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By Joan O??. Hamilton Lynne Bingham's nine-year-old, upscale children's boutique in Pittsburgh was going gangbusters in 1994. Then, along came an intriguing inquiry from an entrepreneurial group affiliated with Carnegie Mellon University: Would she like to be "guinea pig" in their efforts to create an e-commerce site featuring her high-end gift baskets for babies?
Sure, she said. So they registered the appealing name of www.stork.com, and Bingham watched with some interest but not much optimism as it took over a year for someone to actually order from a select list of premium baby gifts she was willing to try to sell online.
Fast-forward seven years, however, and Bingham's e-venture has taken all kinds of interesting and unexpected twists. For starters, those orders did pick up, and the efficiencies of operating online became so appealing that in the summer of 2000, she sold her retail store to focus on the Web. Then, there was the profitable sale of her site's original name to a high-tech company from the Netherlands called Stork Group, which parted with a six-figure sum just to buy her URL. Not bad pay for a "guinea pig."
That lucrative deal nonetheless meant she had to start all over again with a new brand and a site redesign. She carved out baby gifts, gifts for siblings, and gifts for new moms as her niche. Bingham solicited some bids for a site design, which ranged from $15,000 to $30,000. But then she came across Yahoo! Shopping, and its site-hosting and authoring tools. For $100 per month, she could get both design templates and back-end reporting tools for inventory and site management. "This seemed to be a perfect solution," she says, and she launched The Stork Delivers.com in January.
Just a few months later, however, Bingham has questions about the trade-off she has made. In general, she's happy with her site's ease of use, with the automatic e-mail responses to orders that it generates, with the reports that tell her about traffic, and most of all with the ability it gives her to make changes quickly and inexpensively. She's generating between 50 and 80 orders each month.
However, she wants to push that order number to over 100 within six months. She wonders if her site design is holding her back. "I'm sure there are other small to medium-sized businesses wondering if doing it yourself and having control is a reasonable trade-off to having a nicer looking, but more costly site," she writes.
Bingham also wonders if a more graphically engaging presentation would help increase her sales, say, through the use of slightly more elaborate graphic tools such as "rollovers."
Our panel Web Makeovers was happy to explore these questions, and so were three of our design panelists. This month's team includes Nick Gould, president of Catalyst Design in New York City; Amy Nadasky of Deepend, a San Francisco-based Web design firm; and Michael LeBeau, CEO of Byte Interactive in Norwalk, Conn.
Given that these are all professional Web-design firm that tend to service very large corporate clients, it's probably not surprising that all three had some reservations about some of the constraints of using a template approach. However, they understand Bingham's desire to keep costs low, and they had good suggestions for some specific design elements that can be fixed even within her current Yahoo! Shopping environment.
We are especially excited to be able to present not just one but two visual makeovers for TheStorkDelivers.com homepage, one that Nick Gould developed to slip easily into the Yahoo! Shopping format, and the other that Amy Nadasky created from scratch, using rollovers and in general a more custom look. Web designs never have just one solution -- it's all about picking the option that reflects customer habits and preferences, and that will aid a business in meeting its goals.
As always, we alert our readers that our panelists offer their evaluations and suggestions as a courtesy to our project. They have graciously joined with us in an effort to address common Web-design issues and offer some immediate advice and perspective from current thinkers in the field. Were one to hire these firms, their research, evaluations, and design work would be in considerably more depth.
Does a site have to be custom-designed?
"A site need not be 'pretty' to be effective or successful," believes Nick Gould of Catalyst. However, because many Internet users still approach new sites warily, good site design can help overcome what Gould calls the "customer trust barrier." Given the potential risks inherent in providing credit-card information to unknown parties over the Internet and the discomfort with buying "sight unseen," for example, consumers will look to a variety of different factors in forming their assessment of a vendor's overall trustworthiness, as well as the quality of the site's products or services.
"The effort and expense that the site owner appears to have invested in the site's design (as well as the information and functionality available on the site) can easily swing a potential customer's judgment one way or the other," he believes.
"This is a vexing problem for small businesses like Lynne Bingham's. On the one hand, these businesses simply can't afford to spend excessively on a site that is costly to create and maintain. On the other hand, it is absolutely crucial that small retail sites do everything they can to make visitors feel comfortable enough to place that all-important first order. Then, assuming all goes well with shipping and billing, the customer trust barrier is significantly lower the next time around."
Gould believes TheStorkDelivers (or TSD as we'll refer to it) has a couple of special issues to contend with as well:First, Bingham's products are quite deluxe. Virtually all of her site's new-baby gift baskets (the main product line) are over $100, and many are over $200. Some products, such as gold and diamond baby charms, are in the $2,000 to $4,000 range.Second, many customers are corporations purchasing gifts for major clients or customers. These buyers are likely to require an even greater assurance that the product they have selected will reach its destination without a hitch. As Bingham notes: "For the most part, it's the executive assistant choosing and sending that really important client a really great gift."
