Return to: GROK Dot Com 7/15/2001

All You Gotta Do Is Answer the Question

Remember the Dick Van Dyke Show from way back? I wasn't in this sector of the galaxy at the time, but your late-night TV never seems to get tired of this stuff. So, not too long ago, I got to watch an episode that a) had me rolling on the floor and b) got me thinking how humans have an uncanny habit of missing the forest for the trees and making mountains out of molehills (I'm getting to like your clichés a lot!).

Here's the scenario: Little Ritchie comes home and asks Mom and Dad where he comes from. Rob and Laura immediately launch into fits of excruciating angst - "It's the "S" question!! What do we tell him??" After lengthy agonizing, they decide on a course of discreet honesty, plunk their lad onto a living room chair and spill the beans. Ritchie bemusedly takes it all in and concludes, "Yeah, okay, but …" Turns out the neighbor kid comes from Chicago, and all Ritchie wanted to know was his own geographical origin. Rob and Laura, never assuming the answer was that easy all along, look at each other with a mixture of relief and embarrassment. And sometimes real life is even funnier. At the age of 11, one of the Future Now guys saw the word “prophylactic” on a toothbrush at the drugstore and, being a bright and inquisitive kid, came home and innocently asked his parents, as they were watching TV together, what “prophylactic” meant. Just imagine that scene. Rob and Laura had it easy!

Don't see where I'm going with this yet? Stick around.

You (Mom and Dad) are bustling about your cyber-store, minding the shop and waiting for prospects. Your customer (Little Ritchie) arrives with an implicit question: "Can I safely, confidently, easily and happily get what I want to get from you?" What do you do? These days, the Rob-and-Laura approach to e-commerce seems to be to take your prospect by the eyeball and lead her around the store. "Check out this really eye-catching Flash presentation … we make sure you can't avoid it. Oh, and get a load of these totally nifty, strobing icons that draw your attention to our product categories. See, if you let your cursor hover over the category, it turns into a picture of the product rather than that boring pointing hand … our programmers worked a full three days on that one alone!"

This lunacy is perpetuated by the assumption that when your prospect arrives, her principle desire is for entertainment. You think you enhance your brand, your image and your appeal by offering it as an inducement, when that clearly is a distant second to her desire to make a purchase. Every study of online buying behavior proves it. Yet there are folks out there telling you that simple design simply bores your prospects and sends them racing to your more clever, more creative competitors, ergo you need to be more clever and creative with your own site. And isn’t it funny how most of the people who try to convince you of the need for gimmicks are the people who sell the stuff, actual online sales data be damned?

As for the pundits, Martin Lindstrom would have you believe:

"What's more, the rising generation craves constant diversion, change, surprise, and innovation. … The sites that offer surprise and creativity will be the ones that capture consumer attention and brand loyalty."1

Nick Usborne, a guy we admire a lot, is also concerned about homogenizing the online shopping experience. "Every site seems to be in a mad rush to have the exact same systems as everyone else. And in the process, they're in a mad rush to make the customer experience the same. Undifferentiated. Boring." To counter this dreadful fate, Usborne advises, "I think one of the first targets one can aim for is to surprise people."2

Nick is on the right track in being concerned about sites becoming boring, but we need to be careful to distinguish between being refreshing and being surprising. Trust me, the last thing your customer wants when she is in the process of making a decision to purchase is to be surprised! Cute and sexy may have a place, but not when she's deciding whether to trust you over an Internet connection with her credit card number.

What you really need to ditch, if you are interested in making your e-commerce site sell more, is the idea that tools need to look and function like something other than tools. Think of it this way: when did you last see a carpenter's hammer in the latest designer colors that plays a medley of MP3 faves every time you whomp a nail? Sure, it might have novelty value, but after a few days, its real value is going to depend solely on how well it whomps nails. If it can't whomp nails, all that frippery is going to become a liability that singles you out from the crowd in a truly embarrassing way! When you go to Nordstrom’s, do their salespeople sing, dance and do back flips before they’ll help you find what you came for? How would you feel about going in to shop there if every time you wanted to buy something, you had to wait while they did?

Scads of research out there says it plainly: when folks go online to shop, they want to find what they’re looking for, quickly and easily, feel secure about the process, and buy - with no confusion, delay or hassle. You want to distinguish yourself? Then pay attention to the questions your customers are actually asking. Give your prospects true value, safety, confidence, clear and concise options, intuitive navigation. Instruct them, help them, ensure their privacy - in short, convince them you understand and respect their needs, not that your main interest is in parading the latest gizmo.

You don't have to be "boring" about it at all. That's the delightful challenge of Design: how do you accomplish the basic tasks supremely well while wrapping it with appealing, distinctive style? And there is even a role for surprise; it was Rudyard Kipling who said, "Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind." So, by all means, in the copy and content of your site, harness the magical power of the word to inspire, delight, persuade and even surprise your customers!

But don't get lost in the wrong question here. Everything you do on your site must support the sales imperative, not the entertainment imperative. Think of it as your “prime directive.” You choose among possible layouts, the only question should be which one will sell better (and while not the only factor by any means, an important ingredient of that is which one will download faster). You pick a particular color - make sure it's a color that's going to support sales (you do know color theory, right?). You choose a word - it's gotta be a word that advances your prospect closer to a buying decision. And it's important to keep in mind the great power of any successful process (be it hyperlinks or a shopping cart or anything else) does lie in standardization: people come to have clear expectations of how things work, at which point you can use that to your advantage, or not. Reinforce them and sales go up; “surprise” them and sales go down. The choice really is that clear. When they don’t have to figure out how you’ve twisted the basics, then they are free to focus on shopping. Buying. Spending money. On your site.

Back to Nordstrom. Heed these words of wisdom from CEO Dan Nordstrom, "You don't get paid for innovation …," Mr. Nordstrom says. "You get paid for execution."3 This is a man well-grounded in old-fashioned retailing, who admits he is definitely not a technological visionary, wants to avoid the dangers of frivolous design, and yet has managed to make a hugely successful proposition. How? By sticking to the basics and executing perfectly.

The vivid history of the past year ought to teach you Little Ritchie is going to sit there nodding in bemusement while his parents tap dance around his question only for so long before he decides to bag it. Funny though this might be in a sit-com, in the real world, watching an e-business go belly-up because it’s busy getting in the way of what its customers really want isn't very funny at all.

1 "Where Are All the Sexy Surprises?" Martin Lindstrom, ClickZ, August 17, 2000. <>

2 "Buying Online is Boring." Nick Usborne, ClickZ, March 24, 2000. <>

3 "Shop Talk: says execute, don't innovate." Ken Yamada, Red Herring, October 17, 2000. <>

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