We changed our name! After 14 years of creating award-winning digital products & services, it’s time for a new identity that better reflects the human insights-driven, digital customer experiences we create.
We changed our name! After 14 years of creating award-winning digital products & services, it’s time for a new identity that better reflects the human insights-driven, digital customer experiences we create.

AIAIO: Our Blog

AIAIO: Our Blog

The pulse and reviews of Alexander Interactive

Archive for the ‘UX’ Category

Amping Up Apple’s Compare Grid

Apple recently launched a nifty DHTML comparison grid to help customers find the best Mac for them. The comparison grid features drag-n-drop capability, so that you can compare items you might be thinking about side by side, as depicted below:

Let’s take things up a notch, using some comparison features Ai has implemented for our clients.

The first thing to deal with is the large amount of text describing the product specs. While detailed specs are great, quick scannability suffers with the way Apple has implemented them.  In order to make things more scannable, Ai would:

  1. Move to a model where the spec definition is listed in the lefthand column, and checkmarks are used to indicate whether a specific model (column) has the spec or not.
  2. Show more detailed information about a spec using DHTML expand/collapse widgets.

This quick addition of progressive disclosure of detailed information in the grid enables quick scanning of specs while still allowing users to get detailed information if they so desire. Check out the videos below to see how Ai implemented just this approach two different ways for Bizfilings:

View the live Bizfilings Comparison Grid and Product Comparison Screen

Next, let’s take Apple’s concept of DHTML drag-n-drop one step further. Several years ago, Ai implemented a sophisticated course comparison grid for Kaplan Test Prep & Admissions. This grid allowed the user to drag-n-drop to reorder, and also to add/remove items from the comparison grid. Check it out here:

One thing we could change now – the x’s to remove items from the grid can be presented on mouseover, eliminating some visual cruft.

Voila! Apple’s Mac comparison grid, Ai’ified.


Building for present vs. future usage

We often state internally that “this year is the year of mobile.” We’ve been saying it since 2007–“2008 will be the year of mobile!”–and with the continued insurgence of Apple’s devices, 2011 may be the year we’re finally not ahead of the curve.

Part of predicting mobile, though, is in properly forecasting and anticipating use. In just over a year, our clients’ sites have seen mobile traffic trend from 1-2% of visits to 5-10% or more. (One colleague I’ve spoken with has a remarkable 32% mobile share on his informational website.) How well could that have been foreseen, and at what level is mobile adjustment important?

I’m on the record as saying mobile accessibility has become crucial, not unlike supporting legacy systems on the trailing edge of site traffic. I rallied for Mac support when Apple had 2.5% of the market; I insisted on supporting Netscape 4.7 until Netscape itself stopped supporting it; I forced Ai’s developers to accommodate IE 6 as recently as last year. With mobile traffic surging toward and past 10% of total online usage, having a site not load in iOS or Android is simply not an option.

Mobile access chart, souce: eMarketerHowever, that doesn’t mean the world is flocking in its entirety to mobile. Today eMarketer shared great mobile usage statistics that pegged 30% of Americans logging on via mobile more than once a week. Yet that same graph also noted that the majority of respondents, 58%, don’t use the mobile Internet at all. And two-fifths of that group doesn’t even have a web-enabled mobile device.

While we all push toward a mobile world, taking the late majority into account is just as important as embracing the early adopters. The greatest retail app in the world won’t make a difference if its target demographic won’t download it. Planning for the future, however, will.

Give the leading segment the access and utility it craves while maintaining a more traditional presence for everyone else. That will ensure across-the-board customer satisfaction–and position a site for the inevitable shift to a mobile majority.


12 Tips on Creating a Safe Online Customer Shopping Experience

Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and the following Thursday are just days away… Holidays are right around the corner. We’re not looking to change the world here at Ai, but we do want to play our part in making this upcoming year a safe, secure and profitable one. That being said, have a look at an article I recently wrote which was published in the B2C Marketing Insider.

