Now that the Web as revolutionary business communication tool is a fait accompli, a number of businesses in the ground support industry have discovered ways to elevate the medium to world-class heights, and create glistening icons of ecommerce — while simultaneously ensuring those sites are a snap to use.
“Usability rules the Web,” says Jakob Nielsen,of the Nielsen Norman Group (www.nngroup.com), a Web design consultancy. “The Web is the ultimate customer-empowering environment. He or she who clicks the mouse gets to decide everything.”
In designing your own site for usability, you’ll need to start with a good Web site authoring tool that will enable you to design a basic site, which can be subsequently enhanced with supplementary specialty design programs. An all around decent authoring tool that gets good reviews in the PC press is Microsoft Front Page ($169) (www.microsoft.com). Another that consistently gets rave reviews is DreamWeaver, by Macromedia ($399) (www.macromedia.com).
Once you’ve become comfortable with your Web authoring program – or have found a Web designer who has taken on your project – Web designers recommend that every commercial site include these key features:
INSTANT COMMUNICATION OF PURPOSE: People serious about doing business on the Web want their Web pages served up fast and clear. That means instantly communicating what you’re about, and what you can do for the visitors. And it also means forgetting about showy splash page introductions, or elaborate animated introductions that take forever to download.
GOOF-PROOF ONLINE ORDERING: Businesses interested in doing retail business on the Web should either have an online ordering system, or be planning one. Before deciding on your own approach, do yourself a favor, and visit a search engine like Google (www.google.com) and type in keywords like ecommerce, online ordering, and the like. You’ll be presented with a plethora of turnkey online ordering solutions from which to choose.
Of course, key to any ecommerce solution will be the ability to accept credit card payments over the Web. One of the easiest ways to get started is to use an online transaction service like PayPal® (www.paypal.com). Virtually any business with a bank account can begin accepting credit card payments over the Web using PayPal in about five minutes.
ARRESTING USE OF GRAPHICS AND COLOR: If you plan to add a number of graphics and special imaging effects to your site, you may want to bring in an industrial strength graphics program for your images, such as Adobe Photoshop® (around $600) (www.adobe.com). The program may be a little pricey for some budgets, but it is considered the industry standard by Web graphics professionals. A less costly alternative is Ulead’s PhotoImpact ($90) (www.ulead.com). PhotoImpact has fewer features, but the program still regularly garners rave reviews in the PC press as well.
EFFORTLESS NAVIGABILITY: Once you’ve established what your site’s about, take great pains to ensure that getting around the site is a snap, designers say. That means creating an intuitive navigation bar on your home page that enables visitors to make quick jumps to key interest areas with a single click. If you have a fairly extensive site, you’ll also want to use drop-down menus or similar tools that enable visitors to “drill down” to highly specific categories of interest in a flash.
INNOVATIVE USE OF VISITOR COMMUNICATION INTERFACES: Many commercial Web sites provide basic communication interactivity by posting email addresses of key personnel and/or offering mailing lists. You can experiment with mailing list technology for free at online services like: Yahoo! Groups: http://groups.yahoo.com MSN Groups: http://groups.msn.com AOL Groups: http://groups.aol.com Topica: www.topica.com
Meanwhile, other companies are taking the concept of interactive communication to a higher level, featuring chatrooms where visitors and customers can stop by to ask questions about purchases or talk shop. Many of these chatrooms are hosted by remote, application service providers like LivePerson.com, InstantService.com, Live2Support.com, and MayWeHelp.com. Costs for these services range $9-$99/month, depending on the features you’d like.
Bottom line: Always keep in mind that your Web site is first and foremost a business tool you’re designing to reach out to customers and trading partners. It never should be a technological homage to yourself or to your Web designer, which may “look cool” but in practice is little more than an impediment to ecommerce.