Everyone wants to optimize. If you’re like most companies, you have a laundry list of things you’d like to do with your site. You know instinctively that all the items on the list are of equal value. You know some might have more impact than others. You also know these items require different amounts of effort and resources. So the obvious question is, “Where do I begin?”
You’re likely familiar with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which states that human beings must first prioritize basic needs, such as food and shelter, before they’re able to seek higher needs, like social interaction and self-actualization needs. What good is owning a Harley-Davidson or finding the perfect outfit for a trip to a club if you’re starving to death?
Looking at your site in a similar fashion is extremely helpful. Since I first introduced our concept of the hierarchy of optimization last year, I’ve wanted to dig into it a little deeper:
Taking a step back and examining the entire pyramid will help you better assess where to start or assist you in knowing exactly what you’re optimizing now. The hierarchy also gives insight into optimization’s potential impact.
Let’s start at the bottom. Remember, the higher you go on the pyramid, the bigger the impact you’ll make on optimization. Also remember that the pyramid doesn’t indicate the level of effort needed to optimize, because this is as different from site to site as we are different from each other.
Function is almost below the basics. Does your site have long periods of downtime? Do you deliver hundreds or thousands of 404s? Does your shopping cart constantly freeze up on visitors? Can users log in? Do images load? Is your site heavy on customer-facing errors? As a first order of business, work to make your site as reliable as the sunrise.
Another aspect of function is making sure that back-end functions are also in place. We’ve worked with companies that were spending ample on marketing and great site widgets, but the back-end shipping process was broken, causing an embarrassing amount of orders to go unfulfilled. This isn’t sexy marketing; it’s Business 101. Why go through all the hard work to market and sell a $1,000 dress only to have the customer walk up to a dirty checkout lane with a broken cash register circa 1950?
Having solid, clean user data for analytics also falls in the function level, otherwise anything higher up on the pyramid can’t be optimized with any accuracy or confidence.
How accessible is your site? Remember the recent lawsuit brought against Target.com for not having alt tags on its images? Font size, language issues, and pages and sections that don’t load correctly are other accessibility issues. Browser-specific issues fall in this level as well. Check your access logs to determine if you’re under-serving or ignoring a visitor segment. Optimize for people with disabilities, allow fonts to be resizable for users who need larger print, and solve browser-specific issues. If you remember, 38 percent of the retailers had difficult-to-read fonts in our 2007 Customer Experience Study. Optimize for dial-up users (there are still plenty of them out there). Access for mobile devices should also be considered.
Are your buttons easy to find and see? Is the search dialog where users expect it? Do you use drop-downs when you could use a radio button? Usability is about moving site elements around and using size, color, and contrast to improve the ease of use of your site. Thousands of great articles have been written about usability. Jared Spool‘s are my favorites.
Call-to-action button optimization is a popular optimization item for marketers. For most, the effort is low, and it can have significant impact. Still, it’s only one aspect of the usability equation.
While similar to and often confused with usability, the intuitive layer is about improving the flow of the visitor’s site experience and optimizing aspects that keep the visitors from buying. Point-of-action assurances, product detail pop-ups, customer reviews, upfront shipping costs, and current in-stock messaging all reduce friction in the buying process, anticipate customer questions, and offer answers at the point the customer asks.
On a lead generation site, optimize form questions, try to shorten the time needed to fill out the form, and introduce ways for the visitor to take more control of when and how they’re contacted.
At the top of the pyramid are site elements that move a customer toward making a decision to buy your specific product. Persuasion issues are almost always high impact.
Improving persuasion on your site is mostly done by improving copy or product images. Product descriptions, feature tours, demos, and product comparisons (even with competitors) are considered persuasive issues. On a lead gen or B2B (define) site, it’s your service description, case studies, testimonials, and white papers. Make sure your copy addresses each of your personas.
Brand image and a site’s overall look and feel are often persuasion issues, especially if there’s a disconnect between the brand promise and site design. But have no doubt that a strong familiar branded product will forgive a multitude of site errors, as many of us have endured horrible sites and process to buy products and services we really wanted.
Assuming the bottom three levels are sound on your site, persuasion scenario planning will assist in planning and measuring the intuitive and persuasion challenges you face.
Start at the pyramid’s bottom and list each of the optimization tests or changes you need to consider. For each item, rank the effort it will take your team to make the change or test possible. Start with low-effort items, even if they’re low on the pyramid. Then work your way up.
Best of luck with your optimization efforts this year. If you need help planning and prioritizing your tests, we’d be happy to oblige.
This originally appeared in my ClickZ column from 2/29/08.