Online retailing websites have certainly come a long way in the last decade or so. There’s been a plethora of techniques used over the years, attempting to make our websites more user friendly and to maximise conversion. It’s fair to say that not all of these techniques have been good (those who have been in the game long enough will remember scrolling marquee text), but certain design practices have established themselves as defaults, and are expected by our customers.
The topic of user experience and interface design is vast to say the least, and I’m not going to dive into it here. Instead I want to focus on a concept that the big ecommerce sites have been utilising for a while, but a lot of smaller sites still aren’t. I’m talking about the top left corner of our web pages, our prime real estate, and what to place there in order to give us the best chance of getting a sale.
Back in 2006, Nielsen Norman Group published results from their eyetracking web usability study. The study’s findings were fairly conclusive. When a user first lands on your site, they start scanning the page to from the top left corner, in an “F” shaped pattern, as illustrated in the image on the right. Their eyes move left to right from the top left corner, then back to the left and down slightly before scanning across again. So if we know that’s where users are looking, we can tailor our navigation and content to maximise their exposure. Despite the fact that this is fairly old news in the web design industry, there are still ecommerce sites that aren’t making this prime real estate do the hard work for them.
Ditch the Ubiquitous Home & About Us Links
Having a main navigation bar across the top of your website, or a vertical list menu on the left hand side are tried and tested methods for navigation, that’s where customers would expect to find them. A breadcrumb trail along side or below that navigation help users find where they are within your site’s structure. For many ecommerce sites though, the first two links in the main navigation are “Home” and “About Us”. This is very much an old web tradition, but is it the right choice for online retailers?
Let’s break this question down with an example of a user who arrives at your website for the first time. If they land on the homepage, rather than a subpage, why would they want to click on “Home”? So you’ve wasted that very first place a potential customer is going to look. If they instead land on a subpage, then they may well want to get back to the homepage, but we have two other ways we can allow them do that; without taking up the most valuable slot in the main navigation. By using a breadcrumb trail of links directly below the main navigation, a user can simple click “Home” from there. The second method at our disposal is a company logo, which for many ecommerce sites will be sat in the very top left above the navigation. For many users the expectation is that by clicking on that company logo, they will be taken to the homepage. This is one of those things that is incredibly easy to fix, and will instantly improve usability for those who expect that behaviour. Yet some sites still aren’t making a link out of their logo.
The “About Us” link is much more contextual. If you run a charity site for example, then it’s likely that visitors will want to know more about your organisation before proceeding to make a donation. So there’s a strong argument for giving that section prominence on the homepage. For an online retailer however, a visitor wants to know if a site has the product they’re looking for, and how much it costs. The easier you make it for them to find what they’re looking for, the more likely they are to stay on your site. Once they have that information, then they may want to know a little more about you before they commit to buy, especially if it’s their first purchase from your website. With the rise in popularity of big footer sections on websites, there is a growing expectation that the footer is the place to look for that kind of secondary information about a retailer, such as how to contact them and their terms and conditions.
What Should I Put There Instead?
With the above points in mind, whether you have a horizontal navigation bar, or a vertical menu, what should you put in the top left corner? The following are strong candidates:
- Bestselling Products
If you have a certain product or category of products that you know your customers love, make it easier for them to find. This is particularly useful if you have repeat visitors who want to re-order the most popular products.
- Sale Items
If you’ve got left-overs of last season’s stock that you need to sell, don’t bury them down at the bottom of a page. Give yourself the best chance of selling them by giving them the most prominence. Customers will often be looking for a bargain, so make sure they can find them.
- New Products
This is a fairly obvious consideration. If you want to heavily promote new items, place them somewhere your customers are going to look.
- Most Profitable Products
If users are most likely to click on sections in the top left corner, then why not use that space for your products with a good profit margin. Keep in mind though, you should always be doing things that benefit your users, so if pushing certain products might annoy customers, think twice about doing it.
In general, the rest of your main navigation should then be in order of importance. By importance, we mean a careful balance between what your customers are most likely to be looking for, and the things you want to promote to them. Depending on the size of your product range, you might consider having categories listed in alphabetical order if that would make for a better user experience.
Fine Tuning With In-Page Analytics
If you’re just starting out on the online retailing path, and you haven’t got Google Analytics running on your site, you should get it now. Amongst the many great features of analytics, is the “In-Page Anaytics” tool. For every link you can see the percentage of total clicks that occurred on that link. Using this information you will be able to see which links in your navigation are getting the most clicks from your users. If you discover that the most popular navigation link isn’t at the start of your menu, then you should consider moving it there so that users can see it more quickly.
Google Analytics can also help you spot any irregular navigation behaviour. For example, if you have consciously made sure that your bestselling product category is the first navigation link, but that link isn’t receiving as many clicks as others; then something isn’t quite right.
As a basic illustration of what might cause this anomaly, let’s say you sell stationary online and you know that your consistent bestselling items are fountain pens. Then you wouldn’t have the first link of your navigation as “Bestsellers”, because a customer doesn’t know what your best sellers are. Instead you should name the link “Fountain Pens” so that there is no uncertainty as to what a user will find if they follow the link. This principle should in fact be applied to every link on your website. These so called “Mystery Links”, with ambiguous names, offer nothing but confusion for your users.
As online retailers we need to be making the products our customers are looking for as easy to find as possible, to give us the best chance of getting the sale. A user will form their first impressions of your website in seconds, so let’s give them what they want as quick as we can. Reconsider whether you need a “Home” button in your main navigation and start pushing those key categories into the top spot instead. Keep the content in the top left corner product focussed and move secondary “About Us” information into more suitable areas, like the footer section.