Bingham says she has experienced "slow but steady" increases in sales over the last three months, and that roughly 90% her business comes from repeat orders. Gould says that could be a good news/bad news situation: "The fact that most of TSD's current customers are returning customers means that the "lifetime value" of a TSD customer is potentially quite high.
However, it might also mean that the site is somehow turning off visitors who haven't already had experience with TSD's products and services." More evidence that new customers might be reacting a bit warily to TSD's look: The page's "About us" section is getting very high traffic, according to Bingham's statistics.
All three of our panelists felt there were some significant issues about TheStorkDelivers' homepage and product displays that could be hurting Bingham's "conversion rate," or the number of visitors to the site who actually ended up ordering products. Right now that rate is just 0.007 orders per visitor. The designers' primary concerns included: A weak corporate branding statement, redundant navigation, low-quality buttons and fonts on the homepage, insufficient summary pages for groups of products that would allow users to comparison shop within the site, and confusing shipping cost and information.
Banner ads turn off users
Bingham's concept for the banner ad-like space at the top of her pages is that each would be its own ad for a page deeper in the site. Unfortunately, this contradicts a strong trend in psychology: Users have pretty much trained themselves to literally ignore anything that looks like an ad.
"On my first visit to the site, I didn't even realize that that was the space allocated for the logo/mark. I skipped past it wanting to avoid being barraged by advertising," says designer Amy Nadasky. "But what did I skip to? The rest of the site bore no distinct mark or character. The things you must ask yourself are, 'What separates this site from any of the other e-commerce baby-basket sites? What sets this site apart as unique?'
"In order to compete with similar e-commerce sites and the more established brick-and-mortar equivalents it must rival the charm of walking into a boutique shop or being enticed by a storefront display." says Nadasky. "On the current site there is not a BRAND. The identity is pasted across the top and looks like a banner ad."
Agrees Michael LeBeau, CEO of Byte Interactive: "I was also very confused by what looked like a banner at the head of each page, which turned out to be the masthead for the site. Banners have become recognized icons within the Web world, and consumers have been trained (subconsciously) to avoid them. TSD should reconsider the use of the banner icon to deliver key brand information, and design a header that will actually be viewed by visitors."
Other homepage notes and recommendations from our designers:
Simplify the homepage layout to clearly indicate the five available product sections, Gould suggests. These sections could be represented with a section heading link and corresponding image. Differentiate (with color, font, size, placement, etc.) the five product sections from the other navigation links on the left-side navigation bar.
Replace the individual text descriptions in the main section of the homepage with a single site introduction that describes TSD at a high level.
Consider adding multiple search criteria: by manufacturer name, by product type, by price range, by in-stock/out-of-stock status, etc. The more tools we can provide to the consumer, the better off they are to serve themselves.
Adds LeBeau: "The site has a fairly diverse product line, but forces consumers to click through a hierarchical navigation structure to find desired products or product lines. I much prefer the sites that try to learn a bit about consumers when they first enter the site by either presenting a very intuitive navigation system (e.g. www.babyuniverse.com) or through a splash page that directs users to relevant product categories (e.g. www.buybuybaby.com). With a lot of competition out there, consumers need to find relevant products immediately -- or they're off to the next site.
Some specific critiques of the existing homepage from Nick Gould:
Product presentationUsability, or the extent to which a site's design allows customers to quickly and easily meet their objectives -- is another area to which smaller sites like TSD should pay particular attention, says Gould. "Confusing navigation, ambiguous or repetitive labeling, unnecessary text, and wasted clicks can all have a drastic effect on any site's customer conversion."
While he notes, for example, that currently TSD's design is fairly simple and straightforward, it spreads a small number of products out across a somewhat complex categorization scheme in which individual products often appear in multiple categories. For example, the site offers 14 individual Baby Gift Baskets in 5 separate categories (some of which only contain one or two items).
Also, customers must navigate to the product-page level to view prices and product information. As an illustration, a customer who wanted to view the complete selection of gift baskets (including prices) would need to click a minimum of 28 times (beginning from the homepage and including the back button) to do so. This scenario could be reduced to one click if the entire basket selection (only 14 items), with prices, were displayed under the "Baby Gift Baskets" link.
Because prices are shown only at the product-page level, shoppers must click through to each product to see the price -- and must remember the price to decide between multiple products. Also, there's a risk that customers will mistakenly assume that the price of the first basket they click on (possibly the most expensive one available) is representative of all the baskets and leave the site without ever knowing that less expensive choices were available.
Details, details, details
Gould notes that TSD's "Info" page contains a lot of detailed information pertaining to shipping costs and timetables (nine different permutations), and yet none of this product-specific information appears on the individual product pages. Furthermore, the shipping charges are not specified anywhere in the checkout process (final costs are e-mailed after the order is submitted).
The result is that customers must find and decipher the (ambiguously labeled) "Info" area in order to understand when they will receive their order and how much they will have to pay for shipping. He recommends:
??nclude shipping costs and details on the product pages and, if necessary, provide a link to the Info page for more information.Consider simplifying the shipping costs and policies (or include a basic shipping charge in the item cost) so that customers can more easily determine what the final cost of their order will be and when they will receive it.
