Messages For The Users

Essays in this ecommerce series:

Explicit and Implicit Messages

Understanding doesn’t always come easily, especially when trying to comprehend somebody else’s message to you. With spoken language, studies show that we don’t make sense of every word that is spoken to us, we somehow reconstruct a meaningful message from fragments of the dialog. With written language, we reconstruct meaningful from visual cues like page layout and written words. However we communicate, we must process the elements of the message into a coherent version that makes sense.

As a species, we have highly refined abilities to parse and derive meaningful data from noise, relying on both on explicit cues (such as word meanings) and implicit cues (nonverbal communication and message structure).

For commerce sites to succeed, they must be aware of all the messages they are broadcasting to users and potential customers. A commerce cannot simply declare that they are the best or the most trustworthy if they also surface cues that contradict these messages. Users will pick up on such contradictions, even though they may not understand what they are reacting to.

“Buy From Us”

The basic goal of a commerce site is to sell something, a product or a service; even if the company launching a commerce site has other goals, such as establishing an online presence, a commerce web site is a place for selling. Commerce sites use some powerful tools and techniques — including merchandising, advertising, reviews — to focus the “buy from us” message, make it stronger, and make it more attractive to the user.

As with any communicative transaction, the audience must build themselves an understanding of the meaning of the message. A user will follow various schemas for relationship mapping, including one for commerce. A user will pick up explicit cues from a commerce site, such as the product types for sale, prices, the purchasing/ordering track, maybe the scope of selection; these cues fill in the message “buy from us”. The user also picks up implicit cues, often without realizing it, and it is to these implicit messages that commerce sites should pay particular attention.

If a commerce site’s base message is “buy from us”, then the site must take great care to avoid undoing that message inadvertently through contradictory messages or behavior. For example, a commerce site with prominent exit links on major pages is telling the user that they are welcome to leave the site; if you make it more interesting for a user to explorer another site, your message is more accurately “bye bye” than “buy from us”. For another example, a commerce site that doesn’t have an “add to cart” link next to products displayed on major pages, instead forcing users to navigate deep into the site to product detail pages, is making the buying process harder for user…a contradiction of the crucial “buy from us” message.

Commerce sites that are hard to reach because of access delays aren’t crying “buy from us” effectively. A site that limits accessibility, either through the requirement of specific browsers, or the use of non-standard code, or even through an over-reliance on graphics, is diluting the audience of the message.

Remember that the user refers to three rough categories of information when making up his or her mind about your commerce site as a place worth buying from:

  • judgement of your site
  • judgement of the company behind the site
  • feelings and impressions that may be operating on a subconscious level

The user relies on information gleaned not just from your obvious message but from their impression of your site, and by extension from their impression of the company behind the site. Users will look at a site and wonder about the decisions that led to the features and problems they see, and a bad impression derived from a user judgment is very difficult to undo.

“Trust Us”

If the basic message of any commerce site is “buy from us”, the higher-level message — the meta message — is “trust us”. Users are unlikely to purchase from a site unless they are satisfied that the site is trustworthy. As with a user’s perception of the simpler message “buy from us”, users process multiple explicit and implicit cues when assessing a site’s trustworthiness, but trust can be a tougher sell.

Every commerce web site has at least two core messages: at the most basic level, the user encounters the message “buy from us”, while at a higher level the user faces the message “trust us”. A commerce site may also have a range of content, as well features that try to build community, such as chat rooms, forums, and contests, but without these two messages a commerce site will be hard put to accomplish any commerce.

Using Design to Communicate With the User

The obvious method to convince users to buy from your commerce site is to provide the customer with a pleasant experience. Reduce the chances of negative events, or the misapprehension of events as negative. Keep in mind that the user will move around your site and read your text, and ultimately decide on whether to buy from you based on judgments of their experience with your site; you don’t what will make them say no, so you can’t afford to be haphazard with your message cues.

Some trouble points that deserve attention:

  • Make your site look professional. You don’t have to spend huge amounts of money to hire a bleeding edge design house, just make sure your site doesn’t look amateurish. Choose your fonts, color schemes and graphic cues carefully.
  • Polish your information architecture. Organize your information so it makes sense to customers who may not live and breath your product. You should not be required to be an expert in your product in order to navigate your catalog, and you should have multiple logical tracks to accessing any product.
  • Polish your navigation. Don’t force your customers to dig to find what they want to buy, and then dig to find out how to buy it.
  • Answer questions pro-actively. Research the potential problems customers may have using your site and document them. Design your FAQs carefully. Include help text in your commerce flow. Every time a customer must communicate with your customer service or webmaster teams, you risk annoying the customer. The “correct” approach to customer communications is that every email is an “opportunity”, but most online commerce sites don’t have the staff to convert complaints into happy solutions.
  • Refine your commerce track. Anticipate the needs and behaviors of your typical customer — if necessary creating user profiles — and design your commerce track (which Peter Merholtz describes as the “commerce tunnel”) to accommodate those users. Most users have an expectation of what makes up the process of purchasing, so if your site throws up what seem to be arbitrary, intrusive or threatening barriers to purchasing you will lose customers and sales.
  • Address privacy concerns explicitly. Privacy and the ownership of personal information is a big issue. Don’t be vague or wishy-washy where the customer’s personal information is concerned. If you require the user to give address or email information, explain how you will use it. If you will use email info to send the user non-order related notices, provide an opt-out mechanism.
  • Set expectations carefully. Explain the steps to completing a purchase, and explain the factors that will affect shipment, timing, returns, crediting, etc. Set expectations of service that your site can meet. Aim to under-promise and over-deliver.

[ Read the next essay in this ecommerce series, Trust & Trustworthiness