AIAIO: Our Blog

AIAIO: Our Blog

The pulse and reviews of Alexander Interactive

Posts Tagged ‘UX’

Alex Schmelkin Speaks at IRWD

Our very own President and Co-Founder Alex Schmelkin spoke this week at the Internet Retailer Web Design & Usability Conference in Orlando. Joined by David Kersting, Director of eCommerce Technology for Cycling Sports Group (CSG), he led a session entitled “For Designers: How to Get Your IT Department to Support Your User Experience Initiatives.”

Anyone who has agency experience understands how designers and IT professionals tend to differ in their way of thinking, communicating and their overall approach to a project (not to mention their opinion of who was the best James Bond). In their presentation Alex and David spoke on how to bridge those differences to get your design and technology teams working in unison.

Using examples from projects CSG and Ai have worked on together, including and, the pair showed specific instances of how our designers and developers worked hand-in-hand to create a customer-focused online shopping experience.

You can view a PDF of the entire presentation here.


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.


Why Redesign?

So you’re probably thinking to yourself right now, “Why Redesign?”

Gosh. Funny you should think that, because it just so happens I recently wrote a little piece on that exact subject, as a featured blogger on

Redesigning a website is a daunting task.  Budget, deadlines, resources, features, content, platform changes, brand perception, SEO implications – the list of challenges is a long one.  The potential impact website redesign has on your organization is as enormous and critical as the process.  Will conversion go up or down?  Will your new site attract more visitors or will traffic drop off?

If you want more detail on the topic, take a look at a deck from one of my presentations at Internet Retailer’s Web Design 2009 conference, Charting the Successful Redesign — A True Story About an Agency and Client Partnership. It gives a detailed account on the site redesign, specifically what led to the decision and the steps we took to execute it. It does NOT go into pancakes and the secrets behind achieving a remarkable fluffiness. Lets just make that clear from the outset.

Charting the Successful Redesign of an Independent Ecommerce Small Business — A True Story About an Agency and Client Partnership


Ai down under!

G’day mate! I am pleased (and a wee bit freaked out) to be flying to Sydney tonight to participate in Online Retailer, Australia’s leading ecommerce conference. With more than 4000 confirmed attendees, Online Retailer looks to be compelling and exciting.

I hope to be part of that excitement, as I am presenting at the conference on the ROI of user experience. It’s a frequent topic at Ai and one I’m looking forward to sharing. I am also doing live site critiques, my stock in trade at the Internet Retailer conferences, and joining in several other discussions and events.

If you’re in Australia, drop me a line, or swing by the conference and see for yourself.


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.


Jakob Nielsen Likes Action (Envelope)

Michael Piastro, Senior IA/UXD

Nielsen recently featured Ai client Action Envelope in his Alertbox article
“Mega Drop-Down Navigation Menus Work Well.” The
usability guru is a fan of what he is calling “Mega Drop-Down
Menus,” as opposed to traditional DHTML dropdown menus, which
he warns against using. Here is a screen shot featuring the Mega Drop-Down from the article:

So: usability guru Jakob Nielsen , whose books, articles, and reports
I’ve read, whose evidence I’ve cited to clients,
and whose influence is hard to miss in the IA/UXD usability pond,
likes the mega dropdown Ai implemented for Action Envelope in our
last site redesign. By extension, he likes me. He really, really
likes me.

Seriously though, it’s not all roses and tweets. Mr. Nielsen goes on to
advise us not to put GUI widgets or other interface elements “that
involve more advanced interaction than simply click-to-go.”
Then the pain starts:

Envelope offers a complete login mini-screen within the navbar’s “My
Account” drop-down. It would be better to simply have a
one-click “My Account” link that takes users to a
full-featured page that supports login for existing users. (Better
still: put this link in the utility nav, which is where people
actually look for it according to eyetracking research.)

Ouch. Here is the offending Mega Drop Down, from the Action Envelope site (the same drop down appears if you mouse over Reorder Center):

Mr. Nielsen’s critique sounds like great advice, and problems with mouse over/mouse out scenarios on DHTML menus have bedeviled many a web site user.

that’s where the Mega in the Mega Drop Downs helps-by
virtue of size, these dropdowns may be less likely to suffer
than these types of issues. And there may be site-specific
considerations whereby a login form and a little AJAX in a mega
dropdown buys us some functionality that enhances site functionality
in a measurable way (namely, log in success, order conversion, repeat
orders, and AOV). The only way to know for sure is to implement a solution, and test.

