Fast Company

Four Rules for Great Experiences

Advice on how to deliver compelling online experiences.

Mark Hurst is a man on a mission: to eradicate agonizing customer experiences from the Web. After leaving Yoyodyne Entertainment, a pioneering Internet marketing company, Hurst began writing a series of cranky (but dead-on) critiques of popular commercial Web sites, including Amazon.com, CDNow, Dell Online, and Microsoft Expedia. To his amazement, many of these sites began taking his advice.

Today, Hurst, 26, is president of Creative Good Inc., an e-commerce consulting firm based in New York City that works with clients such as Gateway 2000, Time Inc. New Media, Travelocity, and American Express. Last February, Phil Terry, 33, formerly the manager of new media at McKinsey & Co., signed on as Creative Good's CEO.

In an interview with Net Company, Hurst and Terry offered advice on how to deliver compelling online experiences -- and on how to avoid what they call "showstopper problems."

You are not the customer.

"The people who shop on the Web are different from the people who create Web sites," says Terry. "Web developers know the difference between Java and JavaScript, and they like downloading plug-ins. Customers come to a site and say, 'When do I get my plane ticket?' "

Seek and ye shall (rarely) find.

Too many sites operate with search engines that just don't do the job. Either they can't handle long queries (like "blue ralph lauren blazer"), or they generate page after page of irrelevant results. "When you go to drugstore.com and you type in 'Tylenol,' " says Hurst, "the search engine comes back with six pages of search results." That's a great way to give your customer a headache.

That's why it's crucial to offer tips on performing more-precise searches, says Hurst. Web sites should also make common searches -- "How can I find Tylenol?" -- easier to do. Hurst recommends a process called "keyword mapping": Each week, identify the items that your customers search for most frequently, and then program your search engine to send users directly to the pages devoted to those products -- instead of forcing them to sort through reams of data.

Organize with the customer in mind.

Many companies use their internal org chart as a template for designing their Web site. Each product line gets its own area. That's a mistake, says Terry: "You need to organize based on the way customers buy. What are they looking for? They don't want to hopscotch from one part of your site to another, gathering all of the components of a stereo -- speakers, speaker wire, tape deck, CD player -- just because that's how your company is set up."

Think small -- and think simple.

The customer experience often gets spoiled by overzealous designers and overambitious developers. "We all have T1 lines and big monitors," says Hurst, "but most of our customers have old computers, slow modems, and small monitors. The Web is still a highly constrained medium." So it's important to distill the online experience into the most essential visual and textual elements. Excessive use of graphics, marketing copy, sound files, or Java applets can destroy a customer's will to buy.

And don't forget to say what you mean. Too many Web sites ask users to navigate using buttons that are so clever as to be cryptic. Hurst mentions a button on the Starbucks Web site that's labeled "Beyond the Bean." "I have better things to do with my life than click on 'Beyond the Bean,' " he says. "You need to be clear about what the payoff is: Why should I go there?" Which leads to a Creative Good cardinal rule: "To succeed in e-commerce, make it easy for the customer to buy."

Coordinates: Creative Good Inc., www.creativegood.com; Mark Hurst, mark@creativegood.com; Phil Terry, pterry@creativegood.com

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