Posts Tagged ‘best practices’

Responsive Design and Usability

July 9th, 2013
by Stacey Crisler

Not too long ago, websites were tested solely on a desktop computer. Now we are often testing websites across many devices including desktop computers, laptops, tablets, and an array of mobile phones. As screen sizes proliferate, how does a website keep up? That is where Responsive Web Design comes in to play. Responsive design is flexible and adjusts to any screen size by using media queries to figure out the resolution of the device it is being accessed on. The content will always be the same, but may shrink when accessed from devices with smaller screens.

What’s the big deal?

Despite Jakob Nielsen’s argument, the evolution of smartphones and tablets has left many sites feeling outdated. Not only do these limited functionality, mobile-only sites now seem obsolete, they are also trapping users in an environment that makes completing a task online confusing or impossible.

From this perspective, RWD becomes a no-brainer; do you want to limit content and functionality or, provide a consistent brand experience regardless of the device used to access the site? Additionally, how do you keep up with the mobile device explosion? Resolutions and device types continue to change and broaden. Iterating designs for each device or screen resolution would either be an endless game of catch-up or next to impossible to do. An RWD approach currently offers the best solution to these problems. When executed properly, a responsive design will work seamlessly across all screen types and, as a result, make updating content a snap. However, as many design teams are less experienced with the new fluid grids and all-in-one approach, there are often some usability hurtles to overcome.

Below are some of the most common usability issues we have seen when testing Responsive Web Designs (RWD):

1. Many feel that design RWD design should start with the mobile experience, but this can lead to a less than satisfying desktop experience.

While RWD lends itself to a simplified design style that maximizes flexibility, the mobile-first focus can lead to a desktop experience that does not seem as robust in comparison to user expectations. Users can find the scaled-back design lacks the professional feeling they seek in order to trust a website or work effectively and efficiently with what they expect from the brands they know.

While many designers do not want to “hide” content on smaller screen resolutions, there are times when this approach makes the most sense, for example, to achieve a complete and professional desktop experience.

The Boston Globe website handles this issue well; the site displays additional menus and graphics on the desktop version, but hides them on the mobile version. This gives the best possible experience to the user regardless of how they access the site.

2. Device-specific conventions do not always make sense outside of that device.

The settings menu is a prominent example. While the convention of a gear icon is easily understood in mobile, it is not conventional within the desktop experience. Even some experienced mobile users are unable to find and expand a menu using this icon from the desktop. Unlike on the desktop, users can easily find the icon within the mobile experience; therefore, context matters. For example, an icon with three horizontal lines indicates it is the menu. However, while many users may intuitively identify and understand this icon on a mobile device, they may not necessarily be able to do the same on the comparable desktop version.

Starbucks is an example of a navigation menu done right. On the desktop version, a traditional horizontal navigation menu drops down and displays subcategories. This dropdown allows for quick navigation to lower level pages of interest. The menu moves behind an easily recognizable icon when the site is resized. Here, it becomes a streamlined version of the menu with only main level categories available.

This example from Sony is an even better example. On the mobile version, they use the word ‘Menu’ as the icon label making it even easier for users to find:

3. Usability guidelines apply regardless of how users enter the site.

While we have covered basic usability guidelines before in our blog, it is still important to apply them to new designs as well. In fact, it may be helpful to revisit them to ensure users can adjust seamlessly to the new versions of your site. Here are a few places where usability principles are not being applied in responsive designs:

Disney’s website is an example. Regardless of how you enter their website, it is easy to get lost once the menu is opened. On the desktop, it drops to cover the page whereas on the mobile, it moves to the left to accommodate the menu. Again, the menu gives no indication of one’s location on the site. Also note here that we lose the site logo and therefore the visibility of the brand.

Grey Goose is another example of a site that does not adapt well to mobile. Sure, this looks like an elegantly designed website; however, when viewed on mobile devices, it lacks the ability to navigate between the main stories. To boot, the page break makes it unclear that stories are available below the fold. Unfortunately, as a result, many users may miss the gorgeous photography beautifully displayed in the desktop version:

While Crayola also designed an excellent responsive site, they forgot to speak in their customers’ language. For example, labeling their ‘Main Navigation’, just that – is not a particularly customer-friendly way of talking to consumers:

Many RWD with clear call-to-action buttons often mistakenly place this vital part of the page below the fold on smaller resolution screens. For example, Burst Creative’s site has their ‘Get Started’ button front and center on the desktop layout; however, for those accessing the site via mobile, the call-to-action is at the bottom of the page.

Now, compare Burst Creative’s site to, where the call-to-action always remains above the fold. The World Wildlife Federation (WWF) site is another example where the key calls-to-action, “Donate” and “Adopt”, always remain visible at the top of the page. These two buttons stand out on both designs and are never collapsed or deprioritized on the page.

As shown in these RWD example websites, if you keep basic usability principles at the forefront of your mind when designing your site, it can offer an excellent and consistent experience for your users. Tell us how you feel about responsive design. Are you considering it for your site?

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Landing Page Best Practices: How are you greeting site visitors?

May 8th, 2012
by Stacey Crisler

We have done a number of projects lately with sites that need to look at how they greet customers when coming to their site and this got us thinking about landing pages. Very often, users are not entering your site through the home page any longer. Ads, emails and searches are often driving users to your site. With over 1 billion searches per day on Google alone, you should be giving serious thought to the way users are entering your site and whether or not you are putting your best foot forward when they do. If you don’t greet visitors in the best possible way, your goal - conversion - will not be met.

In this post, we’ll take a look at the different ways a user may be entering your site and best practices for these entry points.