12 Tips on Creating a Safe Online Customer Shopping Experience

“84% of polled Internet shoppers don’t think that online retailers are putting enough effort into protecting customers” (Forrester Research, Inc)

The E-commerce holiday shopping season is upon us and online retailers are busy implementing new shopping features, social campaigns, analyzing their test results, and redesigning their funnels from browsing to checkout.

The experts are out in force: Focus on usability! Optimize your product page! Come up with brilliant holiday promotions! Study the shopping trends! Yeah! Yeah?

No. Don’t waste your precious and ever-dwindling time focusing solely on usability and Ui improvements. Bottom line: If you don’t have your customers‘ trust and confidence, you won’t convert–regardless of all the improvements that your testing results indicated you should make.

This holiday season, make it a priority to ensure that your site is providing your customers with the sense of safety and security they are longing for in their shopping experience. Use our tips below to ensure your customers spend their precious time deciding which product to buy from your site, rather than then if they should even buy from you at all.

Prominent Contact Information

Contact information should be prominent and in a consistent place within your header and footer so that your customer knows where to go when they have questions or encounter issues. Display both phone number and email address so that your customers can contact you in the manner of their choosing.

Privacy Policy

Include links to your privacy policy on all transactional pages. The ubiquitous footer link is a good place to start, but too often overlooked. On transactional pages, make sure you have it prominently called out in the body of the page, above the fold. Spell out pieces of your policy as needed. For example, when asking for an email address, state your email usage policy right next to the field. Best Buy says this perfectly “Best Buy does not sell, rent, or trade your personal information to third parties”. Clear, blunt and to the point. As it should be.

Don’t Hide Costs

Transparency in shipping costs and delivery times is key – especially come holiday season. Be sure to provide all of the actual costs up front, including shipping, handling, and sales tax. These can have an enormous impact on the final price. According to OneUpWeb, 95% of customers want to know the exact cost of the order before proceeding into checkout. There is no better way to put the kibosh on a potential sale than to withhold additional costs until later in funnel.

When the user can expect to receive their package is enormously important as well, especially to shoppers cutting it tight during the holiday season. Show this information as early as possible as well. This is actually a deciding factor when it comes down to those final few days. Shoppers are willing to pay a premium as long as you can provide them with the security that it will arrive on time, as promised.

Return Policy and Shopping Guarantee

Shoppers want to know what their recourse is if their item arrives and is damaged, the wrong item, or just simply not what they wanted. Be sure to clearly spell out your return policy so there won’t be any surprises later. Do you have a shopper satisfaction guarantee? Nice! Again, place this prominently above the fold, and inspire your shoppers with confidence that they can’t make a wrong or irreversible decision.

Anticipate Their Concerns

Be mindful of the various sensitive touch points throughout the purchasing process.  Address concerns before they even arise. If you expect your customers to share private and personal information with you, you need to address the reasons why you need the information at the appropriate times.

  • A “We 100% guarantee your safety” link right next to the checkout button, and in checkout header that leads to a DHTML popup with your 100% satisfaction guarantee inspires confidence and keeps the user in the funnel.
  • “We will not share your email with anyone.” next to email field lets user know you aren’t going to sell their email address.
  • “Shipping details” tied with product, in cart and checkout, makes user aware of costs and availability early and often.
  • You can always change your order later” when tied to a call-to-action removes some of the hesitation associated with doubts on whether to commit at that exact moment.
  • Don’t be afraid to invite phone calls. A sale is a sale. Including “Prefer to checkout over the phone? No Problem. Call us at…” at the top of your checkout give shoppers a sense of security even if they don’t plan on calling you.

Apply the Human Touch

Ten other sites may sell the same product, at the same discounted price, and have the same safety features in place. Differentiate yourself by emphasizing a personal touch and telling your shoppers that you completely understand their concerns. Give them that warm and fuzzy feeling that they are in good hands by hitting the emotional aspects of shopping.

Using the right tone and personality makes a difference. It is comforting for a customer to see “Please don’t hesitate to call us with any concerns or questions. Your security is our sole priority.” compared to a simple link to the Help Section. Instill confidence in your customers by speaking to them like human beings, rather than unique visitors, throughout the shopping process.

