Insights | By Howard Tiersky

What Your Website is Really Telling Your Customers

For the past few weeks, I've been sitting in a lot of usability testing sessions for web and mobile sites. In particular, for two sites that we are beginning the process of re-doing for clients. I've noticed a consumer pattern jumping out across multiple subjects in tests for both clients. It’s something that I think its relevant to pretty much everybody working on a digital touchpoint.

Brands spend a lot of energy (and in some cases, money,) on the copy and content they put on their sites to tell you about their brand and products. But listening to all these research subjects, I hear so much cynicism about what brands say about themselves. Maybe its the impact of election season, but consumers seem to be at the point where they just assume that most of what brands say about themselves are somewhere between an exaggeration and an outright lie.

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Consumers believe that most of what brands say about themselves is somewhere between an exaggeration and an outright lie.

As a result, what I am hearing from these customers of our clients is that they feel they need to 'read between the lines' to predict what they can actually expect if they decide to move forward and do business with a brand, whether its a bank or a breakfast cereal. And how do they do that? By evaluating the quality and experience of the brand's digital presence.

For the consumers we have studied, the experience of a brand's site (or mobile site or app) is what you have "told" the customer the experience of your product will be. Period.

You can write copy that states your product is friendly, easy to use, and fun, but if your website is confusing and disorganized, or has errors or broken image links, THAT is the message people take away. If your signup process is cumbersome, they assume so will be your product. If your error messages are unfriendly, they assume that's the same characteristic they can expect from your customer service.

It’s perhaps an obvious insight that the quality of your web experience reflects on your brand, but what I’m saying goes a step beyond that. Whatever the experience of your website is, that is your brand and the quality expectation you’re setting, especially for prospective customers, who don’t yet have other experiences of your products or services.

Sadly, in the case of several different tests, I sat in over this past weekend, the experience was flawed -- no doubt in part why we'd been hired to re-do them. Large investments had been made in features and content. Both sites had some great attributes and were visually appealing. But when you started using them, they had small inconsistencies confusing terms, occasional bugs, and other small "broken window" type defects that, when aggregated together in a total experience, left the research subjects saying things like, "I'm not sure I'd trust my taxes to a company who makes these kinds of mistakes. I don’t want mistakes like that on my tax return," and "Their product is pretty expensive, and my sense from this site experience is that…it’s probably not better than cheaper products out there."

It may seem discouraging that consumers "jump to conclusions" as a result of small defects or flaws in your digital experience. But here’s two pieces of good news: First, so often these problems are not that difficult to fix! A thorough heuristic and usability analysis can often be achieved in a few weeks. So often this yields dozens of small issues that can be improved with minimal effort. Of course, deeper problems can also be uncovered, and these may be more time consuming to address, however understanding the magnitude of the issue and the business impact that its having is the first step towards solving it. And second, this connection is not all bad. Prospective customers may be cynical about what you say, but their belief in the veracity of their experience means that by delivering a first-class digital journey you can persuade them that your brand is worthy of their trust and create positive expectations of your products and services.

So how do you figure out the right answer, get everyone on the same page, and focus on a common innovation goal? At FROM, we use a specific model to approach the process of identifying the most relevant opportunity areas for innovation, and to build group consensus around the best approach. You'll have to adapt it to your situation, but the model should provide a good starting framework.