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KISS Your Visitors if You Want Them Back
K.I.S.S. It stands for Keep It Simple, Stupid. You’ve probably heard it before, but from where I stand the message needs some SHOUTING.

The key to successful web site design isn’t sophistication, it’s simplicity. Designing for simplicity is anything but simple (as if I needed to tell you that). But well thought-out simplicity is what makes the successful websites successful. The folks at Future Now (if you haven’t noticed, they’re the ones who sign my paycheck) live and breathe this stuff. They eat it for breakfast, lunch and dinner. They snack on it, too. You can't hang around here for long and not get a good idea of how to fix things out there in the world of Internet sales. I've been taking notes.


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Tell me, when you want to learn to be the best at something, do you study the amateurs or the pros? Amazon.com has spent years and mega-millions of dollars making their complex site simple to use (okay, so they are not turning a profit, but they do make sales, LOTS of sales). So if you are thinking of putting something on your site, ask yourself, "Would Amazon do this?"

The best websites load in about 10 seconds at 28.8 kps. All sorts of things affect download times, but the bottom line is that nobody is going to wait ages for your page to appear on their computer1. They'll just click on over to your competition. Big file sizes2, lots of graphics, high resolutions … they may look cool once they’ve downloaded but the simple fact is your prospect doesn’t want them and won’t wait. Industry leaders design for the lowest (reasonably) common denominator out there. They don't assume everyone has high-speed connections or state-of-the-art monitors. Do you want you site to appeal to most people? Well, most people still surf at 28.8. Most people have small monitors. Most people have their monitors set for 800x600 and don’t even know they can change it, much less how. And since studies prove that on the web visitors look for text, not graphics, make clear, strong text available right away. That will keep them interested while the graphics load. Only use graphics if they help prospects understand what they are looking for or convey information that can't be done effectively through text. And keep those as simple as possible so they load quickly. Avoid scrolling if you possibly can, but if you must use it, use vertical scrolling only, never horizontal, and place the most important information above the scrolling line. Get your most important information to your prospects fast!

The best websites have simple and consistent navigation. Your average prospect will view 2-3 pages before moving on, so at best, you’re two clicks away from dead in the water unless you help them get where they want to go quickly. It can be done - and it really does matter! Why do you think Amazon.com is fighting so hard to protect its 1-Click Shopping?

I hate to say it, but most online shoppers are conditioned like Pavlov's dogs. Stuff like: blue, underlined hyperlinks mean "click here" to almost everyone. So use them, don’t confuse them! And avoid underlining or using blue text for anything else. Likewise, don’t put links in another color. Most people will miss them. Place your navigation cues on the top and/or left of every page, with the same links arrayed at the bottom. Use categorization schemes that make sense (tabs or something similar works well) for multiple elements3. And frames may look cool, but they’re a bad idea. Redesign your site to lose them and your sales will go up.

Search functions? Studies show that a) the average shopper doesn’t know how to use them, and b) most search functions give bad or no results so often that shoppers are better off with links. And you may be tired of me saying it, but frustrated shoppers simply leave. But if you really think you have to use a search function, label it clearly with instructions. Also, provide a mechanism to make it simple for users to narrow their search. If your search hands over too many irrelevant results, prospects will feel overwhelmed and leave. But most important, make sure the darn thing works right (gives fast and accurate results) under as many conditions as you can possibly think of. Humans are amazingly talented at screwing up even the stuff that seems obvious.

Speaking of obvious, the best websites make everything obvious. First and foremost, help your prospect see the information - white backgrounds are quick to download and help information stand out. Label stuff. Offer concise explanations. Always remember, if your visitor can't find a function, it's not there! Remember, too, that if they’re looking for a function and can’t find it fast, or find a clear alternative, they’re gone.

Next, imagine you’re lost in the middle of a huge store with no signs. Where’s checkout? Where’s housewares? Where’s the bathroom! How much do you like this store? How much do you want to buy now? Never leave your prospect stranded anywhere on your site. Provide clear navigation from anywhere to anywhere on every page. And for heaven's sake, keep all your navigation links within your page. Unless you want to encourage your customers to leave, don't direct them to the back button on the browser. Any trip to the menu bar is an opportunity for your prospect to kiss you goodbye. And they don’t come back.

The best websites don't assume the client is an expert user. Technology is a wonderful thing, but Joe and Josephine Consumer are years behind the tech types. Your GUI should be simple (Graphical User Interface, pronounced "gooey" - the sort of stuff you won't want your prospects stuck in). Also, never make them download plug-ins. The average shopper doesn’t know how, and even if they do, why take them away from the shopping process and force them to do something else because some designer thought it would be cool. They won’t say “wow.” They’ll leave. If you can’t design it into your site and still have it load fast and all that other important stuff, leave it out. And give your prospects simple, clear instructions and helpful tools to guide them through the buying process (if they can't understand checkout, they won't).

AOL dominates the ISP/Portal world. And what’s their hook? "So easy to use, no wonder it's #1!" Who are they trying to reach? Most people. They make sure every interface is obvious, and they provide lots of on- and offline support. There's a ton of complexity behind the screen, but what the user experiences is super simple!