Here is what you would see behind the My Account and Reorder Center Mega dropdowns if you were logged in:

In the original design, these logged in dropdowns would have used AJAX to populate the appropriate data without a page reload once the user
logged in (using the same drop down), and keeping the user in context
of the current page. In other words, user gets Mega Drop Down
with login form, user submits form, user gets relevant My
Account/Reorder dashboards in context, in place, and without a page reload.

To understand
why this approach was taken, and why it works so well,
you’d need to understand Action Envelope’s business and
typical usage patterns. Action Envelope is largely a
business-to-business site. Repeat orders are important and common.
Workflow associated with providing artwork for a customized envelope
or paper order is important, and typically a customer has one (or a
very few) orders that they would wish to reorder, or provide artwork

Oftentimes a user will submit an order, receive an email notifying them that they need to provide artwork for their order, and return to
the site within a few days. If they are still logged in, a simple
mouseover action will reveal their recent order that they need to take
action on.

the previous incarnation of the Action Envelope site (which Ai also
designed), the my account link was a small link in the utility
navigation, and exhibited a ‘standard’ behavior. Namely, you click it,
you go to a log in screen. Since the redesign, conversion is up,
average order is up, and reorders are up. Login success vs failure rate
doesn’t seem to have changed at all.

While none of these stats can be causally related to our design for the my account and reorder center
Mega Drop Downs (we haven’t A/B tested the simpler implementation in
order to be able to assign causality), our solution is based on the
specific needs of the Action Envelope site and its users. This, in
itself, is certainly a best practice Mr. Nielsen would recommend. So
perhaps Jakob does like Action (Envelope) after all.


Process innovation at Moe’s

As a user-centric strategist, I’m always on the lookout for business practices that improve on a standard experience. So I took note the last time I went to Uncle Moe’s, a Mexican restaurant near the Ai office.
Uncle Moe’s has a typical sandwich-shop production line, like Subway for Tex-Mex food. I ordered my sandwich and answered the requisite questions down the line: guacamole, please; no sour cream, etc. My sandwich passed from the welcome guy to the component guy to the cashier, who announced, “Seven thirty-two.”
All normal–except none of the employees said anything to each other. No calling down the burrito’s name, no questioning from the cashier to the team. My meal was wrapped in foil without any notes attached to it.
moes.jpgConfused, I asked the cashier how the heck he knew what I had ordered. He smiled and showed me this card.
Uncle Moe’s has a code and a visual for each of its sandwiches. The greeter uses a China Pencil to mark each order that comes in, and the card moves down the production line with the sandwich. The cashier can ring up an order at a glance. The card is then erased and used again.
This system is subtle and ingenious. Uncle Moe’s is small, and the card reduces unnecessary noise. With a rapid-fire production system, the card ensures orders are filled and charged properly. And the dry-erase card eliminates the need for paper, reducing waste.
UX folks in Manhattan would enjoy checking out Uncle Moe’s. I recommend the Watsonville, hold the sour cream.


How businesses must react to information flows

The online-offline impact of user experience is vital in today’s economy, and nowhere is it more apparent than in the travel industry. I experienced the best and worst of it on a recent business trip, and the learnings I encountered were enlightening.

Airlines, like many other businesses, have become accustomed to controlling the information flow. Curious about gates, seats, flight times, or other details? They’ll tell you when they’re ready to tell you. But the Internet has changed that, and continuing improvements in ease-of-use and access have forever changed the game.

Organizations today need to be as aware as their consumers of data streams and information sources. They need to be proactive and accommodating. Consumers want their needs addressed by people who are as informed as they are. The alternative–the old way–can be galling.

My Story

Here’s what happened to me: I had a trip planned from New York to San Francisco, originating at JFK on a 6 p.m. flight. My departure day was filled with weather-related delays. Morning flights were taking off more than three hours late, although they were pushing out from the gate on time, leading to “on time departure” proclamations by the airlines.

When I checked my flight status around 2 p.m. my airline’s website declared my flight was on time. Skeptical, I checked the condition of JFK on, which revealed five-hour ground delays due to weather. But the airline’s website begged to differ, so I called the airline directly.

