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Are People Getting Stuck In Your GUI?
Suppose somebody’s got a real-world store, and here comes Mrs. Customer. She drives up, parks, and eagerly makes her way to the front door. She looks around, musing that the place looks great - really novel and colorful. They even have catchy music playing. But when she takes hold of the front door handle, she discovers it doesn't work like any door she's used before. She wants to shop at their store, so she fusses over the problem and eventually manages to get inside. Unfortunately, it doesn’t end there.


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Once she's wrestled her way in, she immediately discovers there are no aisles for her to walk through to look at their stuff, no overhead signs for her quickly to locate anything, no helpful (or even rude) information desk people, no smiling sales staff, not even an obvious cashier. In fact, she realizes that from her point of view there is absolutely no rhyme or reason to this store at all. How much do you think the novelty and graphics and music matter now? How long do you think she's going to hang around? How much do you think she’s going to buy?

Sure, I can hear you hooting. What a way to run a business - to build a store that actively discourages shopping! The bozos who thought that place up should be hung out to dry, right? Now, consider this: in the online world, the functional equivalent to your store is the Graphical User Interface, or GUI - pronounced "gooey." Whenever I hear this term, I think of flypaper and how it's hardly something you want your prospects to get stuck on. You don't want your clients fighting with your "store" - you want them actively engaged in shopping, not just satisfied but delighted by the way you offer your products.

Ideally, your GUI has a very simple role to play: it allows humans to interact with you, to view your products, to make selections and complete a purchase. Easily. Painlessly. Happily. An effective GUI bridges all the gaps between you and your shoppers by helping them focus on the content of your website. A good GUI should be seamless, transparent, completely unobtrusive. A super interface will help build the proper customer experience, reinforce your brand, and increase your sales. A bad one will do just the opposite.

A bad GUI spells ruin. If a user has to work hard to puzzle through your high-tech system or obscure processes, she's not shopping. And every time you add another gooey layer that frustrates her interest and motivation, she's that much less inclined to "stick" with you! It’s easier to find a competitor, just a click away, who puts her interests first.

Too many folks (you know who I mean…) who are responsible for e-commerce design on the web assume that constructing an interface is nothing more than creating distinctive glamour and eye-catching cleverness. And that's a major reason lots of e-businesses fail. One study discovered that users currently spend 1-1/2 hours of every 5 hours on the web simply waiting for pages to download! They spend at least another 10% of that 5 hours searching for items on a page, and more than another 10% filling out forms. Get real! No shopper is going to invest that kind of time for an average purchase!

So, the GUI plays a simple role, but designing a GUI that’s simple for your shopper isn't a simple matter. Many disciplines go into the mix:

· Information architects analyze the kind of information that needs to be communicated and generate logical pathways to form the foundation of the site.

· Graphic designers give the structure a coherent visual look and feel that fits within the overall brand positioning strategy while (ideally) striving to enhance usability.

· Human-factors and usability engineers question accessibility and usability issues at every step of the way, conducting extensive user testing to weed out any potential problems.

· Individuals with experience in good, old-fashioned N2N (nose to nose) sales as well as in consumer psychology, marketing, merchandising, color theory, and other key issues further refine and improve the effectiveness of the interface.

A lot of work, but your business won’t work without it. Lots of studies and lots of red ink are proving that fancy graphics, audio, 3-D, and too-clever layout features don’t make your site sticky. They make it slow, distracting, and confusing. Anything that gets in the way of a quick, easy, and safe buying experience turns customers off. So design your GUI from the customer's point of view, not the developer’s or the designer’s, and you’ll create a flypaper that has them "sticking" for all the right reasons!

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One Click Away from Goodbye
Every time I see a website that sucks, I can hear the background banter of its developers and programmers. “So it's not completely obvious,” they’re saying. “It's not that hard. Let them figure it out. They'll get used to it." These dudes sure put a lot of faith in the patience, motivation and resiliency of their visitors!

Sure, you've heard me rant about all those design pitfalls that spell death to an e-commerce website. But let's take a broader view. I want to paint a picture that helps you understand the stuff your average prospect goes through even before they land on your website, so you'll see even more clearly why designing a delightful experience for them is so critical to your sales. You see, Joe and Josephine Consumer are also Joe and Josephine Basic-User.

Just suppose you head out in your car to go shopping. You know what you want to buy. You know this neat new store you heard about actually has the item in stock. You think it's gonna be a cakewalk. But along the way you get stuck in a really snarly traffic jam. It's a blistering hot day. Your car overheats. It takes hours to fix the problem. Finally you're back on the road. Only now you discover there's a detour ahead. You thought you followed all the signs, so how come you're lost? Another hour of wandering and eventually you locate the store. Naturally, you have to park on the other side of the planet. Guess what kind of mood you are in. Guess what's going to happen if that neat new store does even the tiniest thing wrong.

Been there? I thought so. Now, here's the cyberspace equivalent for most (let me repeat, most) folks out there:

Figuring out a personal computer. Plug this in where? Start what? What's a task bar? I don't see any windows on my screen!

Getting on-line. What's an ISP? What do I really need? Why can't I just plug it in and go?

Learning to use e-mail. Okay … I get the bit about not needing stamps …

Learning to use a browser. Omigod, if I click will I cause the Fall of Western Civilization? Whew, I’m there but… how the heck do I get back??

Learning to use navigation, hyperlinks, frames and forms. Go where …do what … how? How come this flashes at me? Hey, it changes color! Where the heck am I? You want me to give you this information? Why? You just fed the whole form back to me. What did I do wrong?

Learning to download. What am I letting onto my computer? I go where to install? Help!

Learning to use plug-ins. I need what to do this? Says who? That's what they think (said while clicking off to the next competitor)!

Learning about pop-up boxes and drop-down menus. Whoa, where did this come from? What am I supposed to do? Why won't it stay on my screen?

Deciphering cryptic error messages. It killed my computer! Error 404? Get me out of here!

Differentiating legitimate business from scams. Who am I to trust when there aren't any faces?

Only after negotiating all these hurdles (and maybe a vodka on the rocks or two) do they arrive on your site. Give them any reason to leave, and they will.

Have a better appreciation of what you’re up against now? You can't do anything about the frustrations Joe and Josephine have endured before they find you. But once you've finally hooked up, you need to be especially kind to them. The whole trick is in making Mr. and Ms. Basic-User - not Mr. and Ms. Techno-Whiz - want to stay and want to buy from you! Make it worth their while to have figured out everything it took to get to your site. And remember: while you’re (always) one click away from goodbye, your competitor, who has taken the time and made the effort to create a smooth, simple, safe and delightful experience for them, is just one click away from hello.

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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