The most obvious entry point is your home page. A user may be familiar with your site, may have seen your URL somewhere, or searched for your site and ended up on your home page. The best home pages:

  • Make it clear that they are home pages - a user should never have to guess
  • Provide access to main navigation, not only to allow for easy access to information, but also to provide an indication of what your site offers
  • Indicate the site’s value proposition or benefits - identify yourself to new users
  • Offer a clear path for returning visitors to access their account or personalized information
  • Entice users into the site - with images, topics of interest, etc. to encourage further interaction with the site

Today, we want to focus more on the pages users reach when they enter your site via a campaign or search. This may be a page specifically designed to be a landing page or simply a page on your site that is a default landing page because of the amount of search traffic driven to it. There are a number of things that should be done whichever type of page users are landing on to greet them to your site. The tips for home pages above apply, as do the following:

  • Ensure consistent branding
    • Your logo should be visible and look like your company’s logo - a user should never have to guess whether or not they are in the right place
    • The rest of the branding - look, feel and design - should be consistent with the feel of the rest of your website. This doesn’t mean a campaign or page cannot use different elements than the rest of your site, but the overall look and feel should not be so different that users are again left guessing where they are or are confused if they navigate to the rest of the site
  • Provide a clear value proposition that is consistent with both how the user entered the page and the breadth of content, products or services your site offers
    • You want to be sure you are delivering on the specific promise you made in your campaign or search result; the page that users enter should match any expectations you have set for them
    • But, you also want to be sure you do not miss an opportunity for users to understand all of what you have to offer, as something else you offer may pique their interest
  • Provide a clear call-to-action
    • This is true whether you are requesting interaction, such as registration from a user, or if you simply want them to explore your site further
    • You want to provide clear avenues to interaction and highlight them with clear instructions to users, so employ action-oriented terms: “Get Your Free Quote”, “Learn More”, “Contact Us”, etc.
  • Keep your design clean
    • While you want to make sure you are providing options to users, you do not want to overwhelm them or distract them from your message
    • Include links to key pages or navigation (this page should not be a trap), but do not include every offer or marketing message you want a user to see on this one page
    • Focus on the expectations set and deliver on those on this page using bulleted, easy to scan benefits or value proposition information
  • Be aware of the fold
    • Key content and call-to-action messaging needs to be immediately visible to users
    • If users have to scroll for a payoff, you have lost them, so consider who is coming to your site and on what devices / screen resolutions and design to make sure they do not have to scroll to see key information

Below, we will look at some of the best practices specific to different types of landing pages, as well as examples of what to do and what not to do when welcoming a visitor to your site.


1. While I mentioned it above, I will mention it again here, because this is so important for campaign-specific landing pages: You must deliver on the expectations set by whatever it is that sent a user to the page.

  • In the example below, a search for Best Buy, offers a link to what it says is Best Buy’s official site. However, the link actually takes visitors to a landing page specific to Best Buy’s deals and weekly ad. The effect is disorienting for a visitor looking to access the Best Buy site because the set-up does not meet expectations.

  • On the other hand, this AT&T ad on provides access to the content that was specifically detailed in the ad, while also providing access to a wider range of options if a user is interested in other products or services. This means the page delivers on both the specific user need and a wider range of interests they may have.

2. If you are requesting information from users – to fulfill an offer, get them started using your site, or provide them with customized information, your task with a landing page is even harder. You may lose people as soon as they see a form to be completed. To counteract this:

  • Your page should load quickly so users see the whole picture very quickly
  • That whole picture should include a clear statement of benefits: what is the value exchange you are offering? You are asking for their time and personal data - what are they getting from you in return?
  • What type of time commitment are you asking of them? Is all the information you are seeking on one page or is this a multi-step process?
  • What will the payoff be? You need to set specific and accurate expectations for what will happen at the end of the registration process or form.

3. Additionally, any forms provided on campaign-specific landing pages should adhere to form best practices (see more about best practices for forms here). Some highlights:

  • Be specific about what you are asking for and WHY you are asking for it
  • Ask for only the most important information, focusing on things that are least invasive, i.e., if you can use only a zip code for location, do not request exact street address. You can request that information once you have deepened the relationship with the customer
  • Include logos or icons that highlight security of information. Logos like Verisign, Truste and the Better Business Bureau, as well as icons, such as a picture of a lock, reassure users that they are using a secure site and that the information provided will be safe

4. Examples in the auto quote space provide an interesting contrast in what works and what doesn’t:

  • Progressive provides a focused page that directs users to a call to action, while addressing critical user information needs:

  • Geico, on the other hand, overwhelms users with information. This takes focus away from the purpose of the page and does not address user information in a concise way, making it less likely for users to convert.


1. For pages on your site that become landing pages because the content is often searched for and makes it a key entry page to your site, it is important to let users know where they are on your site

  • Many times, breadcrumbing can be used to help orient a visitor (for some sites, like those with a lot of dynamic content, breadcrumbing may not be the best option. For more information on breadcrumbing best practices, see our blog on breadcrumbing)
  • Additionally, clear highlighting within the navigation can be used to indicate position
  • This example from CNET shows that a search for “best tablet computers” delivers users to the specific content requested, but also provides good insight into where a user is and what else might be available

2. Access to full site content, especially the home page, is even more important

  • Even though the page delivered may match users’ expectations exactly, you want to be sure they can move up in your site’s hierarchy easily to get a wider view
  • Ensure access not only to the full navigation, but also link to other information related to that specific page so users can move easily to other content they might find interesting
  • Even with these additional links, remember to initiate a clear call-to-action on the page a user reaches
  • In this example, searching for “hotel Rome” leads users to a specific hotel property, which offers a clear explanation of how they got to the page and how they could explore the hotel information or other destinations. It also has an immediate call to action above the fold:

Using what works and what doesn’t from these best practices and examples, you can improve your landing pages and make sure your site is a landing page best practice, putting your best foot forward when visitors arrive. For more best practice information, visit our other blog entries and our newsletter.

