How to make the most of your website in a recession

Many countries are officially in recession and a number of brands have succumbed in the UK including Woolworths, Zavvi, The Pier and Land of Leather. At the same time, big names across the pond like Foot Locker, The Home Depot and Disney stores are closing tens if not hundreds of their stores.

However, it's not all doom and gloom. The online fashion retailer ASOS is thriving with a 118% sales increase and profits exceeding all expectations. Sales at Sainsbury's have increased; Debenhams'profits are up with 1200 new jobs promised through new stores. AmazonDomino's and Greggs are also among those bucking the trend.

Times are undeniably tough and businesses are looking for a much-needed edge to survive. Recentresearch shows that lower prices aren't necessarily the answer and may end up doing more harm than good. Customer service, on the other hand, is a great way to distinguish your business from your competitors'. Understandably service levels are improving in the UK and possibly worldwide during this period of hardship.

This together with the fact that the web's providing a platform for success - Woolies is coming back as an e-commerce only proposition - means the online user experience is now more important than ever to stand out in a harsh landscape. But can you create a good user experience (UX) without breaking the bank? Let's look at some user experience 'wise buys' to be had in today's cash-strapped economy.

Know your audience and their goals

Who's coming to your site? This may sound simple but it's surprising how many organisations aren't aware of this information. Run an online survey on your site to find out more about who your customers actually are. This can then be broken down into a clearer segmentation to give you a basic view of your audience. Tools like SurveyMonkey make this easy and are reasonably priced.

Also find out why people are visiting your site. What are they looking for or hoping to achieve? Only by discovering their needs can you check if the site meets them. And if it doesn't, you're armed with this valuable data to direct your efforts in ensuring customer needs are fulfilled.

Check your navigation and search

Browsing and searching are the 2 main ways of accessing information on a website. The online population is split 50:50 in terms of preference for one or the other so both need equal attention and care. How are your search and navigation faring? It might be time for some usability testing to check on the status quo.

When considering your navigation, think about how your content's structured and classified. Is it meaningful to your users or is it mired in internal intricacies? Card sorting is the technique to create a user-centred navigation. This doesn't have to be an expensive exercise requiring a huge investment. Automated tools that minimise the facilitation required and extend the reach can help keep the costs down.

Ensure your site search is clearly identifiable, consistently placed in the top right and forgiving of common typing errors. Are your search results presented in a logical manner? The value of a good back-end search can't be underestimated as web users now expect the efficacy of Google wherever they encounter search.

Considering a new feature or even a re-design?

Does the proposed change meet site visitor needs? Before embarking upon a change, find out from your customers whether it's what they want and need. Needless to say, if ever there was a time when ROI needed certainty this is it. User interviews are your best bet here. Make sure the resulting user needs are incorporated into the other requirements that may have been gathered.

Will design involve users to ensure it's in keeping with these requirements and that it flows right? The most cost-effective way of making sure the new design's along the right user experience lines is to create low-fidelity, throwaway wireframes and test these with your target audience. These blueprints can be as basic as paper sketches.

Resist the temptation to skip testing and go full steam ahead in creating something that's nearly finished because the earlier a design's validated, the cheaper it is to fix faults and the less effort you've wasted.

Free SEO keywords and analytics

Good usability and good search engine optimisation (SEO) go hand in hand. Tailor your site to what your audience is thinking and that's what they'll type into the search engines! Want to find out what your site visitors are searching for? Try the Google AdWords Keyword tool - it shows what's been searched for on a given URL in the previous month.

Another valuable addition to your toolkit is Google Analytics, which lets you analyse website statistics. This allows a strong tie-in of the UX changes to demonstrable ROI, which in turn can only promote buy-in of the user-centred philosophy throughout your organisation.

In a nutshell

While budgets are restrained in a recession, contrary to what may seem logical, it's time to invest wisely to get your website in order. Not only does this provide your business with an edge and may well ensure survival but it also puts you ahead of the game when the economy turns round and things pick up.

This article was written by Mrudula Kodali a senior consultant at the user experience consultancy, Webcredible. Mru's passionate about improving the user experience of websites and is responsible for leading a variety of user experience projects including eyetracking and information architecture.

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