Help Guide #5: Helping Small Businesses improve their understanding of eCommerce, SEO, usability, and web design! Interview with James Crooke

April 7th, 2008 by

For part 5 of our help guide we have an interview with James Crooke on the challenge of designing ecommerce based web sites as well as search engine optimisation, usability, and the importance of accessibility for your website.

James runs CJ Website Design and does a wide variety of design work on ecommerce and other websites. He also offers search engine optimisation services and you can view his full portfolio here. James is 23 and based out of Derby. He has three years of commercial web development experience, particularly in ecommerce and transactional websites.

The Interview

UK2: Web accessibility doesn’t mean much to lay person, can you explain what that is and why it should be important to a business owner who already has or is building a web site?

James: “Accessibility” is all about reaching the widest possible audience. Web Accessibility exploits the full power and flexibility of the Web to ensure maximum access to information, regardless of a user’s ability or disability, their environment or the devices they use.

It is important for business owners to embrace Web Accessibility – as it is paramount to the success of a web site and ultimately the main driving force behind sales. Web Accessibility is increasingly being taken serious by legislators. A number of disability laws have come into effect all over the world.

In the UK, The Disabilities Discrimination Act (DDA) made most British Web sites unlawful on the 1st October 2004 (81% in fact!). The Act makes it “unlawful for a service provider to discriminate against a disabled person by refusing to provide any service which it provides to members of the public”.

Businesses face the threat of legal action and unlimited compensation payments if they fail to comply with new legislation.

The benefits of making a website accessible include; Increased audience reach; as the support for the disabilities communities is improved. Improved Usability; as a result of adhering to Web Standards (i.e. XHTML and CSS). Improved Efficiency; which incorporates savings in maintenance and server costs. Reduced legal liability and demonstrating social responsibility; as a result of conforming to the Disabilities Discriminations Act. And lastly, cross browser, forwards, backwards and developer to developer compatibility – thanks to using Web Standards and conventions.

UK2: Designing a website for an online store is quite a bit different than just an informational site on a business, what are the design challenges that comes with setting up anecommerce website?

James: There are a number of considerations a designer must take into account when designing an ecommerce website. It is important to use conventions in ecommerce web development – e.g. don’t call a “Shopping Basket” something obscure or confusing, otherwise the majority of your audience won’t know what it is and some might be put off by it. As with any design, it should be easy to find information, navigate and search the site. A lot of the challenges with ecommerce come when deciding how to take a customer through the ordering process – therefore it is important to fully scope the process from start to finish, ironing out any functional and usability issues before you start developing.

UK2: In general what do you think online stores in the United Kingdom lack and why is that important?

James: There are many online stores that I have come across that are hard to navigate, don’t use web conventions and are just generally poorly designed and frustrate me to bits. It can be a challenge, but designers need to remember that most Internet users aren’t web savvy – so you need to keep to web conventions set out by well known stores (such as Amazon.co.uk) in order to keep the customer on the straight and narrow. A great book that I would recommend any designer read is Steve Krug’s “Don’t Make Me Think” – Krug shows, proves and justifies why conventions should be followed in web design.

UK2: What shopping cart software do you recommend to your clients and why?

James: I haven’t ever used off-the-shelf shopping cart software, because most clients I have worked with require a custom solution, tailored to their needs. That said, I would stress the importance of picking a solution that has been developed with Web Accessibility in mind – not just on the usability side of things but also making sure that URL’s are search engine friendly, e.g. www.site.com/shoes/womens-trainers/ instead of www.site.com/?category=3&subcategory=4 as the latter doesn’t translate very well in terms of keywords and doesn’t describe the page to the customer. Search engine friendly URL’s have an impact on SEO, as does things like “Related Items” lists etc.

UK2: Over the last few years being a web designer has gotten more complicated, instead of just designing they have to design while keeping in mind search engine optimization, usability, accessibility, different standards, and so on. As a designer how do you explain the importance of each of these too clients and what have you found to be the most difficult aspect to explain?