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Website Usability Best Practices: Help and Forgiveness

April 17th, 2012
by Stacey Crisler

Nothing is more frustrating for a user than filling out a form, only to make a mistake because instructions were unclear or missing and to lose all of the information they had entered on the page when the error messaging appears. Yet, these issues are more common than you might realize. Based on our experience, we have seen that taking the time to offer in-context help at the point where users need it and a path for them to easily undo any mistakes made can save you from having a customer give-up or, worse, go to a competitor. So how can you provide the best instruction and forgiveness to a user on your site? Below are the guidelines that make up our Help and Forgiveness Usability Guideline:
  1. Login process is straightforward and user-friendly
  2. Remembers user information between screens
  3. When soliciting user information, clearly indicates what is required vs. optional
  4. When completing forms, provides proper field entry instruction for characters, capitalization, etc.
  5. Allows actions to be reversed and warns users before irrevocable actions
  6. Errors / confusion are managed proactively with clear and informative instructions
  7. ‘Customer Service’ and / or ‘Contact us’ options are clearly visible, along with extensive and instructive help features, such as glossaries, tutorials, FAQ’s, site map, contact information
  8. Search input box defaults to entire site, has no character limits, and allows users to see fully inputted search string / Provides special instruction as necessary to ensure helpful search results
These first 4 guidelines have been discussed in detail in our blog ‘The Seven Deadly Sins of Sign-Up Form Design’. For more detail on each of these, please see that blog post. Given that, I will focus on the remaining guidelines (5-8) in this post.

Help and Forgiveness

1. Allows actions to be reversed and warns users before irrevocable actions
  • None of us like to make mistakes, but when we do, we want to be able to correct them quickly and easily. Unfortunately, on the web this is often impossible. Too often sites force users to completely redo the steps they took prior to the mistake in order to correct the problem, often creating a frustrating experience. The best defense against this is providing clear help at the point of interaction or not letting the mistake happen at all through clear messaging.
    • This comes in 2 key forms. One is the language you are using on your site throughout a process, for example checkout. Action buttons should be clear and specific to the step the user is actually taking. For example, ‘Add to Cart’ is a much more clear button than ‘Place an Order’ when a user is simply putting an item into their cart or bag. ‘Place an Order’ implies that the order is going to happen immediately, something the user may not yet be ready for. So instead of using ‘Continue’ tell a user with the action button what they are actually doing when pressing the button.
    • The other key to this guideline is to offer an alert when a user is about to take any action that cannot be undone to allow them the chance to cancel the action. A good example is deleting an item from a shopping cart. While in many cases, a user can go back and place the item in their cart again, for the new breed of discount site, such as Gilt Groupe or RueLaLa, you may lose an item upon deletion and a user needs to confirm their action to be sure it was not a mistake or a stray click, which could lead to disappointment. Additionally, this message needs to give the user enough information to really make a decision about their action by telling them what they are about to do in detail and what the consequence may be. The message should also have clear action options such as ‘Keep this item in my cart’ or ‘Delete this item’, rather than generic buttons that could lead to further confusion.
    • Wherever possible, it is ideal to also offer users a way to redo what they have undone. In some cases this may not be possible, making the messaging on the site all the more important.
2. Errors / confusion are managed proactively with clear and informative instructions
  • Even with the best in-context help and site design, errors will happen. How you handle the error on the site is what determines if the error will be a fatal one for your customer’s visit to your site. The keys to managing errors are two-fold:
    • First, messaging again is vital. When displaying an error message, it needs to be clear an error has occurred, so the error message must be highlighted and very visible. This is an area where red is a strong color to use as it attracts the eye, and red is often associated with error messages. Once you have a user looking at the message, it must be specific, telling a user:
      1. What went wrong
      2. Where on the page the error is (if you do not bring the user to error itself which is ideal)
      3. How to fix the error, in specific detail
    • Once a user understands the error and corrects it, your site needs to place them in the same position they were in pre-error. Not only does this mean not taking them out of the path they were following, but also not losing any of the information they had input up to the point where the error occurred (including the information on the page where the error occurred).
3. ‘Customer Service’ and / or ‘Contact us’ options are clearly visible, along with extensive and instructive help features, such as glossaries, tutorials, FAQ’s, site map, contact information
  • At times, a user may need more help than you can provide in-context on your site or they may simply be the type of customer who feels more comfortable alleviating their confusion via human contact. Whatever the case may be, there should be a clear area of your site dedicated to customer service or support.
    • Do not hide this area of your site. While not clearly including offline contact information may cut down on expensive calls to your call center, it could also cut down on customers’ comfort levels in transacting with your site. When testing sites that have their 1-800 numbers on their home pages, readily visible, we often hear from users that they wouldn’t be likely to call it, but having it there increases their comfort not only transacting with the site, but also their impression of the brand due to its willingness to share that information. So while the number doesn’t have to be on your home page, a clear path to finding it (no more than 1 click deep) does.
    • This area of your site should also include whatever level of help is appropriate to the type of site / business you have, and should attempt to answer all key user questions on the site without forcing them to call. Most web users prefer to be self-service, so providing FAQs (ideally based on the top questions you get at your call center) can be a great way of providing them the information they are seeking and avoiding a costly call or a jump to another site. Glossaries and more extensive help can be useful if you have a site that includes a lot of industry speak or technical jargon, but may not be necessary on all sites. Tutorials can also be helpful when introducing new or complicated functionality, but be aware of your target audience – few users are likely to turn to a tutorial for help.
    • Generally, this area of the site should give users all the help content you think could be useful to them as well as access to all of the contact avenues available to them (phone, email, chat and mailing address). With good design and usability execution on the rest of the site, you can minimize the need for users to turn to this area, but you cannot avoid offering it to users.
4. Search input box defaults to entire site, has no character limits, and allows users to see fully inputted search string / Provides special instruction as necessary to ensure helpful search results
  • These 2 guidelines both address search so I wanted to look at them together. Search can be either an incredibly useful tool or a very bad experience for users. So how do you ensure that it gives users what they are looking for?
    • Place search in a visible and conventional location (preferably the upper right of the home page and potentially throughout the site)
    • Default to searching the whole site, not a specific section. However, if there is an option to search only a section of the site make that clear as well
    • If the search box contains instructional text (which we will talk about below), when a user clicks into it, the text must automatically disappear. No erasing text required!
    • Users should be able to type their entire search query without limits and they should be able to see the full search string (within reason). The fully inputted search string should definitely be shown on the results page
    • Instructions should be given as to how to best use your specific search, i.e., is it only a keyword search, can users also input catalog codes, can they type a natural text question, etc.?
    • These instructions should appear in or near the search box itself in a concise manner
    • For more information on how to maximize search results, see our blog Retail E-Commerce Usability Part 2: Search!
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Website Breadcrumbing: To breadcrumb or not to breadcrumb?

