Why the online user experience should be a priority for all businesses  

Having met with countless eCommerce organisations and attending numerous digital conferences,  I have noticed that more and more retailers taking UX increasingly seriously. While CRO has been on e-tailers’ agendas for some time UX is sometimes overlooked. Of course, there is a blurred line between the two disciplines and for eCommerce businesses UX could be the difference between getting a customer through the checkout or not, whereas for a charity it could mean successfully recruiting volunteers or supporters; ultimately, having a good UX is crucial for organisations across the board.

So when I read the findings of this research into the UX of 10 of the biggest travel websites, I was surprised that some of them scored quite badly – particularly since it is an industry where online transactions account for a pretty massive part of its revenue.

So, I thought I’d take a brief look at where Skyscanner, AirBnB, LateRooms, Booking.com, LastMinute, OnTheBeach, British Airways, Virgin Atlantic, Cooperative Travel, and Expedia were going wrong, as found in the research. And then seek out some help from some UX experts to uncover how to businesses can start rectifying these issues.

UX downfalls

The research found that while many of the sites had considered general usability to some extent, many of them fell down in other areas, such as accessibility (how easy they were to use by disabled users) and how they worked across multiple devices.

Almost half of the websites had inconsistent interfaces, for example, making it difficult for users – particularly those that are partially sighted –  to navigate around the site, while six out of ten were too cluttered – a big no-no when it comes to users living with sight-loss being able to digest information on a site easily.

In addition, while many of the sites had considered their multi-device offering and had an adaptive or responsive website, only half of the sites were tablet friendly – not ideal considering that 40% of holidays booked online between 2014 and 2015 were via a mobile or tablet.

These are just a couple of the key findings from the research. And while I can’t claim to be an all-singing, all-dancing UX expert, I know from working with UX specialists that companies can do a number of things to brush up on theirs. Here, with some help from Sigma, the user experience agency that conducted the research, I’ve noted down three key things businesses can address in order to start providing a better user experience:

1. Ensure usability is a priority

As all designers and developers, and indeed many marketers, will know – usability is one of the most important aspects in the design of all websites. Some basic usability principles that can be incorporated simply are: design the homepage in a way that it is easy for users to know what to do next; make it easy for users to know what services you’re offering in the first place; create a consistent experience across the site; and ensure iconography is clear.

Virgin Atlantic’s website was deemed one of the most usable in Sigma’s research for the following reasons:

  • The service offering is clearly defined on the homepage
  • The headings are used correctly to convey document structure and hierarchy
  • Iconography is clear
  • The interface is consistent throughout
  • It is clear when users land on the site what the website has to offer

User Experience

2. Don’t make accessibility an add-on

Accessibility is one of the challenges I hear cropping up more and more these days – various digital conferences I attend touch on the issue and it’s good to see it’s getting more awareness and traction. However, I still don’t think accessibility is being fully prioritised; that is, the practice of designing websites, products or services that are suitable for people with disabilities.

While it might seem like a minefield, some of the simple things businesses can do to improve web accessibility are:

  • Amend colour contrasts so they’re suitable for partially sighted users, and avoid all white forms – while they look good from a design perspective they’re simply not accessible;
  • Include alt text on all images;
  • Use headings that are clearly presented and an easy to read font;
  • Consider using a two column layout, which makes it easier for users to scan content on the page without getting lost;
  • Enable the zoom function on websites, so users living with sight-loss are able to zoom in and out easily – you might be surprised at how many sites purposely disable the zoom function;

Businesses can learn from Expedia’s accessibility results within Sigma’s research – this site scored really well as it had considered most of the aspects above

3.   Consider a consistent cross-device offering

Last, but definitely not least, is investment in a multi-device offering. As the importance of mobile continues to increase (searches on mobile surpassed those on desktop for the first time last year), so will creating websites that are consistent and usable across devices.

Mobiles and tablets present endless opportunities to businesses, but designing for them needs to be approached totally differently than design for desktop PCs – as how users interact with them, and when and where they use them, is often totally different. Ultimately, designing for mobile requires a shift in mindset and skillset, as often what looks good on desktop won’t look the same on tablet or mobile.

Many businesses choose not to develop standalone mobile sites, since they must be created separately and therefore involve more upfront and maintenance costs. However, at the very least, they should invest in a website that is either responsive or adaptive, so it scales and adjusts to the device it is being used on. It’s also important to remember that one of the most important considerations when designing for mobile is cutting out clutter – imagine how annoying cluttered sites look on a normal desktop, and then imagine how much more annoying they’d look when reduced down onto a mobile!

Businesses that require it should also consider investing in a native mobile app, but this tends to only be suitable for a small number of businesses, and isn’t something that should be put ahead of creating consistency across desktop and on the mobile and tablet versions of websites first.

Invest in UX or lose out

UX doesn’t have to be a major sap on resources, but it is worth setting aside a separate budget for. From my own experience, there are a number of ways businesses can begin to look at investing in UX – from the small things, such as sending out feedback surveys to your key audiences, or launching a website or app in beta and inviting comments on its user experience. Right through to more in-depth UX research such as laboratory-based testing – usually conducted through the help of a specialist agency – which can incorporate a number of methods including focus groups with key audiences, monitored use of websites, and heat mapping through eye-tracking (which measures where the eyes focus on a website).

There are also lots of online resources businesses can consult to start their journey towards a better user experience – the WCAG 2.0 guidelines are a great starting point, particularly when ensuring disabled users are properly accommodated. In addition, designers and developers can add the WAVE toolbar on Chrome – a great web accessibility tool which provides visual feedback on the accessibility of web content.

Ultimately, from a conversion, and reputation, point of view, businesses should be doing all they can to ensure their websites and online products and services provide a good user experience. In a world where consumers are constantly demanding more when it comes to the products and services they can access online – and expecting more when it comes to the design of these –  it’s never been more important.

Research methodology

The websites of Skyscanner, AirBnB, LateRooms, Booking.com, LastMinute, OnTheBeach, British Airways, Virgin Atlantic, Cooperative Travel, and Expedia were tested by Sigma in April 2016 in a heuristic evaluation which looked at their user experience across various categories. Independent consultant, Molly Watt, who has Usher Syndrome, which means she was born deaf and now has partial sight, also tested the accessibility of the sites in May 2016.

About James Crawford

James Crawford is an award winning B2B and consumer PR practitioner and has worked with at some of the biggest PR agencies in the UK. He focuses on using reputation and ecommerce metrics to track the ROI of PR.