lisa Arthur, the chief marketing officer for Akamai, puts some of the blame for site-serving-vs.-site-receiving disconnects on the many sites that have not had their "underlying infrastructure" redone since their initial e-commerce effort many years ago. "They havenÕt overhauled their site to keep pace," she said, citing the Ōgrowing complexity" of browsers, Web apps, rich media and other software.

So where does all of this leave us? Whether the source is Jakob Nielsen or Henry David Thoreau, the advice for e-commerce site designers is "simplify."

When a programmer throws out a very cool way to present a capability, envision what the page will look like if that clever visual breaks. Will it merely look ugly? Will the site visitor have no way to access the feature? Or will the absence blend into the background, giving the site visitor no clue that there even is something missing?

But the "simplify" approach is a very short-term solution, as I'd never encourage e-commerce players to fine-tune their sites at 1997 tech levels and leave them there. Product demonstration animations, live chat tech support and other interactive capabilities are simply too informationally powerful to ignore.

The only long-term answer is more extensive standardization, so that users opting for the most common platforms and app combos—including firewall, anti-spyware and ad blockers—get a consistent response.

Failing that—and no columnist ever lost money betting that standards groups will take longer and be less effective than they should—we need to see better testing to anticipate likely conflicts. Whether that means customer testing in controlled environments or screen capture software in non-controlled environments, we need e-commerce sites to know how their customers see them—literally.