January 4th, 2012
by Stacey Crisler

This is a question we often hear from clients. They want to understand do users actually make use of breadcrumbs as navigation? Is it worth cluttering the page with this information? Will it increase user efficiency? Should breadcrumbs be dynamic (i.e., representing the user’s path) or representative of the site architecture?
In this post, we seek to answer the basic question: Should I provide users breadcrumbs on my site or not? The short answer is yes, but let’s look at some of the pros and cons of providing breadcrumbs.
- When implemented correctly, breadcrumbs are a great way of providing a user with information about your site and how it is structured
- Breadcrumbs give users an alternative way to navigate to areas of interest
- Users who enter deep into the site due to search engine linkage can easily back out to a broader level of detail and begin an exploration of additional pages on your site
- In situations where the “Back” button does not work (never ideal!) or may jump users back further than they would like (i.e., after making filter selections to narrow choices in a retail clothing category), breadcrumbs can provide an alternative, making the site easier to navigate and providing expected functionality
- Even if users do not utilize the breadcrumbs as navigation it can teach them the site organization and expose them to other levels of information they may not have been aware of
- Adds additional text and potentially, clutter to a page
- Path shown in breadcrumb trail may not match a user’s path to the page (as breadcrumbs should match site architecture, not a specific user path)
As you can see, the pros outweigh the cons, and the cost of including breadcrumbs is relatively low, as these are generally text links that take up minimal space on a page. However, like all other page elements, breadcrumbs are only useful when implemented correctly. Following are the top usability do’s and don’ts to think about when including breadcrumbs on your site:

TOP 5 DO’s

  1. Do keep breadcrumbs simple; extreme design or visual interest should not be the goal
  2. Do keep balance in mind when designing breadcrumbs: they must be evident enough to be useful, but not take away from the content of the page
  3. Do keep the breadcrumbs close to the page content, preferably near the title of the page
  4. Do make each level of the breadcrumbs a clickable link (clearly indicated using whatever color, underline, etc. link convention you are employing in your site), except for the final level, i.e., the current page
  5. Do be consistent in your use of breadcrumbs – you cannot do this only for a section of your site; it must be done throughout


  1. Don’t utilize breadcrumbs as a primary navigational element
  2. Don’t rely on breadcrumbs to make up for poor main navigation options or navigation placement
  3. Don’t dynamically change breadcrumbs to match a user’s path except when displaying customized information such as applied filters; base breadcrumbs on the site’s hierarchy
  4. Don’t allow breadcrumbs to be a source of confusion; if your site has many cross-links and pages fit into a variety of categories, breadcrumbing may not be a good option for you as it might create confusion rather than eliminate it
  5. Do not substitute breadcrumbs for the page heading / title; breadcrumbs should be secondary to the content of the page and the page should be able to function even if the breadcrumbs are taken away
Let’s look at some examples of different breadcrumb implementations to see what works – and what doesn’t. includes a clear and easy to read breadcrumb; however, it only contains 3 levels and loses the initial stages of navigation once one is deeper in the site:
Apple features a more visually interesting breadcrumb structure:
However, the breadcrumbs only exist in the Apple Store and are missing when users navigate to information about a product such as “Features”: provides a highbred model of breadcrumbs. It includes the navigational hierarchy, but also easily lets users remove the last selection made in the manner of a filter indicator:’s page is cluttered and the breadcrumbs become lost:
I hope these examples give you an idea of how to move forward with breadcrumbs on your own site! To read more about usability best practices you should be employing everywhere on your site, visit our other blog entries and our newsletter.
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Retail E-commerce Usability Part 6: The Shopping Cart

November 29th, 2011
by sabrina.shimada

Sometimes it’s a basket. Sometimes it’s a bag. Whatever you decide to call it, the online shopping cart is one component you do not want to underestimate! A great shopping cart can make or break a sale in the virtual world. On the web, there is no salesperson ushering the customer towards the register or post-dressing room with chatter, “Can I hold these at the front for you?”