James: This is the main challenge when working with commercial clients. You’ll find that some clients want their website to contain irrelevant animation, flashing pink banners and they want to put the navigation on the right hand side in a size 8 pixel font, and their logo in the bottom left corner, etc. etc. At the end of the day, the client pays the bills so you have to respect their ideas – but as web development professionals with experience, you have to explain to the client in meetings that this is the way it should be done and why. In my experience, clients will understand once you explain the benefits of using web standards and conventions. That said; there is nothing wrong with being original – as long as it is intuitive to the user and doesn’t harm the usability of the website.

UK2: You did a business case study during University that talks about usability testing, can you explain what that is and why it is becoming increasingly important for businesses that sell products to users?

James: Usability Testing is one of several methodologies that I used to essentially prove that Web Accessibility is worth implementing. The purpose of the Usability Testing is to demonstrate by means of quantifiable data that making a site accessible improves how usable it is. Usability Testing is commonly carried out by the web development team and project manager(s) during the development process and from the resulting data decisions are made on whether or not the site needs to be tweaked to improve its ease of use.

Occasionally, a client will ask that a “beta version” of their site is tested by 3rd parties – in order to gain feedback on certain aspects of the site. A test plan would be drawn up with a series of tasks that a user should perform. A common task for an ecommerce site would be to “Order a pair of ladies trainers” (if the site sold them of course!).

A user whom has no prior knowledge of the website would then be timed on how long it took them to go through the website and order the pair of trainers. A test coordinator, sitting behind the user, could also count the number of mouse clicks, number of times the user had to restart and number of times the user failed to complete a task etc. This data is then used to assess how usable the site was compared to competitors or a previous version of the site – it all depends on the objectives of the Usability Test, defined at the outset.

It is important to perform Usability Testing on an ecommerce site because the goal is quite simply to get customers to purchase goods. If it is a challenge to do so, this will have a negative impact on sales.

UK2: Over the time you have been a web designer what are the two biggest changes you have seen with the types of designs business clients are requesting?

James: Design-wise, I can only think of one big change. When I first started designing websites, almost all clients were asking for Flash – whether it be an entire website built in Flash or a splash screen that beckoned visitors into the site. Nowadays, clients have a better understanding of what makes a good website and choose to go down a more static route of using XHTML, with perhaps a few JavaScript enhancements here and there to add some interactivity. I have nothing against using Flash, but more often than not, it is used incorrectly and unnecessarily.

Interactivity-wise, there has been a noticeable increase in the number of clients asking for additional functionality such as newsletters and customer login areas to make their websites more interesting and interactive. I put this increase quite simply down to the number of websites offering more user interaction, which business clients themselves have experienced – and want to replicate on their own sites.

UK2: You have quite a few search engine optimization case studies on your site and offer search engine optimization to your clients, in the last 12 months have more clients been asking about ranking for search engine terms or has enquires been about the same?

James: SEO is something that I carry out as standard – because I develop with accessibility in mind and the code that I write is always standards compliant. The problem with SEO is it can’t really be applied on top of poor markup, which is why most of the sites I SEO I end up re-coding from scratch – not that the client would notice, as the design stays the same.

I would say that SEO has always been important to clients and they have always asked to be “top of Google/Yahoo/MSN” for their chosen keywords – perhaps a little more so nowadays due to the increasing number of businesses (and therefore competitors) that have expanded to the web.

As a result, over the past few years it has become harder to SEO a website, because search engines such as Google are improving their ranking algorithms for the better. They are almost forcing web developers to stick to standards and to ensure websites are accessible – otherwise they will fail to show up in the first page of results.

For me, this is a step in the right direction – as sites that aren’t compliant, aren’t accessible and that use unscrupulous tactics to get to the top of search engines should be penalized. It also gives small companies the same chance of competing with large corporations.

UK2: Thanks for doing this interview and do you have any parting words of advice, or anything else you would like to talk about?

James: Thank you for giving me the opportunity to discuss the benefits of Web Accessibility. I would just like to add that what I have said is based on research done by myself and others. Web Accessibility, which has no negative impact if done correctly – ensures openness, fairness and equality. When implemented correctly, Web Accessibility saves time and money.

My advice to anyone setting up a new website or having an existing website renovated would be to build it on accessible foundations, otherwise it will sink.

Big thanks to James for doing the interview with us! You can check out his company at CJ Website Design and his portfolio here. His company focuses on ecommerce design, website design, logos and branding, and search engine optimisation.

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