This suggestion hit a home run with Bingham: "Such a simple change...but one that will be so much clearer to those who visit the site."
As an illustration of a possible approach to several of the design/usability observations made in this evaluation, Catalyst created a new design concept for the TSD homepage. This design has been implemented on the Yahoo store platform to demonstrate that the use of this cost-efficient platform does not completely restrict site owners from offering visitors a professional, attractive design identity.
New homepage design concept
That's one approach to making over The Stork Delivers. Another comes from Deepend designer Amy Nadaskay. Deepend has created very modern and sleek Web sites for a variety of high-end clients, for example, Bombay Sapphire. Like Gould and LeBeaux, Nadasky felt The Stork Delivers look and feel did not support the atmosphere and style that should surround the high-end gifts the site sells. We encouraged Deepend to design a site that was unconstrained by the template format and pushed some of the graphic design tricks of the Web.
Says Nadasky: "The overall concept I used was one of a quaint storefront, setting some antique type for a logo and gave it it's own uncluttered space. I further added soft, newborn-esque colors to give it some personality and warmth. The logo on the yellow mesh acts as an awning to lead your eye into the storefront window. The window provides a sample of their main item -- baby baskets and then two other items. Instead of showing/cramming everything on to the homepage, the window is arranged with a sample of the cutest things to entice the user to enter the store - just like a real boutique.
"Next I reorganized the information on the screen. I brought the phone number and SEARCH to the top for instant and constant customer satisfaction. The sections are grouped by commerce, checkout, and about us. I put all the product sections on the homepage to make each product accessible in the least amount of clicks possible.
Nadasky continues: "Having fewer choices on a page at one time helps focus the attention of the user, highlighting the important elements of the page while keeping the details only a click away. Information is grouped into similar subjects as if it were part of a table of contents. The chapter titles reveal subheadings beneath them, which are in turn used to access the pages of the book.
"My final recommendation is to reshoot all of the product pictures. If the storefront metaphor is used, better lighting and detail could make the items look more charming and distinct. If they really are of high quality, they should be portrayed that way."
Concludes Michael Lebeau: "The biggest issue facing the site is working within the confines of a "template" environment like Yahoo! Stores. The upside is that it's inexpensive and provides rapid development. The downside is that you can tell.
By definition, site designs are limited to clunky navigation, simplistic product displays (thumbnails which expand to larger pictures), and limited back-end functionality. The search features are simple, the checkout process is clumsy, and consumer tracking and dynamic-content delivery is impossible.
Bottom line, if you are a small mom-and-pop shop, the template sites are great. If you are building a business around a Web presence, the limitation of a Yahoo! Store will quickly impede your business model and force you to remain simplistic in your approach."
Bingham's favorite solution among the options presented was Catalyst's. "What a great job Nick did on the new homepage," she tells us. "It really does look more inviting and, yes, even more trusting to those who never used us or heard of us before. The only thing that Nick and I don't see eye-to-eye on is the product count. I think 42-50 products for this market and price point is plenty. Less is more and more becomes way too confusing."Nick Gould is CEO of Catalyst Group Design, a usability and user interface design firm founded in 1998 (www.catalystgroupdesign.com). Catalyst specializes in usability evaluations, user testing, competitive user-interface analysis, and fact-based, user-centric design for Web sites and other interactive applications. Catalyst clients include Scholastic Inc., Bertelsmann, CDNOW, Screaming Media, and Oracle.Amy Nadaskay came to Deepend (www.deepend.com) San Francisco in 2000 after earning degrees in art history and French from Washington University and design from The Creative Circus. Since then she has been at Deepend she has spearheaded creative efforts on such projects as www.aarondeemer.com, www.bombaysapphire.com, and www.deepend-sf.com.
Deepend San Francisco and the other global studios collectively offer creative digital communication services and strategic brand planning, with expertise in Web design and development, brand development, graphic design and illustration, multimedia, games development, 3D visualization, interactive TV, moving image and emerging media, including broadband, handheld, and wireless technologies. In the year 1999-2000, Deepend won 20 major international awards and was rated the world's No. 1 creative agency by Advertising Age International.Michael LeBeau has more than 15 years of experience in the advertising and marketing industries. In his position as CEO of Byte Interactive, which he founded in 1997, LeBeau oversees the management of high-profile clients such as Guinness/Bass Import Co., AIWA, Coty, Perrier, Sony Music, Brietling, and Olympus. Previously, LeBeau worked for advertising agencies, where he managed accounts for clients including Haagen-Dazs, Pepsi Cola, Cadbury Beverages, and AT&T. (www.byteinteractive.com)
Hamilton writes the Digital Lifestyle column for BW e.biz as well as the e.biz online Web Site Makeovers Hamilton writes the Digital Lifestyle column for BW e.biz as well as the e.biz online Web Site Makeovers