Instead, there is usually a small icon or text link at the top right of the page that keeps track of the products that the customer is interested in purchasing. These virtual shopping carts (unfortunately) are easier to abandon than one a customer might fill up in person, after all it just takes one click to leave the site.

It’s easy to want to get creative when putting together your website, but there are some aspects that work best when kept simple. The shopping cart is one of them. Use industry standards to your advantage so users do not have to think twice when they are shopping on your site. The golden rule is that the shopping cart should always be intuitive, easy to access, easy to update, and drive customers to checkout. Here we will go over the basics of an ideal shopping cart.


DO NOT take the user to the shopping cart page each time they add an item. It is best to let the user control their shopping experience and provide assistance and ease of use throughout that process. Pushing users to the shopping cart page is kind of like a waiter giving you your bill while you are still eating your entrée.

Now let’s continue with 5 basic best practices of the retail e-commerce shopping cart!

1. Cart, Basket, or Bag?

  • Make life easier for your customers by providing an easy to read icon and text link in the top right section of your site for the shopping cart. If you are using just a text link, don’t be surprised if some users can’t find it. Don’t forget that not all customers are computer savvy and not all customers have 20/20 vision.

Here are some examples of shopping cart images out there on the web today along with some do’s and don’ts!

2. Link Your Cart!

  • Make the shopping cart a clickable link that leads the user to a place where they can view, edit and update their cart. Avoid using a logo of a cart that isn’t linked to the product information as this can easily frustrate the user. If you are using both text and images to signify the shopping cart, it is ideal to have both linked to the shopping cart page.

3. Add + It + Up

  • Each time a user adds an item to the shopping cart, confirm that the item has been added. The confirmation can be anything from a number signifier or something more elaborate like a dropdown that shows the product with the dollar amount, size, color, etc. The best e-commerce websites will allow users to preview the shopping cart without navigating away from the page they are currently on, as and let you. After all, if you were shopping in a real store you would be able to peek into you cart at any time, not just at checkout! If you are going to enable a dropdown preview of the shopping cart for users here are a few tips on maximizing its usability.

4. The Next Steps

  • Close by the shopping cart link, it is ideal to include other information related to the shopping cart/checkout process to help the user find the next piece of information they are looking for.
    • Provide information about shipping and handling - If your site offers free shipping, it is a good idea to include it in this area because you know customers will already be attracted to this section of your website as they shop. Free shipping can encourage users to go through with the checkout process, as it leaves no questions about how much will be added to their total.
    • Checkout - Give the user a link to the checkout flow within the shopping cart dropdown menu and in the general area of the cart. After all, the point of your site is to get the user to purchase, meaning there should ALWAYS be a clear path to the checkout!

5. Shopping Cart Overview - One step away from Checkout!

  • The shopping cart overview should be similar to the layout of the dropdown menu for consistency sake. The item images and information should have the same or similar layout and the colors should also be consistent.
  • Make sizes, colors, quantities and stock availability easy to digest so the user can confirm that their order is correct and that they have chosen their items accordingly
  • Removing items from the shopping cart should require one click! Do not make users edit quantities down to zero in order for them to be removed from the cart.

While the majority of sites we looked at today are apparel websites, many of the same guidelines can be applied for all e-commerce websites. If you are in interested in learning more about how to improve other areas of your retail e-commerce site, please check out our other blog posts on retail e-commerce usability! Also, feel free to contact us if you are interested in finding out even more about how to improve your site.

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Website Usability Best Practices: Simplicity & Scannability

November 16th, 2011
by Stacey Crisler

One of the challenges most sites face is that there is an excess of information they need to convey – value proposition, marketing messaging, product information, social media and more. When trying to fit this all into a single site – and, often, on a single page – sites can become cluttered and difficult to read, frustrating customers and prospects visiting your site. So how do you balance the needs of the company to convey a wide variety of information, but still provide your customers a good experience on the site where they are able to easily accomplish what they have come to do?

Walking the line between these competing needs will be easier of you keep the following usability guidelines on simplicity and scannability in mind.

