June 29, 2005

Consumers to E-Commerce Sites: Simplify or We Walk

By Evan Schuman, Ziff Davis Internet

Opinion: Ziff Davis Internet's Evan Schuman warns e-commerce companies that they have to simplify. A new survey is giving evidence that complexity repels consumers. So has every other survey since the Web was born. Now will someone listen?

Corporate Web sites are becoming bloated bandwidth hogs, which should surprise absolutely no one in high tech. But a recent survey is proving that the reckless use of multimedia, animation, JavaScript and other impressive but non-informational offerings is starting to have a negative impact on site traffic.

The site visitor's pain from overdesigned or overprogrammed sites—those being two different but equally sinful efforts—is more than mere time-wasting. It can be annoying and distracting, and the fluff can literally make it much more difficult for the site attendee to actually get the information that would allow him/her to make a purchase.

That's among the findings from an extensive survey analysis by the team reporting to Terry Golesworthy, president of the Customer Respect Group, an Ipswich, Mass.-based research/consulting firm.

The fact that no marketing department ever considered calling itself the Customer Respect Group truly does speak light-years about this research. When did e-commerce and brochure sites start feeling disdain for their prospects and customers? If they're not guilty of disdainful feelings, at the very least they are guilty of reckless indifference to how customers feel and what their needs are. In a word, they are treating those customers with a lack of respect.

For example, Golesworthy's survey found that—again, no surprise—the size of the average Web page has been sharply increasing every year, despite the fact that customer connection speeds are relatively consistent.

Ever since a few years ago when analog modems (aka dial-up) hit their theoretical maximum 56K speed (which, of course, means a true maximum speed in the mid-to-upper 40s), dial-up users throughput have been capped. Broadband speeds have also been fairly well-capped, although at a dramatically faster speed. The only overall speed increase has been the rapid transition of analog users to broadband, but the average speed of the two approaches (dial-up and broadband) have been fairly static.

The fact that Web pages have consistently gotten larger during that period translates into what seems to be slower pages and a more disappointing experience.

Personally, I'd love for states to pass laws that every corporate Web developer must go home and look at his/her work via an analog modem before finalizing the pages. Better yet, they should then have to drive to a Starbucks and try to interact with the site on a smart phone or use that tiny PDA screen.

When they create it on their LAN and then show it to their executives at Gigabit Ethernet internal LAN speeds, that's a great way to get approval on a bloated, ineffective site.

Before B2B readers scoff at the dial-up claim with a casual, "Oh, our prospects work for big companies. They all have T1 or better," they need to ask themselves whether their prospects ever travel or work from home. Does their corporate T1 help them when they're browsing from the airport lounge? Or when they are in a hotel without broadband support? Or when they are home without DSL or a cable modem?

Golesworthy found that dial-up toleration for page download stops at about 77K. For broadband, that number increases to about 300K.

"Only 13 percent of the Top 100 companies have a page size of less than 77K" and barely 20 percent have pages that would be acceptable even to broadband users, he said.

"Pages are getting bigger and more cumbersome, and the average speed is actually going down," Golesworthy said. "The home page of ESPN has video downloaded each time. The more technology you have, the more those technologies are used."

I am personally a big fan of multimedia, but when using it in the most minimalist way possible. Start with audio, and make it as short and small as possible and then move to video only when there is additional information provided by that video that the site visitor truly wants. Is that the lowest bandwidth way to deliver that information?

About 10 years ago, I was working for a B2B publisher, and a senior exec there mentioned in a speech that the company was going to support multimedia. A colleague turned to me and said, "Relax. To him, multimedia means that we offer newspapers and magazines." Ahhh, I long for those simpler days.

Golesworthy points to one of the most popular Web sites to make his point. "Google took this to the limit and created a minimalist site," which became remarkably popular as a result. "Because you can do something [impressively complex] doesn't mean you should do it."

Of potentially greater concern are functionality conflicts due to the fancy-schmancy capabilities.

"One of the sites we viewed had a very nice Flash banner on the home page, with a parrot flying around the place," he said. "The fact is that it stopped the help menu from working."

This column has already addressed daily nightmares from the latest pop-up blockers, anti-virus programs, software firewalls and anti-spyware and how they are conflicting with almost every piece of programming out there today. But those straightforward ASCII-text-oriented sites that Jakob Nielsen—my hero—loves also nicely avoid the vast majority of such conflicts.

Almost one in five business-site visitors told Golesworthy's team they would abandon a site if they found it too difficult—or insufficiently intuitive—to use.

"If you are searching for flights and you don't like Expedia, you can just go to Orbitz," he said.

But Expedia and Orbitz are e-commerce examples where the sites—like Amazon and Google—provide a service to the customer. Presumably, a customer will endure a little more when they are getting desired information right back.

But what about brochure sites? The sites that are trying to persuade prospects to use their product or service: How much leeway will most prospects give them?

Golesworthy points to an even greater danger for some service companies. Let's say that a major bank starts offering free online account access, but the access is slow, buggy and conflict-ridden.

Will its customers—who are ostensibly open to electronic banking—simply not use that site and deal with the bank the old-fashioned way? Or will they move all of their accounts to a different bank that can deliver a functional online experience?

"The customer may stop doing business with you altogether," he said. "They won't bail on you as a site. They may bail on you as a company."

There is also a speed-of-Web-response factor. The survey found that 56 percent of people will not wait more than one day before they will write off an e-mail as ignored.

The survey results offered good news—"They don't need it in an hour"—but most stressed that e-mail access needs to be taken seriously. A mere two- or three-day delay in response may do the proverbial more harm than good.

Then you factor in the influence that Web research has on almost all purchases today.

"The consumer is looking to find things quickly and easily. They don't want to go through" a lot of links that link to other links, Golesworthy said.

To that end, most sites today are absolutely lousy about site navigation. In general, that includes three tools: an FAQ (frequently asked questions) section; an intuitive and complete site map; and an accurate site search.

Barely 42 percent of the surveyed sites had all three, he said.

Not only are sites making bad assumptions about bandwidth and users' interest in pointless animated presentations, but they are starting to make bad assumptions about screen size. On the one hand, laptop screens are getting significantly larger to the point where they are approaching—and sometimes exceeding—their desktop cousins. But much smaller screens—such as those on smart phones and hybrid PDAs, along with some airline displays and other new devices—are also gaining in popularity.

When faced with such a huge number of different sizes, the only viable design approach is to create a resizable page. And yet—you saw this coming, didn't you?—the survey found that an impressive 87 percent of Web sites today are not resizable.

For that matter, most are not sufficiently accessible to the visually impaired, despite the fact that one out of five Americans have such a hardship, Golesworthy said.

Another problem area for Web sites today is cookies. Cookies have morphed from being a site visitor convenience to often being essential. I cannot read stories from New Jersey's largest newspaper because its site continually insists that it can't find my cookie, so it puts me into an endless loop of reg form completion.

Registration forms today are their own controversy. Companies are moving beyond the name, rank and serial number approach and demanding that prospects fill out extensive questionnaires. The fact that this causes many otherwise attractive prospects to flee doesn't seem to be dampening the trend.

Maybe Thoreau was right?

"Our life is frittered away by detail. An honest man has hardly need to count more than his ten fingers, or in extreme cases he may add his ten toes, and lump the rest," Henry David Thoreau wrote. "Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb nail."

Had Thoreau been a Web developer, I would have been honored to have visited his pages.