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nearlondon-screenshotLove shopping but hate the crowds? The answer may be Near‘s virtual Oxford Street. They’re taking the world’s largest and best loved shopping areas and recreating them in the virtual world, Second Life-style with a focus on shopping. Reports are that big names including M&S and Liberty have signed up to display their shop windows in NearLondon, as they do in their bricks and mortar stores. Users can then go directly through to the product or shop online from this virtual Oxford Street, to view more details and buy.

I found that only some stores, e.g. Accessorize, had their various branches identified through NearLondon’s location search. This is a little disappointing given that lots of chains have more than one shop in the Oxford Street area and you may prefer one over another. I looked up M&S (reportedly part of NearLondon) and the search came up with just one result. This didn’t give me specific address details (other than Oxford St.), so at first glance it was unclear whether I was going to the M&S flagship store near Marble Arch or their other branch, the Pantheon, also on Oxford Street. Additionally, many shop windows appear blacked out with just the Near logo displayed. Presumably these shops haven’t signed up with Nearworld yet; but as a user, my experience is somewhat diminished by this.

Once more shops take part, this could be useful for inspiration, when you have an occasion to buy for but need a bit of help getting started, or when you’re simply checking out which look’s in this season. I haven’t tried it myself but NearLondon also lets you go shopping with your friends virtually, which could work if you’re all in different places.

Personally, I’d miss the delights of walking down Oxford Street in person such as unexpectedly bumping into an old friend or the delectable smell of Belgian waffles by Bond Street tube. But should I ever leave London (and perhaps this is their target audience, tourists who love London shopping), I’d more likely go for a nostalgic trip down Oxford Street virtually.

Are you a NearLondon user? Are you tempted to give up the stress of London shopping? Let us know your thoughts.

Screenshot of Google phone websiteGoogle’s launched its own branded phone (with HTC) after plenty of speculation in the mobile and business worlds. The move, however, came through its new e-commerce store, which was more of a surprise. As a User Experience enthusiast (and practitioner) I couldn’t help but investigate how Google tackled the customer experience  of their new online offering. Expectations are high given that Google’s notorious for copious research on making their services user-friendly.

I haven’t yet got my hands on a Nexus One phone so I checked out a 3D tour in their new online store. The store followed Google’s familiar minimalist look and feel and the pull tag just wanted to be clicked. The ‘feel’ option intrigued me – how was I going to know how it felt? It was a neat way of demonstrating the phone’s scale in relation to your palm but perhaps ‘Fit’ would’ve set my expectations better as I didn’t know any more about its tactility.

The weight option left me a little dissatisfied. I don’t know about you but I’ve never carried 53 pennies in change so couldn’t quite figure out how much this phone weighed or indeed how it compared to others on the market without leaving their site (as a slave to the metric system ounces meant little to me). A conversion calculator here would have helped; turns out it’s roughly 133 grams. Now, it may well have been a business decision not to offer comparisons with other phones but all this did was send me traipsing round the internet looking for comparison tables, not the best experience in my view.

The screen display looked impressive, it even offers a magnifying glass to see how pixel perfect it is. But I was hit with jargon here – AMOLED display. I had no idea what this meant, presumably new technology that made it better. But with no contextual help, I was off looking elsewhere again.

Accessories…doesn’t that mean things you can buy in addition to the phone? Apparently not…they’re features (such as noise cancellation and camera) that come with Nexus One. Hmm…interesting choice of words there.

All in all, I came away disappointed with the store’s labelling and navigation (or the lack thereof, if you discount the back button on most of its pages), and surprised that it wasn’t under Google’s perennial Beta. Perhaps the search giant has fallen prey to its own user experience bar set so high but I suspect the store wasn’t tested as rigorously as it could’ve been.

The caveat being of course that this store is intended for American audiences so aspects like weight in ounces may not pose an issue and perhaps our cousins across the pond have a higher propensity for marketing-ese than we Brits do. Let’s see whether and how Google localises its store when the phone’s available in Europe.