Simplicity & Scannability

  1. Writing / verbiage is understandable, succinct, easy to scan, appropriate to users, and not redundant
    • While keeping the writing and verbiage used understandable may seem very basic, too often we as companies and experts in our area of focus forget that a prospect or customer may not have any base of knowledge in our space with which to place our products and services in context
      1. So, while the use of acronyms or industry-specific terms may convey exactly what we are attempting to communicate, the end user may not understand – the site needs to address all potential audiences with the language used – both someone who is new to a specific industry or product set as well as those who may need more detailed and technical information
      2. Providing overviews at a basic level with clear links to definitions of any industry-specific verbiage used will help newcomers; clear links to more technical information will satisfy the needs of those with more knowledge and experience
    • Additionally, the tone and level of the writing should be appropriate to your target audience
      1. For this, it is key to understand who is coming to your site and what they are seeking. This information can help you determine whether you should be writing at a 6th grade level or a high school level
      2. You want to make sure all users can understand your site, but that users do not feel as though they are being talked down to
      3. This balance can be particularly difficult for sites like corporate pharmaceutical websites where the needs of both a consumer and a healthcare professional must be addressed. Thinking ahead of time about the level of the writing can make the site more applicable to both audiences
    • Keeping the writing on your site succinct and easy to scan is imperative
      1. We see over and over again in testing that most users do not read sites, but rather scan for what they are looking for
      2. Most writing on a site should be in short sentences or bulleted lists – this allows users to scan the page to find the information of interest and focus only on what they are seeking, while also putting other messages that might be important to you as a company in front of them /li>
      3. As a user navigates the site, they will tell you by their actions when they are seeking more detailed information (by navigating more deeply, clicking on the links designed to provide details, etc.) which is when longer paragraphs may be appropriate to provide the depth and breadth of information the user is expecting to find
    • Finally, the writing on the site should not be redundant
      1. For most companies the issue is not having enough content, it is having too much content; Given this, you do not want to clutter your site with redundant information
      2. Utilize cross-linking and contextual linking to help users discover other site sections, products or pages, rather than talking about them in multiple places on your site
  2. Categories are organized intuitively and are mutually exclusive
    • Categorization of the information on your site is vital – if users do not understand the categories you are using they will not find what they are looking for and they will go elsewhere – even if your content, products or services are better than the competitions’, users will never know if they do not understand how to access it
    • This is another area where it is important to think about how a prospect or customer is thinking about your company, rather than how your company is organized
    • While it may make sense to organize your site according to the divisions of your company, it may not match the mental model a user has when shopping for your product or service, so it is more important to match that model rather than your company organization
    • Avoid the type of terminology we talked about above, such as industry-specific acronyms or technical terminology that may not be understood
    • Utilize a categorization in which it is clear where all the content will fall; do not have any overlap in categories
    • If an overlap is unavoidable, provide easy cross-links to drive users from the each of the categories that could contain the information of interest to its location; do not make users move from their first choice to their second, etc. seeking the information
  3. Appropriate amount of pagination at product list level; limits number of clicks to view products
    • While this guideline calls out product lists specifically, this applies to any key content sought from your site, be it products, articles, quotes, etc.
    • If you have long lists on your site, be sure to offer an easy way to sort, filter or move through the list to the specific item of interest; however, using multiple pages without a navigational method that allows pinpointing of the item is not a solution
    • Users need to be able to access items quickly with as few clicks and as limited scrolling as possible; this can mean utilizing tab structures or strong filtering or sorting tools that provide easy access without traversing pages of options
  4. All navigation shall appear above the fold; pages limit scrolling and contain anchors if lengthy
    • All of the primary navigation you expect a user to discover and use as they move throughout the site should be visible without any scrolling
      1. This is especially important on the first page a user encounters on your site, which increasingly, is not necessarily the home page if entering from Google
      2. This does not mean you should not include any navigational elements lower on the page. For example, if users are reading content of interest which forces them to scroll, navigation to the next step in the process or to a call to action, such as “Book Now” should be offered at the bottom of the page; however, this is in addition to the navigation offered at the top of the page, i.e., “Book Now” should be offered for those who do and do not scroll
      3. This also may not be true for steps in a process which require scrolling, however all of the main navigation should still be above the fold
    • Lengthy pages requiring users to scroll extensively should be avoided whenever possible
      1. In situations where long pages are necessary, users must be given an alternative to scrolling
      2. Ideally, this would be tabs or some other structure that does not require a full page load, but in other cases anchor links can be used
      3. If anchor links are utilized, it must be clear to a user what is happening, i.e., they are being moved down the same page, and they must be given a clear path back to the area on the page where they made the selection. If this is not clear many users turn to the “Back” button and get lost in the site or have to make more clicks than necessary to navigate
  5. Product details / descriptions are easily understandable
    • Not only does writing about products need to be crisp and easy to read, it must be organized in an easy to understand manner
      1. Again, limited scrolling is key and tabs can be a very clean way to organize all of the information a user has come to expect from the product details
      2. The top of the page should contain a photo and a brief overview of the information available
      3. Additional information should be clearly accessible and all of the information should be easy to scan
      4. For more detailed information on product page do’s and don’ts, See Sabrina’s blog on product detail pages in retail
  6. Thanks for reading our guidelines on Simplicity & Scannability. For more information on improving your site, please see our previous stories on best practices according to usability guidelines: Communications and Relevance and User Control. Also, stay tuned for our next installment of the series: Navigation Feedback.

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Retail E-Commerce Usability Part 5: The Product Page

October 17th, 2011
by sabrina.shimada

For this next installment on retail e-commerce usability, we will focus on the product page. Product pages are virtual descriptions designed to sell an item to a consumer. Since the potential buyer is unable to get their hands on the actual product, it is extremely important to relay as much accurate information as possible on the product page. What colors are available? What are the dimensions? What does the back look like? What are the shipping costs? These types of descriptive questions should be answered on the product page.

But that’s not all. Virtual shopping also entails virtual, “Do you think this will look good on me?,” “What about this one?,” and “Should we get this for Mom’s birthday?” types of questions. These questions are solved through various social tools on the product page that are becoming a standard for retail e-commerce.

This overview on e-commerce usability for the product page will cover the basics and then some. Keep in mind that your target audience and the type of product you are selling effects what the ideal set-up of the product page looks like. For example, luxury websites should not highlight the price in orange or boldly advertise savings deals, but discount sites should. For more information about product page usability specific to your company, feel free to contact us.

Product Page Information and Organization

1. What’s for sale?
To make your product pages easy to digest, it is important to organize the page so that the most important information is easy to find and logically laid out alongside the image of the product for sale. What information do your customers want to see? This partially depends on the type of product for sale, however, there are a few basic details that should also be included on the product page.

