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Software Solutions > Book Reviews > Customer-Effective Web Sites >

"Customer-Effective Web Sites"

by Jodie Dalgleish

2000 FT.com Prentice Hall PTR, New Jersey

274 pages; US$39.99

Review by Madanmohan Rao

As the Web becomes more tightly integrated into the personal and professional lives of Internet users, customer expectations of good service are ever-escalating. Tommorrow's e-commerce winners will be sites that help customers accomplish their goals better, faster and more easily.

"The Web has allowed us for the first time ever to have a real chance to get close to our customers in real time," begins Internet consultant Jodie Dalgleish.

Customers using corporate Web sites started off with access to product information, then wanted access to problem resolution. Then customers demanded access to customer representatives, and today they want more access and involvement with business processes, says Dalgleish, drawing on earlier customer service models by Jim Sterne, author of "Customer Service on the Internet. "

Jodie Dalgleish is director of consulting for the Gartner Group in California. She has over two years of experience with customer interactions and service on the Web, and has worked with Web development and design teams in New Zealand and the U.S.

8 chapters cover a wide range of issues including customer-effective testing, project management, e-service requirements, content management, contextual design, navigation metaphors, and case studies from 10 notable customer-friendly sites.

The book is a must-read for all those involved in the field of Web solutions, interactive strategy, Internet brands, and customer relationship management (CRM).

Useful references cited include "Web Navigation: Designing the User Experience" (by Jennifer Fleming), "The Design of Everyday Things" (by Donald Norman), "Information Architecture: Designing Large-Scale Web Sites (by Louis Rosenfeld and Peter Morville), "The 21st Century Intranet" (by Jennifer Stone Gonzalez) and "Customer Service on the Internet" (by Jim Sterne).

Online resources include Jakob Nielsen's Useit.com, Georgia Tech's Graphics, Visualisation and Usability Centre (www.cc.gatech.edu/gvu), ContextMag.com, Cluetrain Manifesto (www.cluetrain.com), Contentious.com, Electric-Pages.com, Webmonkey (www.hotwired.com/webmonkey), Web Page Design for Designers (www.wpdfp.com), SecretSites.com, Philosophe.com, and WebReview.com.

"It takes discipline to create a good Web site. Part of that discipline is talking to customers and effectively translating their needs, attitudes, and behaviours into the requisite Web site experience," she advises.

Numerous surveys indicate that the key customer interaction areas on the Web focus on product evaluation, selection, help, feedback, and ongoing learning.

"Good Web site design is a means and not an end. The end has to be the end-user - the customer," says Dalgleish.

The problem is that, in almost all cases, site developers are not the actual user and generally have forgotten what it is like to be a novice user. Another problem is effectively integrating the various multi-disciplinary threads involved: behaviourial analysts, cognitive architects, creative architects, information architects, content strategists, system architects, program managers, project managers, consultants, interactive strategists, marketing managers, brand consultants, and customer service analysts.

"We have to provide a Web site that makes it easy for customers to find, evaluate and choose the exact product desired and an order process that is easy and comfortable to use. Underpinning this would be an organisational fulfillment process that is at one with the Web-based order process and that provides the product more conveniently than by ordering it by any other means," according to Dalgleish.

Overall direction for customer-effective design should come from the business logic - its short-term and long-term imperatives. All required skills and competencies may not reside in-house, and hence some work may need to be outsourced to consultants, researchers and Web solutions companies.

An effective site must feature quality information, clear navigation, interactive features, customisation, deep selection, customer involvement, seamless integration with backend data and processes, speedy performance, superior service compared to other offline channels, and multi-channel integration.

Dalgleish identifies 17 customer directives for effective design, which include clear roles and specifications for site features, some amount of anonymity, cross-comparison services, avoiding too much second-guessing, presence of signposts, avoiding use of fancy jargon, well-designed non-redundant forms, and respecting existing customer relationships (especially for B2B customers).

Still, she observes numerous shortcomings in implemented Web sites, such as dead ends in navigation, worthless downloads, uncertain action points, hidden time requirements, blind registration (with no benefits explained), lack of tracking of interaction history, design tailored to organisation structure rather than user experience, lack of distinction between novice and expert users, inconsistent iconography, and poor navigation schemes (with too many 'home' locations).

Many of these shortcomings can be overcome with proper testing. "Testing is the single most important thing you will do. Unfortunately, it could also be the most ignored," warns Dalgleish.

Prototyping, focus groups, online surveys, Web site usability testing, beta testing, security audits, back-end integration, cognitive walkthroughs, performance testing, workflow modeling, internal support process testing and interaction modeling are crucial steps to final launch.

Designers must work out a testplan which carefully delineates the test subject, scope, test process, and desired outcomes, advises Dalgleish.

Based on these results, key objectives for useful e-services are delivering on a clear value proposition, operating in real time, and leveraging technology as an enabler.

e-Businesses must focus on innovation (leverage new market scope and online service features), clear and relevant problem resolution, and the ability for customers to stay in constant touch with appropriate representatives.

"Industry structures, financial models, and business purpose are changing more fundamentally and quickly than ever before," observes Dalgleish.

Businesses must ask themselves several key questions about online customer service. Who is our new e-community? What new e-services can we devise? How can the site add value? How does cyberculture alter and enhance our business culture? How do we connect with other e-citizens? What is our customer's e-work context? How has access to information changed the balance of power in our e-customer's favour? How can we be more customer-effective than our competitor? How do we define our e-brand? How are user emails, authentications, transactions and profiles classified and responded to - in real time?

In sum, the development brief will consist of components like technical functionality, back-end infrastructure, service coverage, and overall branding.

Many businesses tend to underestimate the amount of content management work, alliances and processes that are involved in keeping the site fresh, relevant, functional and interesting, warns Dalgleish. "Generally the content that already exists in the company will need to be significantly remodeled to fit the Web site, or written from scratch," she advises.

Content schedules should be devised to manage the content plan and content generation or sourcing processes, for both interface content (targeting the user experience) as well as substantive content (driven by business logic).

A key step in mapping out different customer interaction scenarios is enumerating various contextual designs for customer themes focusing on specific tasks: such as Amazon.com's schemas for book browsing, searching, purchase, getting recommendations, gifting, and profile updation.

Amazon.com's customer-centric features like quick search, email alert services, one-click ordering, email confirmations of orders, recommendations of related books, usefulness ratings of customer book reviews, gift tracking, and detailed contact information page reveal the thoroughness of effective customer service.

More case studies are covered in another entire chapter on customer-effective design practices, such as Cisco's "Interactive Mentor" for tutoring, online bill management at StatusFactory.com, value matching of potential goods for swapping at WebSwap.com, tracking of domain name sales and purchases at AfterNIC.com, e-learning services at DigitalThink.com, and interactive garden design tools at Garden.com.

Dalgleish identifies eleven success factors for providing utility for customers. They include focusing on real-life experiences, address common areas of frustration, use threaded discussions, and leveraging the best characteristics of the Web (such as real-time information exchange, dynamic information generation, seamless process integration at the back-end).

It is also important to pick the right design and navigational metaphors if possible, such as lobby, neighbourhood, desktop, shopping cart, and store.

"Never before has there been such an opportunity to learn from the pioneers and improve on their efforts," observes Dalgleish. The Internet market will move past portal and brand fads, and focus on connections and reputable e-service.

"The e-services that most naturally fit around and enhance people's lives will survive. We are sitting on the verge of an e-service revolution. It will really happen only when we recognise our e-customers as equal partners in the revolution and become customer-effective," concludes Dalgleish.


The writer can be reached at madan@techsparks.com


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