Phil Dwyer identifies the key characteristics of the Internet and examines how shopping sites can use them to maximum effect.

The Internet is a schizophrenic beast: it is at once the most exciting and vibrant place on the planet and, at the same time, the last refuge of the unloved and unlovable geek. This seems like a paradox, but it isn’t.

The Web has the power to engage, amuse and entertain consumers, but that power can be only unleashed by good Web design. What is it that makes good Web design? It is design which understands, and is sensitive to, the unique characteristics of the medium, and which uses those characteristics to deliver an experience on-line which could not be delivered by any other means.

That is not just desirable in a website, it’s essential. Frankly, the process of going on-line is so time-consuming (you have to turn the computer on, wait for it to boot up, fire up the browser, dial your Internet service provider – a process which can take up to five minutes in all) that nobody’s likely to make the effort unless they really have to.

So what are these vital and unique characteristics of the medium?

The first, and most important of these characteristics is that the Web is interactive. This is a profound point of difference with all other media. When you put a mouse into a consumer’s hands you give that person the power to navigate his or her way through the space you have developed and the experience you have prepared.

Designers who don’t work with or use the Web almost always fail to recognise this crucial difference. As a judge of a number of multimedia awards, I’ve met a number of senior people from the agency world who clearly miss this point – wanting to be talked through a site, rather than sitting down and actually navigating it for themselves.

The navigability of a website is a core attribute of the design. And the sites which are intuitively easy to navigate are the best designed sites. The only way to tell how well a site navigates is to try it yourself.

Thus, the very worst site design is that which fails to engage consumers by using interactivity: sites, for example, which refer users to a brochure or a catalogue (often with a phone number to call) which can be ordered off-line.

This is little short of criminal. Consumers who have made the effort to seek you out on the Web can’t be expected to invest further time, effort and money on a phone call (especially since they are probably already using the phone line for their Internet access). Instead, they will seek out your (or your client’s) competitor – something that is a lot easier to do on the Web than it is in real life, since everywhere on the Web is only one mouse click away.

Interactivity also gives you instant feedback from the consumer: at the very least, you can see, in virtually real-time, which products and services on your site attract the consumer’s attention. If you’re using it properly, however, it will provide you with a steady stream of comment and advice from your customer base – it’s better than market research, and it comes free on this medium.

Retail websites in the US commonly use interactivity to build communities on their sites around their product or service. So, for example, the book-ordering site allows readers to comment on, or review, books they’ve read so the casual consumer has a range of informed and informative comment on the titles it stocks. It also gives publishers or authors a right of reply on the site allowing a real dialogue to be opened up in the sales channel – something which is impossible (or at least extremely expensive and difficult to do) in any other medium.

This community aspect of the Web is another of the unique and key characteristics of the medium, and those who use it well have thrived as a result: it can help to build loyalty to your (or your client’s) brand over your competitors, and provides customers with a high level of service and support.

In fact, customer support and service is another aspect of the Web which is very often forgotten by digital traders. Dell Computer has one of the most successful direct on-line commerce sites in the world: in the run up to Christmas last year the company had a number of “4m-days”, and sales routinely top 2.5m-a-day from the site.

But, for Michael Dell, founder and president of Dell Computer, the company’s Web operation is not simply about increasing sales. It has also allowed the company’s customers to carry out their own pre-sales information gathering, and post-sales support. Every customer who uses the website to answer a query rather than phoning Dell’s customer support lines saves the company around 4.50.

The Web is a 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week, 365-days-a-year resource. It simply never closes, so it gives you or your clients the chance to provide year-round customer support.

Finally, don’t make the mistake of assuming that the Web is a “virtual” shopping environment: for some categories of goods it is more real than the real world.

CD buying is a good example of an environment which is particularly suited to Internet shopping: the record store is an artifice made necessary because until now it has been impossible to integrate the point-of-sale with the experience which leads to the desire to buy. Most CD sales come from one of three things: sampling (by hearing a song on the radio, for example); recommendation (from friends and acquaintances); and reviews (in the media). There is a gulf between these experiences, which trigger a sale, and the sale itself. Buying is inconvenient for consumers because they have to make a special trip to a record store.

But the Web allows CD retailers to bring the point-of-sale right to the experience which leads to the desire to buy: sampling, recommendation and reviewing are all possible on the Web, but the difference is that the consumer can buy the instant he or she makes that decision.

Of course, there are some goods where the Web will always provide a virtual shopping experience: in clothes retailing for example. Sampling a fabric, and trying clothes on will not soon be appearing on any website near you.

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