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Is your Website Working for your Business?

By Nigel T Packer

Your company’s website does many jobs.  It is your company’s advertisement, brochure, receptionist and sales representative.  Most buyers no longer bother to save printed literature, instead making an assumption that they will be able to find the same information – and more – on your website.

Customers use the internet in a demand-driven way, displaying searching and foraging behaviour with little patience or tolerance for a poor experience. Most users indicate that they would look at a company’s website long before making contact or requesting a quote.  In a Business to Business (B2B) world, whether international or not, the internet may not necessarily be the place that purchases are made, but it is certainly where the research is carried out before decisions are reached.  Most user activity on a B2B website is about research, complex or multi-priority decision making, and establishing shortlists for purchase or contracts.   Research carried out into the needs of users of B2B websites shows that prices are priority information with product availability in second place.

On average B2B websites have a 14% lower ‘success’1 rate than mainstream websites or those that operate in a Business to Consumer (B2C) environment.  As well as failing to answer users’ questions, they often inadvertently include or create barriers for prospective customers as they carry out research or shortlist suppliers.2   One of the most common problems is confusing navigation.  So often we talk to clients who are more than pleased with their websites and think the navigation is fine, however, when you are close to a system or project, you know where to look, how everything is structured.  It rarely fails to shock when website owners see users – during testing sessions - floundering or going around in circles looking for the simplest of information.

In our seminars and training workshops one of the most common questions asked is: ‘What is the perfect website?’ My response to this usually surprises the delegates or individual who posed the question, when I ask in return: ‘What is the perfect food?’  This response could take a number of forms: what is the perfect place to go on holiday; what is the perfect sailing boat?  The answer to all of these questions is the same: ‘It depends.’  It depends on the needs, wants and desires of the user.  The perfect website for your business is the one that best meets your customers’ needs and therefore meets your business objectives most effectively.  While different for every business, one key issue remains the same, the website is not for you, it is for your customers.  You need to know who your customers are and find out what they need. How will your website help them to buy or make a buying decision?

A more valid question is: “What is the most important job a website does?”  There are lots of answers to this question, including, ‘It depends,’ but the first job it must do is to confirm to the user what website they have arrived at and to convey the company’s offering and core brand values, not often considered consciously but are crucial to the functioning of the site. On a more active level it needs to answer the users’ questions.

The primary questions (although usually subconscious) are:

  • Where am I (whose website am I on)

  • What can I do here (find information, make bookings, etc)

  • Do I recognise myself as a potential customer of this website? (The need to recognise easily that they ‘match‘ the business, usually a scope or scale issue).

The most common users’ questions are:

  • Do they sell or have what I am looking for (specific information on products and services as well as availability or supply)

  • How much is it? (We constantly hear: ‘Ah well we can’t display prices because…’ or ‘It depends…’ and so on.’ No excuses. If your products are bespoke or the prices of your services are specific to the individual customer then give examples in the form of case studies or common scenarios).

  • Also really important (but often overlooked):

  • Contact details (telephone, address, email etc)

We recently looked at the website of a highly respected international company in the boat industry.  The website does a really good job of conveying the brand, its image and core values.  The visuals are great, the design beautifully crafted - as are the company’s products.

However, while it deals well with the primary questions, when it comes to answering the users’ (potential customers’) questions it fails on many counts.  There are no indicators of price (the number one priority), no parameter or scope questions are answered and there are few clues to supply, availability or similar (the number two priorities for users).  To test this further we carried out small-scale independent research with the company’s target market and found that most of the respondents’ questions are not answered by the website.

The site also has two fundamental navigation issues that result in the user getting lost as they are sent around in circles seeking information.  The lack of indication of ‘where they are now’ or ‘what pages they have already visited’ always results in frustration and has been at the top of the list of common usability mistakes for a number of years.  Ironic that a company in the boat industry appears to have misguidedly neglected navigation (they are not alone; our recent research carried out on websites in the boat industry has shown this to be a common problem).

Another question was raised when we carried out the site review, even though the company is international, it is only being delivered in English.  This is not necessarily a problem; you should not assume that if you trade internationally then your website necessarily needs to be in multiple languages.  Here we are back at that key issue: who are your customers; what are their needs; where are they and so on.  It may be that your customers all speak English or have access to it; that you may consider - for example - that the language of your industry is primarily English; or that since you are in the high-end luxury goods market then your customers may be likely to have assistants or access to translators. But whatever you decide, it should be based on research, not gut-feeling.