On the phone, the customer service representative repeated the flight’s on-time status. I asked her to investigate the difference between the airline’s estimates and the FAA’s. She put me on an extended hold. While waiting, I checked my flight status on the airline’s website again, and discovered my flight had been canceled!

When the rep returned to the line, I asked for alternate arrangements. She told me the airline was filled to capacity and couldn’t honor my Monday ticket until Wednesday, which would ruin my trip. The rep referred me back to the airline’s website to edit my plans, but the site declared my flight ineligible for a weather-related refund. At the same time, the rep on the phone put me back on hold to look for other options, and wound up disconnecting my call. The airline had stranded me in two different communication paths.

I ultimately booked a flight on another airline for the next day (at more than twice the price). An hour or so later, I was able to get a refund from the original airline’s website.

Nearly two hours after I discovered my flight delay, and 90 minutes after I rebooked my flight, I received an automated message on my home phone advising me of the canceled flight. I almost screamed in frustration.

The game has changed

An airline’s only real differentiator is service. JetBlue stands out for its leather seats and TVs; Virgin for its hip, knowing accoutrements; Southwest for its easygoing, cheeky demeanor. But every airline has the same base concerns: comfortable flights, timely service and good communication.

What does my recent experience say about my first airline’s service orientation? Aside from the obvious–that the airline has some serious internal issues to resolve–I spotted several lessons that can be applied to all businesses, not just the airlines.

  • Businesses no longer control information flow. A smart company will accept this and learn to work with it. Whether it’s me looking at or consumers Twittering issues amongst themselves, news and facts about a company’s offerings are no longer dictated solely by the public relations staff. Companies that insist on rigid lines of communication will find themselves outsmarted by savvy consumers and disparaged by uninformed ones.
  • Nimble trumps rigid. My airline couldn’t put me on an alternate flight within two days of my original plans, and it never considered putting me on another airline and sharing my revenue. My company’s travel service couldn’t find a replacement in its system for under $1000. Yet I booked myself on Virgin Atlantic, via its website, within minutes for far less. The folks looking to me as a customer could not help me spend my money with them, because their basic systems didn’t allow flexible thinking.
  • Responsiveness is everything. Two hours to inform me about a canceled flight is unacceptable. Losing my customer service phone call and not calling me back is, in this circumstance, unacceptable. The airline’s website not acknowledging my canceled flight? Unacceptable. Discerning consumers will avoid companies that make these kinds of mistakes. Firms that get communication right–on time, proactive, and helpful–will win.

Commercial airlines are in a unique industry with unique problems, but their customer service concerns are universal. Any business that communicates with its customers–which is every business–can find clever ways to improve by watching the airlines manage a crisis.


UX Critic: new “no-envelope” ATMs

Someone please tell the clever folks at Chase that this whole no-envelope deposit thing is a stroke of genius.

Earlier this week I went to the Chase ATM across the street from Ai HQ to deposit a check. Pen in hand, I headed for the slips-and-envelopes counter. But the slots were all empty. Almost instantly, a Chase employee welcomed me to No-Envelope ATMs and led me through the process.

Here’s how it works:

  1. Start your transaction the usual way.
  2. Press Deposit, and instead of preparing an envelope, the ATM prompts you to insert your check in a new slot on the upper-left-hand corner of the machine.
  3. The ATM scans the check, then presents an image of it on screen. It simultaneously uses OCR to read the amount on the check, and asks for confirmation: “This check appears to be for $5.28. Is that correct?”
  4. Confirm the value and the deposit is finished.
  5. Ask for a receipt, and the printout now includes a miniature reprint of the check for your records.

This fulfills another piece of the theoretical promise that ATMs bring to banking: speed and simplicity. No more filling out forms; no more stuffing envelopes; no more needing to remember 12-digit account numbers or carry deposit slips. I already see the previous generation of ATMs as hopelessly obsolete.

A side note of praise, too, for Chase’s smooth rollout. The woman in the vestibule intercepted me before I could get confused, and walked me pleasantly through the deposit process without waiting for me to ask for help. She was fully briefed on the nuances of the upgrade and enjoyed the wow factor that came with it. Nice work all around.