E-business activities can contribute significantly to corporate success, but some organisations benefit more than others.
The winners are those that recognise that their customers are people who simply want access to information, goods and services and who are by no means computer experts. Although the need to ensure that customers can understand and use our Web sites seems self-evident, my study of many commercial sites indicates that we keep missing the mark.
Common sense suggests, and independent research has confirmed, that Web visitors arrive with a purpose in mind. As an industry, we have developed a truly bewildering array of different ways to defeat that purpose. I will focus here on just one, the tendency of site designers and owners to assume that their customers know more than they really do. If we make unrealistic demands on our site visitors, they will find other ways of satisfying the purpose that brought them there in the first place.
Randolph Bias of Austin Usability, a Texas-based usability engineering firm, recently wrote, "A lot of businesses have gone out of business because their users were too stupid." Bias points out that customers don't know much about computing. In fact, our unrealistic expectations often relate to knowledge that we consider far more mundane.
A study of Web sites in the travel industry has identified interesting examples. It seems reasonable to assume that most travellers have only limited knowledge of local geography at their destination. Why then do travel-related businesses design their sites to serve the local population?
Let me explain. My office is in Windsor to the west of London. Windsor Castle and other attractions make this a popular tourist destination, but it is not one which can meet all travellers' needs. I used a range of suppliers' sites to look for certain travel-related services using "Windsor" or our office postal code in the search.
Despite the fact that all of the organisations I searched have facilities at Heathrow Airport (about eight miles away) or nearer, most returned no relevant information from their own facility selection function. If I looked through each company's list of its own facilities, I could find sites in nearby towns such as Slough and Staines or in Heathrow Airport. But the point is that the traveller does not have the local knowledge to recognise these places as being close to Windsor.
In another example, I looked for flights from a city in North Carolina that is served by two airports. One carries the name of the city, while the other is in a nearby town and handles larger aircraft and far more flights.
While this information can make a huge difference to cost and convenience, the average traveller simply would not know about it. After trying the three major independent US travel sites and a number of US airlines, I found only one site that indicated the availability of the second airport.
This syndrome may be simple to explain. Web site owners operate from a position of knowledge of the industry they serve. They know things about their products and markets that they perceive to be general knowledge or common sense. Those involved in the design process also know why each step exists and where it will lead.
They fail to recognise that a sequence of operations that seems entirely natural to them may be completely senseless to others. Just as an author is handicapped when proof-reading or editing his own work, those within an industry cannot easily see from the perspective of an outsider.
Usability testing can help, but it is not a complete answer. Test subjects tend to evaluate new processes in the light of their own prior experiences. If they have not seen a process handled particularly well, then mediocrity will fall within their expected range.
When handled properly, the Internet has been shown to deliver clear business benefits. The challenge is in the detail. Getting it right in this environment requires rigorous analysis of what customers know and don't know, what will help them to achieve their goals on your site and what will leave them frustrated or ill-informed.
Dan Benatan is Web site score card specialist at Giga Information Group