Good Information Architecture Increases Online Sales

Imagine you’re downtown and you want to buy a Kraftwerk CD.

You visit Tower Records, go to the Electronic section, find category K, locate Kraftwerk, and select their Tour De France CD. Great! You’re off to the checkout and…

Hang on. Where’s the checkout?

They’ve moved it to the second floor. When you get there, you hand over you credit card. Big mistake. You should have registered downstairs first.

You head back down to the basement. Do you have two copies of your ID? No. “But it’s only a $9.99 CD!” you argue. The store stands firm. Wonderful music though it is, you’re soon off to a store that’s more conducive to purchasing.

This scenario may be a little far-flung, but if you’ve ever shopped online, you’ve probably had a similar experience at some point. You wanted to buy something, were ready to use your credit card… but the process was so excruciating that you gave up.

You might have the slickest site on the block, but if users can’t figure it out, you won’t make a sale.

Over recent years, the Web has matured from a simple functionality like browsing to being able to cater to intricate processes such as end-to-end financial transactions. During this period, technologies have grown more sophisticated, users have come to require a richer experience, and companies have found numerous ways to generate sales online.

Indeed, when it comes to building a successful ecommerce Website, several areas, such as the design, content, products, incentives, and banner ads all contribute to turn surfers into shoppers.
Where Information Architecture can Help
Every Web designer knows that regardless of how nice an ecommerce site looks, unless the shopping process works, users will abandon it and go elsewhere.

The creation of an effective shopping cart – and everything else that’s related to the buying experience – poses challenges that are very different from programming the site. These issues can be addressed by applying the basic principles of Information Architecture, which offer several tools to refine the process and ensure that the overall business objectives of the site are met.

Information Architecture can be applied to resolve breakdowns in site design and navigation structure. The role of good Information Architecture is to make the Website work not in the technical sense, but from a functional, organized, conceptual perspective. Tidy navigation, meaningful labels, and consistent screens all help enhance the shopping experience.
One of the first things to organize in a site’s design is its navigation structure. This involves defining the optimal routes by which a user might pass from one location to the next.

Alternatively, if you’re overhauling an ecommerce site, you need to identify where users are getting lost by studying their navigation trails, and noting the most frequent entrance and exit routes. The exit page can be very interesting. By examining these pages, you can start to determine:

  • What caused the users to leave?
  • What’s missing from the page (e.g. further instructions)?
  • What message were they expecting, that did not appear?
  • What instructions or messages confused them?

Shopping Cart Design

Shopping carts are notoriously complex to design. A cart might look simple when it works correctly, but when even a single step is missing or incorrect, the whole process is undermined. Regardless of whether you get the rest of the site right, if this area doesn’t work, your time and effort may be wasted.

We’ve all heard the expression ‘business critical’, but for an ecommerce site it really is critical that you give shoppers every chance – and then some more – to complete their online purchases.

Here’s a selection of the most important areas in which you can make valuable amendments to your shopping cart. AFter that, we’ll look at a few suggestions for research that will allow you to go beyond what’s presented in this article as you improve your site.

Reduce Abandonment Rates

eMarketer report that over 65% of buyers leave their Shopping Carts in mid-purchase. To reduce cart abandonment rates, consider these points during the design phase:

  • Display Shipping Costs

    Shoppers don’t buy goods when they feel there are hidden costs involved in the transaction. They want to know all costs (including taxes) and how long will it take to deliver the goods before they begin the purchase process. If customers realize during purchase that they don’t know what these charges will cost them, they’ll leave the shopping cart to find out… and often won’t return.

  • Build a Clear Interface

    Make sure the user can progressively add items to the basket during shopping; poor designs often display only the currently-selected item onscreen. This encourages users to leave before they reach the checkout, fearing that they might be double-billed, or that they’ve done something wrong. On that point, here’s a quick tip. When writing your error messages, always instruct the user what they should do next. Avoid criticizing them for hitting the ‘wrong’ button.

  • Multiple Windows

    Avoid designing shopping carts that float over the entire desktop. These perplex novice users and distract them from the purchase. Stick to the tried, trusted, and familiar display methods.

  • Customer Support

    The importance of excellent support is typically underrated. Always include telephone support numbers on the site. Amazon.com has a huge tele-center to handle phone calls — it understands its users. Support numbers comfort people; novice users will leave the shopping cart to find these. Don’t let the user worry, “Is anyone really behind this site?” If you do, you’ll lose the sale. Use pre-defined templates to ensure that the support phone number is located on all sales pages.

  • Refine Shipping and Billing Pages

    Design forms so that users don’t have to key in their details repeatedly. Capture the data in the database, and avoid making the user leave the site to visit another ‘dedicated’ shipping site; this makes the process exhausting and once fatigue sets in, the customer will quickly give up.

Improve the Purchase Process

Shopping carts can be sharpened up, checkout processes can be simplified, and buying online can be almost as much fun as the hype would have you believe!

To improve your ecommerce site’s effectiveness, try these seven bulletproof pointers:

  1. Link to the shopping cart from every page — don’t make users struggle to find it. Use the word ‘Buy’ or ‘Shop’. Avoid witty puns, as non-native speakers probably won’t understand your knife-edged humor.

  2. Explain the ordering options in simple terms. Many users may be shopping online for the first time.

  3. Include all necessary features in the shopping cart process, for example, the ability to modify or delete items from the basket.

  4. Let users put items ‘on hold’ for future purchasing. Their credit card may not have the available limit during the session, but they might like to be reminded of the item when they return.

  5. Number the pages in the checkout process, for example, 1-4, 2-4, 3-4, 4-4. Users feel more comfortable when they know their location in the overall process, and they have an idea of what lies ahead.

  6. Create concise, usable forms. Don’t force users to re-enter information or provide superfluous data. Why does anyone want a customer’s fax number? Long, bloated forms smack of laziness and reflect poorly on your commitment to quality and customer service.

  7. Guarantee security. Inform the user before they enter an SSL page. If this comes upon them out of the blue – with a JavaScript popup screen warning them about security – some users will think that they have made a mistake and exit.

All these points will improve the shopping experience for users, and ensure you achieve more sales.

User Testing and Focus Groups

Before you launch the site, test the shopping cart on a cross-section of users. Resist the temptation of asking your staff, family, or friends to test the site. Most likely, they will only give you positive feedback.

Instead, organize a focus group with five or six volunteers. It’s better to find faults in the site before it goes live, rather than after a much-promoted public launch.

Study the Masters

If you’re getting into Information Architecture for the first time, take a look at some leading ecommerce sites. They’ve invested millions to fine-tune their shopping carts. See how many fail in the areas mentioned above. Contrast rival etailers, such as bookstores or music sites. The results will be very interesting!

When you add an item to the ‘basket’ on Dell.com, the price of the purchase is shown at the bottom of the page. This feature also breaks down how much the purchase will cost per month if you purchase it through a financing plan. And when you change the configuration, it updates the prices in real-time. Simple, but very impressive.

Before I leave you, here’s a challenge. Visit an ecommerce site. Go through the checkout process. Then go back and count the number of areas where it could be improved. Consider how you would fix it.

And, if you’re considering Information Architecture as a career, you could contact the retailer and politely say, “I couldn’t help notice a few things on your site…” If you can help a company sell more products, people will listen to you very carefully.

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