  • Name of Product – The name of the product should be the title of the page, this not only allows the customer to confirm what they are looking at, but it also allows for easy bookmarking. *It is also extremely helpful to include breadcrumbs at the top of the product page so customers know how they navigated to the specific item they are looking at.
  • Price – Customers should never have to search for the price of a product, nor should they ever have a doubt as to which price they will be paying for the product. The most common place for the price is directly beneath the name of the product.
  • Product Images – High quality, hi-resolution (300dpi+) images of the product from various angles (front, back, top, bottom, inside, etc.)help the customers feel confident about what the product will look like once they’ve received it. If there are any small details on the product, there should be close-up images or zoom-in capabilities, so the customer is not surprised later.
  • Product Description – Descriptions will vary depending on the type of goods, but they should always be thorough and include the basic information about contents, size, weight, place of manufacture, etc. Depending on the type of item there is bound to be more specifications about what’s included in the purchase, available sizes, optional colors, etc.
  • Stock Availability – Be up front about available stock to ensure customer satisfaction with the website. Waiting until checkout to tell customers that their desired product won’t be shipping for a few more months usually results in an upset customer who now knows that your site is not frequently updated.

2. Building Trust
Shopping online can be risky, and customers know that things are not always as they appear. How can your website build trust? Online customer reviews can do wonders for online sales, in an earlier report, we teamed up with Relevant View to discover that “in general, 63% of users indicate they are more likely to purchase from a site if it has ratings and reviews. If executed properly, ratings and reviews can boost the confidence in making purchases as well as foster a trusted relationship with site visitors” (Source)

  • Customer Reviews = Social Proof - Customers tend to trust other customers and the online shopping world proves that customers are at least interested in what others have to say about a product. Star ratings speak volumes to consumers with just one look, often answering their thoughts, “Is this product really as great as it seems?” “Is this product worth buying?”
  • Seeing Stars – Whether you use stars or some other rating system, it should be easy to understand and clearly displayed somewhere within the product description. By providing a place for customer feedback, there is a sense of transparency and openness to the customers that can make the shopping experience more comforting. Not only will the ratings help other customers, but they will provide insights as to what products the customers enjoy or prefer over others.

3. Spread the Word!
Share Options – Give customers the opportunity to share product directly from your e-commerce site with an email share option (at the very least). Depending on what merchandise you are selling and who your audience is, additional sharing options may also be beneficial, such as Facebook, Twitter, Digg, etc.

Required Information – Don’t make the customers jump through hoops to share a product, this feature should be simple and quick! The best “Tell a Friend” email feature will include : sender’s name and email, recipient name and email, optional personalized subject line, optional personalized message, ability to email multiple recipients, ability to share multiple products in one email.

A few more examples…

4. Before the Checkout…
What if the customer needs help? – Customer service numbers and emails, live chats, etc. should be readily available for the shopper in case they have any questions about purchasing a product online. Instead of putting these on a separate “Contact Us” page it is a best practice to keep them on the main frame of the website or include them within the product description area to make it easy for the shopper.

Don’t leave S&H to the end – Advertise special offers on shipping & handling on the main frame of the website or the product page. If there are no special offers, provide a link on the product page that will at least estimate shipping costs for the customers when they enter in their zip code.

If you are interested in finding out more about how to improve retail e-commerce usability for your company, please contact us. In this blog series we are only covering the basics of retail e-commerce, shall we say, the tip of the iceberg.

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Retail E-Commerce Usability Part 4: Making the Most Out of Quick Look

September 20th, 2011
by sabrina.shimada

How can you get your customers to the shopping cart faster?

In an attempt to get users to shop faster, many online retailers have added a “Quick Look” feature that allows customers to remain on the multi-product page while adding an item to their virtual shopping cart. In my opinion, this feature is extremely useful when shopping online and has the potential to increase sales.

Think about it. If users can find out the information they need about a product and add it to their shopping cart whilst remaining on the same page, they:

  • can make a quicker decision about whether the product is right for them or not (meaning they can move onto another product faster)
  • do not need to wait for the page to load
  • do not need to click back in their browser to get back to the multi-product page
  • do not lose their place on the multi-product page

However, there a few key rules that need to be followed to ensure that your Quick Look feature is effective.

  1. Show it off - Make sure users know that the Quick Look feature is available on your site by simply putting the text at the bottom of each product image or by having the text appear when the customer hovers over the product.
  2. Make it More than a Look - To make your Quick Look feature as effective as possible, it should have the following:
    • Item description
    • Item details (e.g., content, place of manufacturer, care instructions , specifications, special features, weight, parts included, etc.)
    • Alternate views of the product including a zoom feature
    • Alternate colors/styles available (Name and image or swatch)
    • Available sizes and inventory status
    • Add to shopping cart option
    • Add to wish list option (if applicable)
    • User rating (if applicable)
    • Sharing options (e.g., Email a friend, Facebook, Twitter, etc.)
  3. Let’s take a look at the online retailer for an example of best practices when it comes to the Quick Look feature.

    The only thing missing from’s Quick Look feature is an option to go straight to the shopping cart (See example).

  4. Keep it Quick! - One of the most obvious mistakes that retail e-commerce websites make is bringing users to their shopping cart immediately after they have added an item. Would you want to take the items you shop for to the register one by one? Show customers that their shopping cart has been updated, but don’t force them to go there until they are ready .Don’t waste their precious time!

A different way to quick look…

Now that we have looked at what makes an effective quick look tool, let’s take a quick look at a less conventional quick look feature, that is still effective.

Neiman Marcus has created an elegant quick look tool in their Beta website redesign. Instead of a pop-up that opens on top of products, the quick look information unrolls itself within the browser, revealing additional views, product name, available sizes and colors, and the option to place the item in the customer’s shopping bag.

