What's STILL wrong with your website

After more than 12 years of evaluating website user experience, Forrester Research recently reached a major milestone — the completion of 1,500 Website User Experience Reviews. These reviews span consumer-and business-facing sites, intranets, and employee portals across many industries and countries. Forrester’s methodology is the same as those employed by consultants like myself since the late 1980s: heuristic (or scenario) reviews that essentially consist of three steps:

  1. Identify target users. Despite what you hear, websites aren’t inherently good or bad; they can only be judged by how effectively they meet specific users’ needs.
  2. Attempt to accomplish user goals. If you’re a retailer, we might try to find and buy a product. if you’re an auto parts company, we might try to locate a part or download a datasheet. if you’re a bank, we might research and apply for an account.
  3. Look for user experience flaws. We evaluate each experience for compliance with 25 criteria across four categories: value, navigation, presentation, and trust.

Results: Still an awful lot of room for improvement

What can we learn from the results of 1,500 Website User Experience Reviews? For starters, far too many sites still deliver poor experiences — only 3% of the sites earned a passing score. Looking at the changes since 1999, the scores have improved in recent years. But it’s very, very telling that from 1999 to 2012, the same problems are seen over and over again. Four of the top five failed criteria in the past four versions of the study have been exactly the same: illegible text, inefficient task flows, poor use of space, and missing links to privacy and security policies in context. Two of those — illegible text and inefficient task flows — have been the top two problems for almost five years.

Stop the Insanity!

We’ve all heard the common definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over while expecting a different result each time. And you would think that this familiarity would, to some reasonable degree, affect the way companies operate online. Sadly, this isn’t the case. Forrester’s study essentially tells us that online customer experience has been in this sorry state for more than 12 years.

While poor usability in the early period of the Web before research was often rationalized along the lines of little to no research or hard metrics, those days are long gone. Year after year the same problems are repeated, and it’s costing companies money. Forrester built simple ROI models to understand the implications of these actions on a company’s bottom line — and found that for an average retailer the result is millions of dollars in lost revenue and unnecessary costs.

That’s mainly because users who can’t complete their goals on websites turn to more expensive channels. Forrester asked US consumers what they do when they can’t complete a goal online, and the answers they got show that the vast majority of people do one of three things:

  1. Switch to more expensive channels, most often the phone.
  2. Give up and go to a competitor.
  3. Abandon their goals entirely.

Today’s average website has a list of customer experience problems as long as your arm. And what’s ridiculous about that is the fact that many of the fixes are common knowledge; the majority of these problems have already been solved — albeit on other sites. And while imitating best practices won’t solve every problem, there is no shortage of tried-and-true methodologies that UX professionals recommend and apply every day that can systematically increase revenue, decrease cost and improve customer satisfaction.

The key takeaway here is that the time and energy you waste wrestling with tired, old problems robs companies — managers in particular — to focus on the things that make them competitive in the marketplace: researching and developing the innovation that leads to product differentiation and customer loyalty.