Crowded pages. Over-styled layouts with poor functionality. Confusing navigation. Bill Albert has seen many such website sins during his 15 years helping companies improve their online presence.
“It’s no longer good enough just to have an 'easy' website,” says Albert, executive director of Bentley’s Design and Usability Center (DUC) and an adjunct professor of information design and corporate communication. “The site has to provide an exceptional user experience.”
He and others at the DUC are on the case. Over the last 12 years, the center has built a reputation for delivering recommendations that boost company sales and slice support costs. Clients come from as far away as Germany and China. Stateside, the group includes financial services firms (Fidelity, Mass Mutual) health care organizations (Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Boston Children’s Hospital) and device manufacturers (Siemens, Philips).
All arrive to tap the user-centered research, evaluation and design expertise of DUC staff, backed by sophisticated equipment that tracks eye movements and measures emotional engagement among visitors to a website. Five to 10 projects are underway at any time, led by teams of research associates in Bentley’s MS in Human Factors in Information Design program, working with senior staff consultants. A typical engagement runs five or six weeks.
One recent project involved a Chinese sportswear company with a potent online presence in Beijing. Digital Li-Ning has partnered with the Acquity Group, a Chicago-based brand e-commerce and digital marketing agency, to bring its wares into U.S. markets. Project principals sought guidance from Bentley experts on two fronts. Digital Li-Ning engaged the DUC to perform a usability study for its existing site in the U.S. (shop.li-ning.com). Acquity Group hired the DUC to run and analyze a global usability study of “Chinese” and “American” versions of a fictitious website for women’s clothing.
The DUC served both clients by testing the websites with an online survey of consumers in the two countries. Informed by research on top clothing sites in China and the U.S., the website designs were dramatically different. For example, the home and product-landing pages for Chinese shoppers are packed with small images of the goods for sale; these pages slated for a U.S. audience feature large photos of models and minimal text.
The DUC team surveyed 200 active online shoppers between age 18 and 34. Viewers in China and the U.S. saw the home, product-landing and product-detail pages of both websites – and rated each on qualities such as ease of use and visual appeal.
The results? U.S. consumers favored American designs overall, though the preference decreased as Americans eyed Chinese product-landing and detail pages. Chinese consumers preferred the American-style home page, but gave higher marks to their country’s busier product-display pages.
Acquity Group’s vice president of brand e-commerce, Jeff Neville, credits the DUC study for generating “solid data about how to enter both the U.S. and Chinese e-commerce markets. We used that data to educate Digital Li-Ning about what their U.S. website should look like.
“From a strategy perspective, this study will help us create road maps for e-commerce investment in other countries,” he adds. “U.S. organizations can’t just translate [content] into the target country’s language and expect it to work, and vice versa.”
Albert agrees. “It’s important to research each country and culture before launching a site there. To understand, for instance, how colors and images are perceived in the target market.”
Even websites deployed on a company’s home turf can miss the mark if not designed with users in mind.
“Clients spend days in DUC labs watching customers interact with their website,” Albert reports. “This is often a profound experience, because users’ feedback is unscripted. It’s not unusual for executives to realize they had unwittingly designed their site more for themselves than for customers.”