Your “About Page” and Value Proposition

Part of converting the customer is making them feel confident that they are in good hands. The ‘about page” is an often overlooked part of creating a secure shopping experience.

Are you family owned? Are you quirky? Are you a huge company that started off with two people in a garage? Do you donate a certain portion of profits to charity? Don’t let “About Us” be one paragraph of fluff about commitment to selling great products. Shoppers will see right through this. Be yourself. Shoppers have a greater sense of confidence knowing that they are at a real store run by real people.

Make a Good First Impression

Visual design has a huge impact on new customers feeling safe. Shoppers will form an opinion of your company within five seconds of seeing your home page. Want them to feel safe, and not think you are a fly-by-night outfit? Invest in design. And it doesn’t necessarily need to be award-winning, gorgeous visual experience. The site’s design need to give an instant sense of credibility and trust to visitors. Even though customers may not be entirely conscious of it, good design inspires confidence.

Performance & Stability

A slowly loading page, a site that’s down, or obscure programming error messages can raise instant doubts in the shopper’s mind. It is likely they are in comparison shopping mode, so if they were to leave one site and arrive at a site that loads slowly, or not at all, then the experience comes to a quick end. If they see errors and messages they don’t recognize, they will doubt your professionalism and whether their information is safe on your site. A solid technical implementation is as important as a great design.

Badges, Tigers and Seals Oh My

Seals of approval from TRUSTe or Better Business Bureau Online are widely recognized, but remember that a seal is only a graphic; it can be counterfeited. To be sure, make sure you link to the certifying agency’s site that profiles the merchant information. Also, avoid the Times Square approach putting eight different seals on your site. It diminishes the effectiveness. If you really feel the need to bombard 8 seals on there, all I ask is that you use the animated graphics. At least your savvy visitors can get a laugh.

Sweat the Small Stuff

Be sure your site has been thoroughly reviewed and that there are no misspellings or grammatical mistakes. They may seem tiny, but they will immediately cast your professionalism in doubt.

Security Through Social Validation

Social validation is a proven factor in influencing how people purchase products, and it’s no different when it comes to influencing why they should shop at your site for these products. Customer dialogue, reviews and interactions (regardless of what is being discussed) brings instant credibility to your site. People want to know that other people shop at your store. They want to see activity and not just take your word for it.

Now more than ever, privacy is a huge customer concern. Between Facebook privacy issues, Google ego-searching, and countless ads aggressively targeting hackers and screaming identity theft shoppers are only getting increasingly more sensitive and aware of the how, why, and when their sensitive personal information is used.

As online retailers, it is our responsibility to provide a safe and comfortable shopping environment for the customer, both online or off. The most successful businesses are able to instill confidence in their customers, and adding a relatable human touch. They develop a trusting, ongoing relationship with their customers to ensure repeat purchases and loyalty.Look folks, lets not forget – it’s the holidays! Do your customer and your bottom line a favor by letting them focus on giving rather than worrying. So you better be good for goodness sake.


Top 10 Strategies for Next-Gen Ecommerce

Does this sound like you? Two or three generations into your ecommerce site, your business is decent but flatlining. You’re on top of your metrics; you know your RPV, conversion, AOV, and dropoff at each step in your funnel. But conversion and average order have stopped growing, and you’re ready to evolve.

Ecommerce is changing rapidly. Consumers are expecting more of your site, and embracing modern techniques can invigorate your business. We’ve outlined ten strategies you can use to supercharging your ecommerce efforts below. Be sure to come back in the coming weeks, when we’ll describing methods of implementing each of these concepts.

