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Issue Date: March 2008

Measuring user experience to optimise online business potential

6 March 2008
Kezia Crawford-Cousins

Websites have long been an accepted part of corporate sales and marketing strategy, especially for those wanting to leverage the potential of self-help product and service portals. For the better part of 10 years, most major companies have had some form of online presence, and many have made their products and services available online. Yet few have optimised the online customer interface sufficiently to ensure that customers have the best possible experience on the company's portal.
Common mistakes have included:
* Simply taking existing processes for product or services delivery, and making them available online.

* Over-engineering customer portals and making them excessively function- or graphic-intensive.

* Restricting measurement of website efficacy to technical performance and making measurement of that performance the exclusive domain of IT personnel.
Ensuring that a business website provides a pleasant and easy user experience involves far more than what is covered by traditional network and application performance management solutions.
Hidden obstacles
Websites can provide company information, equip customers to update their personal details, provide payment options for purchasing products or services or allow customers to complete other transactions, taking the pressure off other service delivery channels like call centres.
Efficient websites therefore enable a company to service its business at the lowest possible cost, and hopefully in the fastest possible manner.
There are, however, hidden pitfalls in building a functionally rich website. The site has to be easily navigable and the backend (where the information is stored) needs to integrate with the front end (the site) so that customers can access information and transact quickly on the site. If the company wants to provide other services like a payment option, a payment gateway needs to be integrated and the impact of this third party integration needs to be considered, as well as the mode and means of connectivity (type of line and the ISP) being used .
Many companies have made the mistake of building a functionally rich website that requires heavy integration with a backend system, only to find that customers using 56K dial-up modems cannot complete their interactions with the site because it is too large and cumbersome. This leads to an escalation in queries to the call centre or the company's office from dissatisfied or impatient customers. In a world where more and more companies have an online presence, a dissatisfied customer is only a 'click' away from another supplier.
The so-called mystery of poorly performing websites often lies in the fact that while a site may perform perfectly when analysed internally, there are external factors beyond the control of a website owner that impact on the site's performance. There are over 100 ISPs (Internet Service Providers) in the country - each characterised by different performance. There are also several different ways for customers to connect to the Internet: dial-up access, ADSL, wireless connections and leased lines and customers are also situated in different geographical areas, which have differently proportioned Internet access channels. If a customer website is not optimised to take these factors into account, it could become more of a liability than an asset.
User experience management
Qualica's User Experience Management solution is currently being used by Internet Solutions, Discovery Health, 1time airlines and two of South Africa's largest banks. For 1time, the product has helped the company's online booking site cope with up to five times its usual traffic during promotions. It has also been one of the secrets behind just three hours' downtime for the site in the last year.
The key to ensuring a successful customer interaction with a company website is user experience management (UEM). It is vital that companies objectively, reliably and quantifiably know how their customers access their website and what kind of experience they have once the website has loaded.
The only way to do this is to test the website from an external perspective. Qualica provides this service using servers which test websites from Johannesburg, Cape Town, Durban and the United Kingdom across dial-up, ADSL and leased lines, using various ISPs. Qualica begins the process by having workshops with the client to determine what actions a user typically performs on their site and an acceptable length of time for each transaction. The servers or 'probes' then simulate a user performing these actions on the website.
These tests are typically run on an hourly basis using different types of connectivity and ISPs, and each functional step is checked in a way that mimics a typical customer's interaction with the site. Each task is checked in terms of speed and success to ensure the site works fast enough to keep a customer satisfied. Another probe is placed behind the company's firewall to perform identical tests internally. The results from the external probe and internal probe are then compared to analyse where the differences are and what could be causing them.
As an example, external and internal probes might simulate logging on to a site as a user, performing five of the most common user tasks on the site and then logging off. The results are then examined and analysed to determine where the problems are. Once problems have been identified, skilled networking and web development personnel unpack the issues and make detailed recommendations to remedy the situation.
The benefits
The results of the tests can be used in two ways. From an executive level, UEM gives a business perspective on how well the company is able to acquire and service online customers. It provides decision makers with an objective understanding of how customers experience the site and what their satisfaction levels are likely to be. It can also be used to compare the company's site with that of a competitor's site to see how it is performing against the competition. Trends over time and changes after new upgrades to infrastructure or software can also be measured to see whether they improve the sites performance.
In addition, areas on the site and time periods where the site has performed poorly can be matched against call centre records and call volumes to determine the impact on the business of the site's poor performance. The executive can then put in place targets for the technical department to ensure customers' needs are being met and unnecessary call centre expenditure is negated.
UEM also provides IT managers with a breakdown of where the site performed poorly, allowing software development engineers and architects to drill down to the core issues, make changes as necessary and test the changes prior to deployment on live systems. Solutions can also then be put in place to ensure the site performs acceptably across all ISPs and connectivity types, as these will have been tested.
UEM is currently being used for companies whose client constituencies include a significant proportion of regular online users. These would typically include banks, online retailers and insurance companies, among others.

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