Many website projects have simply dived into multiple language translation delivery, with no research being carried out as to the needs of their customers.  Perhaps they have employed the use of a database-driven website that accommodates the input of translated text or even the use of auto-translate language system.  Before going down this route you need to find out what the most important languages are in order to effectively support your customers’ online experience. 

There are 6,809 languages in daily use in the world3 (it is very unlikely that you would consider translation into all of them).  The most common language in use in the world is Mandarin (Chinese) with over a billion speakers, English is spoken by only just over half of this number, closely followed by Hindi, Spanish and then Arabic (see table).  So of the top five languages spoken in the world, 3 use non-western characters. This is suddenly a really big deal and translating your website for international use might not be as easy as you first thought (or were told by your website developers). 

 

Number of speakers3 (Millions)

1st

Mandarin

1,120

2nd

English

510

3rd

Hindi

490

4th

Spanish

425

5th

Arabic

255

6th

Russian

254

7th

Portuguese

218

8th

Bengali

215

9th

Malay

175

10th

French

130

 

Internet usage4 (Millions)

1st

English

430.8

2nd

Mandarin

276.2

3rd

Spanish

124

4th

Japanese

94

5th

French

68

6th

German

61

7th

Arabic

59

8th

Portuguese

58

9th

Korean

34

10th

Italian

34

 

When we surveyed companies that were considering translation, the most common languages they quoted were French, German and Spanish.  However, there are more speakers of Bengali and Malay than French and German!  The language usage numbers do not correlate with the expectations of website owners, or with the incidence of language use on websites.  Internet language usage is dominated by English with Mandarin coming second, followed by Spanish and Japanese. French, German, Arabic, Portuguese, Korean and Italian make up the remainder of the top ten (see table). 

The next question is to do with your businesses resources: what is the potential return on investment (ROI) on the translation and does your company really have the development budget and ongoing funds to support the setup and maintenance of this?  Poor translation can often be worse (sometimes even insulting to users) than no translation, the differences in regional and local use of language as well as cultural differences make it difficult to communicate effectively unless a native speaker is used to make that translation.  The moral? If you are going to enter the quagmire of multi-lingual website delivery then make sure you do a good job, get the professionals involved and don’t underestimate the resources and commitment that are required for the project.

The question of goodwill is raised when discussing the courtesy of translation, as well as providing information in a form that your users can understand; you can raise goodwill by your efforts to do this.  Anyone who has travelled internationally will have experienced that more often than not, even the most basic (or pathetic) attempts at communicating in the language of the country will increase the goodwill towards you of those with whom you are dealing.  While raising goodwill is often more about anticipating and meeting your customers requirements and expectations, surpassing them with small elements can be surprisingly effective (the online equivalent of a chocolate on the pillow).

The language of the customer refers to more than the native spoken language of the country in which the user originates or resides.  It also refers to the language that is used by your customers, which may not be the language in common use in your industry or sector.  One practice often detrimental to the user is to use terminology that is industry specific but not in use by the customer; websites littered with jargon that is unintelligible to the users are very common.  The other form of this is to mistakenly structure your website like your business, rather than structure it focused on your users’ needs or expectations. 

If you work in a (B2B) environment, you might consider it reasonable to assume that your customers will understand the same terminology as you.  Beware of this assumption, even if your products have become the ‘Hoover’ of the boat industry, brand names, proprietary or bespoke products and new developments all carry with them the ability to confuse even the most knowledgeable of customers.  And what about all the new ones, or the potential customers outside your target sector who might have an alternative use for your products. If you were face-to-face then you would be able to judge the customer’s reaction and respond accordingly with explanations.  Online however, you have no such luxury, if the customer is confused only the most determined are likely to contact you with questions; most will simply click the back button and leave.  Furthermore, it is not possible to measure the enquires that you don’t get, the potential customers who simply leave due to these or other communication issues.

Much money is now spent on online advertising and SEO (Search Engine Optimisation) has become both the latest buzzword and the source of much disappointment and derision.  While SEO is essential to the success of your website in terms of getting results in search engine listings, there is no point in driving users to your website if they cannot use or understand it, easily and effectively, when they get there.

So, focus on your customers, what their needs and expectations are, make sure you answer their questions and provide them in a language (both international and industry-specific) that is appropriate to them. Above all, ensure your site is easy to navigate and does not present barriers to your users searching - and hopefully buying - behaviour.

footnotes/references

1 ‘Success’ at completing tasks such as finding specific information or carrying out functions

2 Statistics and research from NNG (Neilson Norman Group) at http://www.useit.com

3 Details on language usage from the linguistic society of America at www.lsadc.org/info/pdf_files/howmany.pdf

4 Details on internet language usage from Internet World Stats at www.internetworldstats.com/stats7.htm

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