  1. Dynamic Personalization / Collective Intelligence – Your site is collecting analytics data from thousands of visitors every day, and has been for years. How much of this data are you utilizing? Dynamic personalization puts it to use, immediately and with surgical precision. When a customer visits your site, even without logging in, within a few interactions a shopper’s persona is defined and business rules are applied to surface relevant content and functionality. Dynamic personalization providers include Baynote and RichRelevance.
  2. Social Network Integration – Social networking isn’t exactly new, but social shopping imperatives are constantly evolving, as we described in our posts detailing luxury brands and iPad usage and possibilities for the new Facebook API. At the most basic level, integrating a “Share” button that allows users to share your content to their favorite social networking destinations is a good first step, as is integrating Facebook “Like” button functionality. At a slightly higher level of customization and effort, there are login integration and review/ratings integration tools such as Facebook Connect. Sites like Social Commerce Today stay on top of social shopping trends and provide more robust examples of retailers leveraging social shopping integrations.


  3. Mobile Sites – Over the past year, Ai has seen massive increases in traffic and transactions completed at client mobile sites. The age of the mobile site is truly upon us. Mobile consumers have different needs than users browsing on the desktop, and mobile devices have their own set of capabilities and limitations. A dedicated, designed mobile site experience is a must for progressive ecommerce retailers.
  4. Location-Based Tie-Ins -The GPS capabilities of mobile devices usher in a new era of exciting location-based cross-channel promotion capabilities. Examples include promoting products that were shopped-for online when the shopper is in proximity to a physical store, pushing promotions available at nearby physical locations, and providing interactive directions and pickup/availability notifications for shopped for items.

    Apps like FourSquare allow you to extend your reach by pushing promotions and specials and rewarding repeat shopping, all while extending your reach to a new customer base.

  5. Experiential UI – Beyond simply being easy-to-use, modern ecommerce sites for innovative brands can be experiential and immersive, transforming shoppers into brand loyalists by evoking an emotional reaction.

    The Wrangler Blue Bell Spring/Summer 2010 site (warning: music/audio) is a great example of an immersive/experiential UI where the interactions are fun and reinforce the brand message. Lowe’s Sunnyville (warning: music/audio) provides a game-based metaphor for shopping for lawn and garden products and project planning.


  6. Contextual Visualization – Shoppers increasingly expect to visualize how a product will fit into their life and style. Retailers who allow shoppers to visualize how products look on them and match with other products they are shopping for and already own will have a significant leg up in the ecommerce marketplace. The aforementioned Lowe’s Sunnyville site (warning: music/audio) allows you to “create your own yard” and see how various products will match your custom needs. The Laudi Vidni website allows to shopper to see their products on a virtual model, and takes the concept one step further by allowing robust product customization to suit a product exactly to your lifestyle and needs.


