What your customers want from the web

Reprinted from the Zazoo blog:

Looking back at past writings, I came across this one I originally wrote more than 10 years ago. Surprisingly, it still has currency today. Pleasantly surprised because many of the insights (such as the emphasis on interaction and community) have stood the test of time; not so pleasantly surprised because of some of the things that still haven’t changed, such as the continued use of the term “user” to describe web consumers – can’t we come up with something that has more humanity? So here it is:

The World Wide Web takes channel surfing to heights only imagined by the most hardened remote control jockey. If your site is boring, of no use, or takes more than a moment to download, people will click away from your page faster than Homer Simpson can scarf down a doughnut. But if you can deliver what your customers want and expect from your Web site, you’ll have a very useful tool for your marketing armoury.

Working out what consumers expect on a Web site is still more of an art than a science. As Fox Television and QVC home shopping executive Barry Diller says, “There are no mavens to be found and no research worth its salt. There are no guideposts, no divining rods to tell you what to do. It’s only with patience that you can develop a fluency in a new medium.”

The online environment is young enough that it’s still being used as an extension of old media. It’s like the early days of television, when it was just radio with pictures. Television producers simply stuck a camera in front of the newsreader, radio serial performers or an orchestra (In fact, the Microsoft Network’s first foray into online news in Australia was exactly that – downloaded video of news editor Jason Romney reading out news headlines on a Web page).

It was only when people like the legendary newsman Edward R. Murrow started taking the camera out of the studio and into the street that television evolved into a medium distinct from radio. Or to use a non-media analogy, the Internet is still a horseless carriage and not yet an automobile.

Interactive new media are largely viewed as incremental improvements to traditional media, when in fact they represent entirely new ways of looking at the world. They are capable of doing things that have never been done before. The online world is still looking for its Edward R. Murrows.

The successful pioneers will be the ones who listen carefully to their users and give them useful interactions that they can’t get in any other medium. (I use the word “user” reservedly, as an inadequate term waiting for the right term to evolve.

They’re not readers, or listeners, or viewers – they’re all those things. So for now the word user is a term favoured by the IT industry until we come up with something better.)

So how do you work it out? Here’s the current thinking on what consumers want and don’t want from a Web site, based on what’s working on the Web and what’s not. Some of it is simple logic, while with others you need to turn your head slightly and look at the world from another angle.

They expect a personalised experience. The ability to serve up customised information has been a big selling point of the Web, and people have been listening. It’s now expected that a Web site will be littered with opportunities to shape their experience, by selecting types of information to be served up, whether to have sound on or off, etc.

Personalisation can include building an analytic ability into a site, such as the database capability of commerce sites such as Amazon, which serves up lists of other books in genres in which you’ve performed searches. The greatest Web sites provide on-on-one specific, valuable information to one person.

They expect it to be interactive. If you don’t give visitors the opportunity to contribute to a discussion, play a game or at least send you an email, you might as well have just printed a brochure.

They expect to connect with others. Bulletin boards, discussion groups, chat rooms, mailing lists – there are plenty of ways to include features which enable people to share ideas with other people through your site.

They expect a response – now. A Web site is a prime opportunity for service-oriented companies to offer full-spectrum customer service. However, you need to ensure that your response, even if it’s an automatic email acknowledging their request, is rapid.

They expect it to be easy to find what they want. People are looking to the Web for information that is sorted and organised in a useful way, though not necessarily a conventional way.

They expect depth of information (but not breadth). It’s much more useful to offer comprehensive information on a limited range of topics on your Web site than a little general information on a wide variety of subjects. Since a Web site has no limit to the pages it can carry, it offers an opportunity for hyper-focus not available to other media. The Web is a place where people can find information they can’t find anywhere else.

They expect to use the Internet for research. The 1997 Price Waterhouse Consumer Technology survey found that Web users spent 43% of their time accessing the Internet for research. They expect compelling content – laced with entertainment. Consumers are drawn to the Web by content – content that is presented in a way that makes it easy to find, use and understand.

It is becoming clear that content without usefulness, fun and interactivity is not going to keep people coming back for more. The information must be dynamic and instantaneous.

Compelling and engaging content will always be more powerful than showing off technology. If you can combine enough technology to enhance the experience of studying your content, you’ll hold a user’s attention long enough to get your message across.

They expect security and privacy. Users need to be told – and shown – that the reports about lack of credit card security, online stalkers and spammers littering the Internet are just that – reports. They expect to be able to buy things, safely and easily.

Despite the general public’s fear on security issues, current and potential Internet users agree that there are a lot of items and services they would be prepared to buy online, once their concerns about security are addressed.

They expect to be given a reason to return. Most Internet users only visit five sites with regularity -the rest are visited only infrequently or as a one-time link from another site. If your site is not going to be on your customers’ top five list, then you’ll need to employ devices such as email newsletters to keep your site top of mind and remind them why it’s worth coming back to your site.

They expect value for the time and money they have invested. True to its anarchic origins, in the present online culture, there’s very little on the Internet that people feel is worth paying for. They’re already paying for online access, time spent visiting your site is an opportunity cost, and so much information is freely available. Therefore, think very carefully before trying to charge users for information.

Having said that, consumers today are well versed in the concept of give and take – you give me something of value and I’ll provide you with something in return. The keys to long-term customer satisfaction are to provide each individual with truly useful information, presented in an appropriate context.

Information that enables an individual to gain greater enjoyment or productivity from their home- or work-life will be valued, and you can command a price for it. The critical difference between useful and useless information is that you have made an effort to understand the needs and interests of your customers.

They don’t want to be treated like idiots. Most Internet users can tell the difference between objective, non-commercial information and “sponsored” information. Don’t insult them by dressing up corporate data as objective fact. Admit your bias up front and focus on giving them something useful. They’ll remember you fondly for that.

They don’t want to wait. This is the strongest reason for not loading your pages up with big graphics and animations. Make sure your design is economical and keep in mind that many users will not be using the fastest computers and modems.

If you focus on giving your customers what they expect and want from a Web site, you’ll be on the way to viewing the Web as an automobile instead of a horseless carriage.