Creating Sharper Staples

BOSTON (06/12/2000) - Staples Inc., the US$9 billion office supply superstore, is constantly refining its Web site. In its most recent redesign, which launched May 7, the focus was to make it easier for customers to find products online and to help them complete their purchases quickly. To achieve those goals, the Framingham, Massachusetts-based company added more information to some parts of the site, simplified other parts to speed navigation and designed new tools such as a favorites list to facilitate the purchase process.

Sometimes, a little more context - or information - is all it takes to keep a customer from clicking off your site.

Last September, Staples added a ZIP-code request page to its site. The page appears the first time a customer clicks any link to a product or aisle that's off the home page.

"We were losing customers at that prompt because they thought we were collecting marketing data," says Mike Ragunas, chief technology officer at Staples.com, the retailer's online arm.

The real reason for collecting the information: Staples delivers from local distribution centers, and ZIP codes let its back-end systems determine inventory and delivery times for each customer. But the page originally didn't tell customers that. So in February, Staples launched a reworded page saying, "To view real-time inventory availability, please enter the ZIP code where products will be shipped." Just by changing the text, Staples cut the number of customers who abandoned its site at that point by 75 percent.

Sometimes more extensive changes are necessary to give users greater context.

As the number of products that Staples carries grows, some site tools no longer work as effectively. The search engine, in particular, was returning many inappropriate hits. A search for "Palm Pilot," for instance, returned results not only for handheld computers but also for hundreds of products such as Pilot pens. Site logs showed that users didn't always page through all the results to find what they had originally been looking for.

Given the search tool's popularity, its performance problems equaled a loss of sales. "Search is used a lot on our site," says Ragunas. "People use it as their primary means of navigation, sometimes as a secondary means of navigation," meaning users will browse the site first and then use the search tool.

"They are all coming into search at different stages of the navigation experience," says Colin Hynes, director of usability at Staples.com. So a new search tool would have to work well, regardless of when a customer fired it up.

Staples created a new search engine with improved filters (the software that translates written queries into database searches). After examining actual user queries, Staples refined the filters so they could provide more accurate responses. Now, the filters are better able to tell the difference between PalmPilot handheld computers and Pilot pens.

But filters aren't foolproof. "Of course, you hope the search engine bubbles up the exact product right up front, but we know the reality is that it won't always happen," says Hynes. To account for that, Staples designed a new way of presenting search results.

In the old system, all the results appeared in one list. In the new version, Staples developers coded several extra SQL calls, which not only return a list of products but also show the category or "aisle," in which the products can be found. Instead of navigating several hundred results, customers can see that their query for "wrist rest" has produced 34 hits in the category "Technology/Computer Accessories/Mouse Pads & Wrist Rests," and fewer hits in several other categories. Below the category results is a summary of a few products from each matched category.

Through user testing, Staples found that by adding an extra layer of context to search results - category matches as well as products - it had reduced the time users needed to find what they were looking for.

Skipping Steps

Shaving 10 or 15 seconds from the time it takes a user to complete a task by eliminating Web pages or simplifying tasks adds up to big savings, both in time for the user and in load handling for the Web server. Simplification is imperative for e-commerce sites, says Web site usability expert Jakob Nielsen, principal of the Nielsen Norman Group in Mountain View, California.

"Your one and only goal in e-commerce is to close one sale as fast as possible," he says. "When customers return, then you can give them one-click ordering and ask surveys to make it all more efficient."

At first, such ambitious additions to a site can actually take more of customers' time. For example, before using one-click ordering, customers must understand it, agree to warnings - because the process pays for and sends an item to them - and set credit-card and shipping preferences.

To save users time, Staples launched simplified profile-creation pages in February. Previously, a user had to complete four separate pages to provide the necessary billing, shipping and preferences information. From a download and simplicity standpoint, four pages turned out to be too much. "There were customers saying, ‘I want to do business with you; help me out,'" says Hynes.

By reducing the amount of information it asked for, Staples reduced the number of pages to just two. The result: The number of users leaving from that part of the site is down 20 percent.

In testing, users spent an inordinate amount of time adding items to their shopping carts, then trying to get back to where they had been before. Unlike Amazon.com Inc.'s Web site, where users are often reading reviews and buying single products, Staples.com users tend to buy a lot of goods at once.