  7. Dynamic Grid Expansion / Liquid Layouts -Ecommerce sites are typically designed to work in 1024 x 768 resolution in order to support users with older technology. Trapping your product display in this “fixed width” doesn’t cater well to the increasingly larger percentage of users browser your site at resolutions of 1280, 1440, 1600, yet most current e-commerce sites employ fixed width layouts. Utilize liquid layouts to dynamically size your product display based on the shoppers’ resolution. Alternatives include showing more images/product at once, and dynamically scaling to larger images on both category listing and product detail pages.As a corollary, Ai has found that the “view all” link is the most clicked link on the most ecommerce category listing pages. Shoppers don’t want to page through screens of products – they want to see all of it at once. Consider an infinite scroll metaphor in order to display large sets of products in a scrollable list, rather than asking shoppers to jump page-to-page. Ai implemented an infinite scroll on the category listing pages. As you scroll down, you’ll notice the number of products on the page automatically increases, with no performance penalty.
  8. Minimize UI Cruft – Shoppers come to your site to see your products, not your fancy navigation systems. Yet most ecommerce sites spend a majority of screen real estate dedicated to navigation and ancillary functionality, and a minority of real estate dedicated to product. Modern ecommerce websites will reverse the trend and dedicate 75% of screen real estate to show product, with 25% for supporting navigation, not the other way around.
  9. Rich DHTML and AJAX – Dynamic HTML and AJAX technologies have been a boon to shoppers the world over. Instead of having to reload a page every time the shopper clicks, these technologies enable a world of rich interactions that are nearly instantaneous. While not new, most sites are still just scratching the surface of how to use these technologies in a robust manner. Here are some examples of how to take your DHTML into the modern era:
    • Mega Drop Downs – Mega dropdowns offer large panels that are easy to access, break navigation choices into logical groupings, and can feature dynamic or interactive content. Check out the Jakob Nielsen mega drop down article, featuring Ai-designed mega-drop pioneer Action Envelope. Also check out Ai-designed and BizFilings websites.
    • Robust Wizards & Comparison Tools – Guiding shoppers to products that are relevant to them based on their needs and providing detailed, interactive comparisons between products can be taken to the next level using DHTML and AJAX. Check out Ai-designed Bizfilings Incorporation Wizard and Comparison Guide.
    • One Page Checkout – Why make your shopper click through multiple page reloads, when you can let them complete their purchase all on one page? Ai-designed Steiner Sports and websites feature one page checkout.
    • Product Option Selection – Showing product availability in different option combinations (for example colors and sizes) is a common UI problem. Check out how Ai used DHTML and imagery on the Chelsea Clock website to display options availability by clicking change product options from the page linked above.
    • DHTML Kung Fu – Individually, DHTML techniques like promo carousels, tabs, scrollers, and other DHTML widgets can be powerful merchandising tools individually. Combined, they can allow you to take your site to new heights. Check out the Action Envelope home page
  10. Get Textual – Designers have been limited to a handful of “web-safe” fonts since the dawn of the web, and have had to hardcode anything else into images, slowing downloads and making custom messaging and personalization difficult and time-consuming. Not any more. With the advent of HTML 5 and font serving technologies such as TypeKit, the web designers’ typographic palette has been opened up as never before. This isn’t just a design nicety, but rather a critical innovation that will allow savvy companies to deliver targeted, personalized message in brand-consistent ways for the first time. The impact doesn’t stop there – not having to use images for any custom fonts leads to faster page downloads and great accessibility of type to search engines and disabled users. Ai has used these technologies on sites such as General Atlantic and Internet Retailer (not yet launched). Alternatives include sifr, cufon, and TypeKitga.png

Our focus thus far has been on strategies that are modern, or next generation. These assume you are building on a solid foundation of ecommerce best practices and test-based user interfaces. Consider the two “bonus” strategies below as necessary pre-cursors to the items listed above.

“Boring” Best Practices – Ecommerce best practices are a hot topic for a reason – they work. Ai has evolved a custom set of best practices for ecommerce over our past 8 years of experience, and applies these as the baseline of every site we work on. Yet some clients we’ve spoken to consider them “boring” and would rather skip right over to the sexier stuff. Our message is this: best practices work. We’ve seen far too many sites where the focus was too heavily on brand innovation or winning awards, and where conversion tanked. Make sure your design efforts are based off well-articulated and understood best practices for the site as a whole, and for each discrete stage in your funnel, from home page down to the checkout receipt.

A quick Google search will reveal an abundance of ecommerce best practices. Some good places to start looking are Jakob Nielsen’s Ecommerce User Experience book, and the Marketing Sherpa and Marketing Experiments web sites.

Test, test, test – Designing a best practices-based web site based on a deep knowledge of your customers and products is a great start. Integrating A/B and multivariate (MVT) testing into your process can take your site to the next level. At Ai, we have integrated testing into all of our design projects for the past few years, and have always seen measurable lifts in conversion and AOV. The kicker is that testing actually saves time and money by short-circuiting lengthy debate and review cycles.

If you are just starting out with testing, try Google Website Optimizer, which is a free tool with limited functionality. For the more ambitious, Omniture Test & Target provides a robust suite of MVT testing and reporting capabilities.

Integrating the ideas above into your ecommerce strategy will take your site to the next level. But how? Let Ai do it for you, or come back in the coming weeks as we delve into each topic above in more detail.


The (immediate) demand for evolving your website strategy


PSFK has published a report (disconcerting, damning or riotous, depending on your station) showing that many top luxury brand websites don’t function on the iPad. (That image above is the Prada home page.) Given that Apple buyers are often luxury product consumers, this is a glaring omission for some of the world’s strongest brands.