While there are a few things missing from this quick look feature, it is still a great example of how the quick look pop-up can be aesthetically changed to match the users’ taste (Can you see what’s missing?).

Remember, usability and design go hand in hand! Added features that don’t work only clutter a website and confuse users. Make sure your site is usable. Contact us for more information about our research and testing services.

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Expanded Footer Usability

August 17th, 2011
by Stacey Crisler

Over the past few years, expanded home page footers have become de rigueur for sites for their search engine optimization (SEO) benefits. If done correctly, the expanded footer can also play a role in enhanced usability of your website - that is, if basic usability principles are not thrown to the wind in the name of SEO.
There are multiple usability benefits to the expanded footer driven by the ability to provide your visitor access to content that may not be easily accessed or addressed in your main navigation.

  • The footer can provide links deeper into your site and to particular content areas of interest to visitors
  • ­By doing this it can take the place of an outdated concept of a site map and reduce the need for visitors to turn to the search engine to find specific content of interest.
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  • It can also be an area to place links (such as a store locator), short forms (such as for contact) or icons (such as for social media) that do not have a place in the main body of the page and may be crowded in the utility link area in the upper right.
  • ­
  • The footer can also be used for showing a little more personality, providing links to frequently updated content like a blog or events and a quick way to contact a company by providing detailed contact information or a simple form.
However, in order to gain these benefits, the footer must be executed correctly. Following are the top five usability do’s and don’ts to think about for the expanded footer on your site:


  1. Do remember any element of the page can and will be viewed by visitors – not just search engine crawlers
  2. Do apply a hierarchy or categorization of the links and functionality provided in the footer
  3. Do make the area readable and easy to scan
  4. Do provide clear visual separation of the footer from the main content on the page
  5. Do utilize different font types, icons, etc. to make the links standout and provide visualize interest to draw visitors to this area of the page


  1. Don’t just repeat your main navigation at the bottom of the page
  2. Don’t use the footer as a solution for poor site information architecture
  3. Don’t include content below the footer
  4. Don’t create a visual barrier above the footer that would prevent visitors from viewing it as a value-added section of the website
  5. Don’t overfill the footer – edit it to key information and functionality that is easily categorized and set out in a well-organized manner
Below are some examples of sites both employing and ignoring some of the do’s and don’ts above.
The expanded footer on is a great example of using the footer to drive traffic to compelling site areas that visitors may not find via the main navigation, if only there weren’t a visual barrier above it:

On our own site, we took our own advice to create this footer:

On the other hand, takes no advantage of their footer as a help to visitors, but just fills it with terms for SEO: offers a footer which at first works, but then follows it with content that is cluttered, difficult to read, and generally appears more like a document than a website:

Just because the footer is the tail end of your page and you may be utilizing it primarily for SEO, doesn’t mean you can’t use it to also enhance the customer experience on the site. Expanded footer usability can be important and useful in optimizing your site’s usability and SEO.
Read more about the basic usability practices you should be employing everywhere on your site in our Web Usability 101 article.
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Retail E-Commerce Usability Part 3: Just Browsing

July 26th, 2011
by sabrina.shimada

The web is filled with less-than-ideal retail e-commerce websites that are losing dollars over simple design flaws. This blog series shares tips on retail e-commerce usability, covering how to improve different parts of a retail e-commerce website.

Power Browsing

A customer can walk around a department store and look for a pair of shorts for several hours. Are the shorts all kept in one area? No, they are dispersed among different designers. Are all of the designers in one area? No, they are categorized by targeted age group or price range. Is everything available out on the floor? Of course not! There is a stock room full of merchandise and multiple stores across the country or around the world that might have the pair of shorts in the size and color you are looking for.

Online shopping gives retailers the advantage to let customers find what they want without leaving their chair. That is if the site’s navigation system and design doesn’t hide it from them.

Here are a few tips on how to make browsing on a retail ecommerce site useful.

1. Let Customers Refine their Browse

  • After choosing a main category to shop under, it is ideal for a user to be able to refine the selection they have made.
      - The most common way to do this is by including a left navigation that reveals all of the different options the user can check/uncheck, with the items re-populating based on the customer’s selections- A more recent change on retail ecommerce websites is the mega drop-down menu that doesn’t appear until the user clicks on a header category.

2. Let them Sort!

  • Offer “Sort By” options in addition to the filters to give the users a chance to explore by price, relevancy, popularity, designer, style, etc.

3. Viewing Options

  • All sites should know this by now. Let users choose how many items they want to see on a page at one time. A “View All” option should always be available to users when categories of items have say 200 items or fewer.

4. More than Breadcrumbs

  • When you are using filtering systems it is important to clearly display what categories have already been chosen by the user to prevent them from getting lost in their browse.
  • A clear path between product pages and the user’s browse (with customized selections/sorts) should always be available (e.g., “Back to Results”)
  • Customers should have the option to deselect categories and clear all the selections with one click.

5. Show the Customer’s Progress

  • Don’t let customers drown in merchandise - let them know how many pages you are going to show them and where they are at all times (e.g., “Showing 75-95 of 560 items,” “Page 13 of 62″).

6. Back and Forth Action

  • Make sure users can add items to their shopping cart and return to where they were in their personalized search.

While there are many more specific attributes you can use to improve your retail e-commerce website’s browsing function, remember that the main goal is keep the customer on the purchase pathway. Always consider how you can make your website easier to shop and easier to use!

For more on usability tips click here, or contact us for more information about our services.


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