Keep in mind: visitors are looking for a reason not to trust you. Pay attention to the details: check for typos, grammatical errors, screen error messages, images that don’t open, browser compatibility, functions that don’t work - everything. Then have somebody different check again.

The best websites create the brand by creating a great user experience. Our good friend, Roy Williams, The Wizard of Ads, says, "Sell substance with substance and style with style." You have to pay attention to the perceived value of your shopper's experience and or you won’t be successful. If your product or service is primarily related to style (fashion or entertainment), then your site design must convey that flavor - while respecting all the stuff we’ve said so far. That’s the challenge of designing for simplicity. Similarly, if your business is information-rich or has big-ticket items, you need to provide lots of substance so your customers can have the satisfying experience of evaluating things on their own. In the end it is all about how your site makes them feel.

I shouldn't have to tell you style and substance mean nothing if you ignore the importance of first impressions (downloads, navigation, ease of understanding information, spelling errors) or spew lots of jargon, acronyms and techno-babble at your customer. No matter how strong your brand in an offline world, you will still lose the sale.

The brand you establish has everything to do with how you design your online presence. Listen to these folks:

Clement Mok, Chief Creative Officer of Web design firm Studio Archetype/ Sapient, says, “the trusted brand in the dirt world consumers would probably trust in the digital world. But while they would trust it enough to get through the trial and presentation, the user experience has to be validated beyond that first impression. The loop needs to be closed with fulfillment." When establishing a track record on the Internet Mok says, "It's all about reliability and execution. The stronger the execution, the quicker you are able to establish a brand on the Internet."


"It's the combination of brand and navigation that are the most powerful," says Davis Masten, a principal at Cheskin Research. "Ideally it's about having a brand essence and brand personality that people can identify as unique to you."

Short and sweet: Here's what the top 100 websites have in common: fast download times; few graphics; little, if any, multimedia; no frames; similar navigation systems; high contrast text with lots of white space; most links in "traditional" blue underlined text; no background imagery; very few obvious JavaScript tricks; no DHTML; no splash pages; and a very solid database-powered backend. Simple.

Am I beginning to sound like a broken record? Good! Now, pucker up. Give your prospects a big, delightful KISS.

1 Various studies have shown that in 1999, losses due to unacceptably slow download speeds and resulting user bailouts alone were between $7 and $9 Billion.
2 An analysis by Flanders and Willis, of Willis Design Studios (and authors of Web Pages That Suck) looked at the file size of the top 10 websites as opposed to the file size of websites ranked 40 to 50 (ranking by Media Matrix). The top 10 had an average size of 35 kilobytes, compared to 62 kilobytes for the rest. Not conclusive, but very interesting.
3 Willis Design Studios also notes that having these navigation elements repeat on other pages speeds download of successive pages - the image is in cache and needn't be recalled from the server. Result: faster click-throughs.

click here for a printable version of this whole article

Who Wants to Catch “Viral Marketing”?
Egad! The jargon-junkies are at it again. What used to happen over the back-yard fence when Jan told Louise, or in the hardware store when Jan told Bob (Jan’s a busy lady), is now called "Viral Marketing." And while I shake my head at terminology that makes it sound like a disease, I have to admit they have a point. With cyberspace so huge, word of mouth can have a big role in building traffic to your site.

So how do you tap into the power of viral marketing? Simple. Start by providing your customers with a stellar online experience. Everyone knows that when it comes to getting a referral, a delighted customer is the best marketing strategy. And it’s the cheapest one, too. Who are you more likely to listen to, a friend or somebody you don’t know? Now, try this one: an email from a friend or an email from a stranger? The numbers are powerful. 64% of us will try something if it’s recommended to us by a friend. And when someone has a good experience online they tell an average of 12 people. And by the way, that’s five times as many people as they tell offline . But be careful. When they have a bad experience, they tell a whole lot more. The bad news spreads like wildfire, but the good news will spread, as long as you give them a reason to glow rather than grump about you.

Next, give word of mouth an active role on your website. Include a "Tell A Friend" option on your site, enabling your happy customers to send your url to others. Just some of the resources out there are the recommendation service Recommend-It (www.recommend-it.com), CGI Resources (www.cgi-resources.com), which has about 70 form processors, some of which are perfect for your recommendation application, JavaScript.com (www.javascript.com) which has links to more info on JavaScript, and our own favorite, eWomp.com (www.ewomp.com). They don’t just give you a robust referral tool that’s a snap to implement, they also give you the ability to send pictures and content excerpts and custom marketing messages, plus you get real time data tracking, and on top of that they marry it all to a super rewards program where people earn points every time they make a referral and then can get great stuff when they have enough points. Check it out.

So, make that website experience worth raving about and give your visitors some tools to rave with! Then watch them start congregating over their virtual back-yard fences, doing their viral marketing thing.

click here for a printable version of this whole article


GROK is taken from the landmark novel "Stranger in a Strange Land", by Robert A. Heinlein. It is a Martian word that implies the presence of intimate and exhaustive knowledge and understanding. Our "GROK" is a keen observer of the world around him and he takes a particular interest in the World Wide Web. The folks at Future Now like him a lot because he's taught them that "sometimes the price of clarity is the risk of insult."

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