The iPad is a reminder that the web is now rapidly moving away from the “build a website, let it run” strategy. A growing diversity of web-enabled devices is going to force companies to build websites that make usability the prime directive. The direct problem is the use of Flash, but the real issue is the lack of universal accessibility.

The growth in broadband mobile networks has led to rapid adoption of web access by consumers. Smartphones are nearing 20% of the American cellular marketplace and are expected to reach 30% soon. Ai clients saw growth in mobile traffic as high as 600% over 2009 alone.

The iPad is the latest and most profound bellwether in this usage shift. Contemplating how to service users with 1.5″ BlackBerry screens was one thing; dealing with iPad users, with their 1024×768 screens and just-like-a-laptop-only-better expectations, is entirely another. And while the iPad may be just a first step in an evolution, a million unit sales in a month suggests someone found the keys to the steamroller.

Computers are not going away; manufacturers shipped 68 million of them in 2008 alone. More important is the fragmentation of the marketplace, which, years after homogenizing almost entirely in Internet Explorer for Windows, is now an open landscape. Four different browsers have substantial (greater than 3%) market share. And dozens of devices are now displaying web pages in displays ranging from 320 to 1920 pixels in width, both with and without Flash.

The requirement for 2010, then, is to adapt to the fragments. Good websites need to actively identify visitors’ platforms and deliver user-centric results–not just the Amazons and Facebooks of the web, but the many small- and medium-size sites that encourage exploration and engagement. As platforms continue to diversify, creating flexible, accessible sites is a must.

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Facebook Goes Distributable

On Wednesday, Facebook CEO and President Mark Zuckerberg unveiled the next step towards a more socially integrated web at Facebook’s f8 developer conference in San Francisco. Facebook’s latest release includes open APIs and a suite of plugins aimed at making third party web sites more personalized and social.

With very little coding effort, sites will now be able to import experiences and interactions once limited to within the confines of Examples of these distributable features include a web-wide “Like” button and contextual activity feeds. These feeds will show which of the user’s Facebook friends have viewed an article or product, and offer recommendations based on friend activities. Sites like Yelp, CNN, BuzzFeed and Pandora have already integrated the new Facebook functionality.

facebook_1.pngFacebook’s “Like” button integrated with an article page on Buzzfeed. Clicking the button automatically updates the user’s Facebook Wall and their friends’ activity feed.

The implications are astounding and limitless. And the importance to business owners is multifold: users will be more likely to treat sites as destinations if they can accomplish socially-oriented tasks without leaving the site. This will translate into longer visits; more exposure to content and products; and an overall richer experience for the user. Furthermore, from a business perspective, the new functionality is so easy to implement that it will save countless programming hours.

Ai immediately incorporated the “Like” button feature onto the product pages of one of their premier clients, Steiner Sports. Now, sports-fan Joe Smith in New York can browse and click “Like” on everything that catches his eye-from a Derek Jeter Autographed Baseball to a World Series Autographed Locker Room Hat-and his cousin in Talkeetna, Alaska will get a real-time idea of what Joe might like for his birthday in two weeks.

Facebook’s latest effort to deepen the social experience on the web represents a significant step forward in creating a tighter internet, where users will be presented with recommendations from friends they know and trust on any site they visit. For customers and businesses alike, the new Facebook feature is an instant wishlist, registry, recommendation tool, and will become a powerful indicator of social and marketing trends.

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The ROI of UX: Continental Airlines

I booked a flight to Austin for SXSW Interactive on Friday. Thanks to delays in planning and confirming my travel, I paid handsomely for the privilege: $674 for well-timed nonstop flights on JetBlue.

It didn’t have to be so pricey. For $419, I could have flown on Continental Airlines instead. But Continental’s booking system so frustrated me that I spent an extra $250 to fly another airline.

Some background: those who know me personally are aware that I don’t much care for Continental. But I’m also not one to splurge needlessly, so when I found out Continental’s EWR-AUS flight was a third cheaper than JetBlue’s JFK-AUS route–at similar times, on bigger planes–I figured I’d give Continental another shot.