Following the launch of our recent Ecommerce Usability report, one the lowest scoring guidelines was focused on user registration and this made me think of a tip I wrote on this for our newsletter a few months ago.

Too many websites still force users to register without good reason, or provide an ineffective registration process, leading to frustrated users often dropping off the website. This is an all too common occurrence, but there are some steps you can take to alleviate these drop-offs:

  • Ask users to login or register only when necessary
    Those parts of a website that aren’t personalised should be equally accessible by registered and non-registered users. Only ask people to login or register when it’s required to complete an action, not earlier.
  • Make registration optional where possible
    Customers shouldn’t have to ‘create an account’ in order to buy products from an online shop. If a site needs to remember simple previously entered information, this can also be done by using a cookie, which of course requires no effort from the end user.
  • Prominently explain the benefits of registration
    Users will be happier to register if they know that they’re getting something useful, rather than if registration is seen as a barrier between them and their task.
  • Avoid lengthy registration forms
    Another source of frustration comes from questions in registration forms that look irrelevant to the task in hand. Remove such questions and explain the rest e.g. “We need your phone number to notify you in case your flight times change.”
  • Consider progressive registration
    This means asking only the bare essentials in the beginning (e.g. an email address and a password), and enabling users to update and complete their full profile at a later stage.

Demo of DPD Interactive SMS delivery confirmationThe message in the recent weeks is clear: after repeated strikes more and more businesses, especially online retailers, are prepared to desert Royal Mail for alternative suppliers. However, I think it’s not just the strikes that will drive businesses away from Royal Mail. It’s also that Royal Mail has failed to come up with innovative services that match the needs of ecommerce businesses and their customers.

At Ecommerce Expo last week, I saw a number of delivery companies trying to attract retailers. But what they were advertising wasn’t their lack of strikes – it was services that make life a bit easier for both retailers and customers.

DPD, a parcel delivery company, was advertising their “Interactive SMS delivery notification” system. When a retailer provides them with the parcel recipient’s mobile phone number, they send a text message to the recipient to confirm the delivery day. If recipients aren’t available to sign for the package on that day, they can reply by text message to arrange an alternative date. For customers, this means greater transparency and less of the disappointment of receiving the usual Royal Mail “Sorry, you were out” card.

Home Delivery Network, another parcel courier, have partnered with PayPoint to create Collect+, a network of neighbourhood convenience stores that can accept parcel deliveries. As many of these shops are open until late in the evening, customers can collect their parcels when they come home after work, and avoid a trip to the local Royal Mail delivery office. Some major online retailers, such as Littlewoods and Woolworths have already signed up to offer this delivery method to their customers. Royal Mail could have found a way to use their Post Office network in a similar way, instead of closing down Post Office branches.

With delivery often being one of the biggest customer concerns in an ecommerce transaction, retailers are likely to be looking for advanced delivery services that will differentiate them from their competition. If Royal Mail can’t keep up, retailers may not return to use its services even after the strikes are over.

Ecommerce ExpoFor the past couple of days a few of us have been over at Earls Court manning the Webcredible stand at Ecommerce Expo. Trenton ran a presentation on improving online conversions and we got plenty of interesting people to the stand. So, all-in-all it was pretty successful, you can check-out some photos from the show on our Flickr photostream.

To coincide with the show, on Tuesday we also launched our 4th annual Ecommerce Usability report, looking at the usability of 20 of the top UK high street retailers. Marks & Spencer’s new website (launched last week) shot to the top of the rankings alongside last year’s winner WHSmith with 83 per cent.  John Lewis, Woolworths and Boots also boosted their scores to make up the top five, all gaining scores of 80 per cent or more.

It’s clear that many of the top retailers are now really focusing on the user experience of their websites, but there are still one or two basic usability guidelines where many are still coming up short. However, with the average scores increasing substantially every year (73.3 per cent this year), we may have to look into adding some more advanced usability guidelines in the future, as ecommerce sites look to continue developing their user experiences.

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