So though the norm of e-commerce sites is to take users to the shopping-cart page whenever they add items to their carts - as a reminder to buy the items before they leave - Staples took the unorthodox approach of putting the shopping cart on every page. Now, instead of having to click through three or more screens to add an item to the cart and return to previous shopping aisles, customers click once and the item shows up in the shopping cart, which is visible on the right side of every page.

Paring a site also includes simplifying options. Staples had a feature called Ready-Made Lists, a standard list of purchases for different types of customers. Various lists were available, including lists of products needed for newly hired employees, or lists of products for new computer buyers. But in the quest to simplify the site, the lists "didn't make the cut," says Hynes.

"People were using the feature, but not in great numbers, so we thought it wasn't as critical to keep that," says Ragunas.

Real-Life Customers

Staples often shadows customers to see how they use office products in their daily work lives. In 1998, researchers noticed how many people selected products in the paper-based catalog, then browsed the site to add them to the online shopping cart. By last July, Staples had created a screen where customers needed only to type product numbers from the catalog to add items to their online shopping cart.

Another discovery: Staples users tended to keep a list of what they needed. But they didn't keep that list on the site, even though such a feature was available. "We found that people were going to the site with a physical list in their hands. We said, ‘There's got to be a better way to do this,'" says Ragunas.

So Staples took its list feature and made it more prominent by putting it on every page, right below the shopping cart. When users find an item they want, clicking a button adds it to the favorites list. Items can be transferred from the favorites list to the shopping cart with one click.

But some products are just hard to buy because there are so many options, as with recycled paper. Many customers didn't know the criteria they should look for in examining possible purchases. To help them, Staples designed a Feature Finder for its more complex product lines.

First, Staples surveyed customers to see which products they found most complex, then it asked them for the four or five most important attributes for such products. For computers, the most important attributes were processor speed, RAM, hard drive, multimedia drive and price. Now, when users browse into a more complex product line, such as desktop computers, the Feature Finder appears on the left side of the Web page. It gives customers an alternative - and potentially faster - way to find the products they're seeking, because the important variables are predefined. Customers just have to choose from among them.

Migrate Loudly

Rather than alienate paying customers, Staples goes out of its way to tell Web surfers about upcoming changes to its site.

Whenever eBay Inc. makes a change to its site - new color schemes, a better search engine - the complaints flood in. Users don't like change. Especially users who are new to the Web and who may have purchased their computer specifically to participate in online auctions or shopping.

Software makers can force consumers to learn a new interface or to become familiar with a new color scheme. But on the Web, confused users can easily click to a competing site.

As a result, sites such as eBay often unveil "stealth" redesigns, making multiple minute changes over time so that customers won't notice. "[EBay CEO] Meg Whitman is on the Staples.com board. She was in a meeting talking about this migration and said that as far as even changing the background of all eBay's pages from white to off-white, they did it in gradations, because even a slight change was really a shock to people, and [eBay officials] hear about it," says Colin Hynes of Staples.com.

Staples.com took that advice but opted for the opposite approach: let users know what they were getting, and why. It's akin to the old adage about how to tell a speech: Tell people what you're going to tell them, then tell it to them, then tell them what you told them. "You have to be very helpful," says Hynes. "We knew from experience that if you change the layout of a retail store, you can have a lot of upset customers. So we took a lot of precautions to make sure the transition was smooth."

Warning: Changes Coming!

Before the launch, the Staples.com home page had a link titled "The new Staples.com is coming." It took users to a page that introduced forthcoming changes and reassured people that their current account settings and preferences wouldn't be lost in the redesign.

To coincide with the redesign, Staples did many things, such as direct mail and e-mail campaigns, to alert users to the newly redesigned site. The e-mails even targeted users of specific features. "One said, ‘We know you have e-mail reminders set up, and e-mail reminders will not change,'" says Hynes.

Staples also conducted informal presentations within the company itself. "As in every organization, everyone is very focused on an area of expertise. So we did a very extensive education so people can understand what the site is," says Hynes.

When the new redesign launched, the home page sported a "click here to see what's new" link. A new section of the FAQ explained all the changes and the company's reasoning behind them. The marketing department commissioned a new round of television advertisements. People could also call a toll-free number that guided them through the new features on the site.

For the most part, things have gone smoothly. "I won't say it's been 100 percent of people not looking for the old site, but by and large it's been enthusiastically received," says Hynes. Staples uses third-party ratings service BizRate.com to let customers rate the various aspects of the site. And results of the survey "have been incredibly enthusiastic," says Hynes.

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