I used Continental’s online reservations system to select my flights, then proceeded to the seat selector, which showed each flight at around 85% full. The return flight’s seat map (click to zoom):

The situation was the same each way. The flight had 15 seats available. Continental had declared all of them Premium Seating, even several middle seats, which meant I couldn’t sit in them. But the plane had no other seats available, which meant I’d be booking without a seat assignment.

More background: I’ve traveled enough to know that the guy with no seat assignment is the first to get bumped in case of overbooking. Continental had seats but wasn’t offering them to me. Worse, Continental didn’t have an alternative, just blocked, empty seats.

I understood Continental’s desire to hold good seats for its good customers. I’ve had preferred status on and off in the past and I respect the privileges that come with frequent patronage. But with the rest of coach filled, I couldn’t figure out why Continental wouldn’t give me an empty seat and confirm my travel. Besides, the map confused me: is seat 7B really a top choice of elite frequent fliers?

So I called customer service for help. The friendly Southern woman who took my call confirmed what I was seeing: yes, there are premium seats available; no, you can’t have them. I asked if I could pay extra to reserve those seats: no. I asked if I could get a seat assignment, any seat assignment, so I knew I would make it on the plane: no.

I eventually gave up my attempts to cajole customer service into helping me, and after a few hours of deliberation, I took my business elsewhere.

The user-experience takeaways here are twofold. One is pure information design: don’t share information that’s not actionable. All Continental achieved with the seating chart above was to drive me crazy, showing me that it had seats–some of them rather mediocre seats I’d typically avoid–that I couldn’t reserve. Had they just shown them as unavailable, by having me log in with my (non-elite) OnePass account before selecting seats, I’d have been far less frustrated.

The other, of course, goes to the heart of customer service: sell your goods to shoppers who desire them. Continental lost my business because corporate policy dictates that the booking system has to be ready to accommodate a dozen Elite-status fliers who might want to fly between Newark and Austin on a pair of weekday flights that arrive close to midnight. Why not acknowledge the demand curve and give a paying customer the seat assignment he needs to book his flight?

Even better, why not implement a policy that generates both revenue and customer satisfaction? Many airlines charge for preferred seating. Continental could have levied a $100 fee on me for its premium seats, and I’d probably have paid it, because I’d still have saved money over my JetBlue option.

Instead, I’m back on JetBlue, where I’m willingly overpaying for peace of mind and a guaranteed seat. Oh, and satellite TV in a leather seat with good snacks. Happy jetting.


Coming on too strong

GrokDotCom has a nice writeup of a too-eager lead-generation strategy on Try too hard, ask for too much too soon, and instead of securing leads, a site just scares people away.

I like the post’s takeaway, which summarizes things well: “Remember, it’s not about you or your sales process. Your visitors are volunteers in the process and are coming to your site with motivations and intent.”

Whether on a home page, a product page, or deep into checkout, visitors have their own reasons for being on a website. The site can only do so much to steer those users into a set action. Don’t try so hard! Give people accessible options and let them do what works for them.


Duane Reade, testing customer loyalty

Duane Reade introduced a new rewards program today. I happened to be in a Duane Reade this afternoon, where the cashier swiftly upgraded me to the new system and gave me a thick coupon book for my loyalty.

The pharmacy and quick-shop chain is promoting its new program, Flex Rewards, as a consumer-friendly upgrade. They cite the new system’s non-expiring reward points and paperless redemption as the main improvements.

Which is great, until the consumer finds out the real meat behind the change:

What Rewards will I receive?
You will receive a $5 Reward for every 500 FlexRewards points earned.

The old Duane Reade Dollar Rewards Club offered a one-point-per-dollar system that was blissfully simple: spend $100, earn 100 points, get $5 in store credit. It was simple and useful enough that I actually kept my rewards card handy, and I earned a handful of redemptions.

The new program is more confusing and far less valuable. Consumers now get two points per dollar spent and the same $5 reward now comes at 500 points. Or, in layman’s terms, after $250 spent rather than $100. Earning the five bucks just became two and a half times as difficult.

Flex Rewards also has a couple of gimmicks in the system, such as SuperSaver, which encourages customers to not redeem their points in exchange for bonus points back when they finally spend the credit. It’s a cash-back system that feeds itself.

If any of this has heads spinning, I suspect it’s by design. Duane Reade has devalued its loyalty program by a minimum of 60 percent. It cloaked the bad news in technical upgrades and new schemes that try to divert attention away from the devaluing.

With Flex Rewards, Duane Reade stands to give away a lot less value in 2010 than it did in 2009. If I had a stake in the company, I’d be pleased with the new program. As a regular Duane Reade customer, though, I’m probably just going to stop using my card.


UX Critic: Time Warner Cable DVR

Earlier this fall, Time Warner Cable introduced a grand new interface for its digital cable offering. But in its efforts to add features and visual flair, Time Warner Cable managed to worsen many of the features that previously made its system so easy to use.

TWC began by breaking some of the functionality. Not all of it, but enough of the essentials to drive one crazy.

Like the screensaver, for example: on my unit, at least, the blackout that kicks in after pausing for 15 minutes doesn’t actually black out the sidebars beyond the 4:3 screen width. Oops. Good thing I don’t have a burn-in-susceptible plasma TV.

Or the rewind, which, on higher speeds, snaps forward when play is pressed. Forward! Why? I find my self re-rewinding over and over again.

Worst of all is the 10-second back button, which used to be my single favorite feature on the old TWC remote. Missed a sentence? Pop! Hear it again. Click twice to create an at-home instant replay during a sports broadcast; click three times to watch a commercial from the beginning.

For some reason, this button, while still jumping backward, no longer does smooth 10-second increments. Often, the first click only runs back two or three seconds, which is basically useless. Press twice and the system picks what feels like an arbitrary jump-back interval. It’s now almost impossible to pinpoint a moment during playback without rewinding past it and waiting–not horrible in and of itself, but the system used to be perfect.

The list goes on. There’s no more “view this channel now” button in the program guide. No option to view extended program descriptions while in the DVR. Even the movie listings were rejiggered, so that the star ratings systems and year of release were moved to the end of the one-line summary, and directors are no longer mentioned.

Of course, TWC didn’t set out to break things; the company was trying to add features. But here, too, unnecessary problems were created. Introducing features into the current structure means rethinking the user interfaces, and not always for the better.

I was a huge fan of Time Warner’s old font face, which was narrow but easy to read (unlike, say, Adelphia’s narrow, non-anti-aliased displays). On the new TWC system, the fonts have been replaced with a more contemporary, wide font. It’s harder to read at a distance, and the increased width means program names cut off much sooner in lists.

On-screen cues that used to be straightforward have gotten more confusing, not less. TWC’s progressive rewind and fast-forward used to show an increasing number of arrows: >> >>> >>>>. Now, they’ve decided a number count is more useful. Only the number doesn’t appear until two clicks in, when it says “2,” not “3.” So >>> now renders as “>>2” and >>>> now says “>>3.”
My TWC system uses a Scientific Atlanta remote that has three color- and shape-differentiated buttons: yellow triangle A, blue squre B, red circle C. And TWC’s old software made the most of them. Some examples:

  • In the program guide: A for show grid, B to sort by genre, C to search
  • In the DVR: A for saved shows, B for upcoming shows, C for series management

For this new release, TWC introduced features that pushed the number of options in the program guide and DVR past three. Rather than find ways to nest them, the entire functionality moved into a horizontal scrolling list, which is accessed with a series of arrow keys and a Select button. To find a show by title, I used to click Guide, then C; now I have to click Guide, then scroll right several times to Find Shows, click

Select, then scroll right to chose Search. The effort has been doubled, or worse, for many functions.

The new UI also has fade-in, fade-out transitions, which are a huge mistake. The system used to have zippy little central wipes that made screens feel like they were snapping to attention. In contrast, the fades make the system feel slow–the opposite of what I want when I’m channel-surfing.

I still like my Time Warner Cable digital television and DVR. But I enjoy it a whole lot less.