The article was published on 23rd February 2009 on Internet Retailing website.
Marks and Spencer’s website is not the worst example of a site with usability issues. In fact there are many examples of good usability. However, no website is ever perfect and there are always things that a company can do to improve their customers’ online experience.
Trust is always an important issue in ecommerce and it does influence a customer’s decision to buy. In line with many other leading ecommerce sites, including Amazon, M&S has recently started to harness the power of customer reviews. However, to leave a review you are required to login.
From a user’s perspective, this is an unnecessary extra step. It may also imply that a review cannot be posted anonymously which can be off-putting.
By contrast Debenhams also encourages customers to leave reviews. They do not require a login and actively discourage you to leave your real name. In addition, they provide guidance for customers on writing their review, clearly defining what is and isn’t acceptable in their guidelines.
This allows customers to leave constructive and honest feedback without having an extremely negative impact on the brand. This transparency increases the customer’s trust in the company and the brand and this will encourage customers to buy.
Product information is also quite cluttered making it more difficult for customers to identify the calls to action.
While suggesting alternative items increases cross-selling opportunities, it is important that these additional messages do not have a negative impact.
Detailed product information is more difficult to find and is hidden below the page fold, often below other recommendations.
More priority should be given to things such as product details over ‘Other customers also bought’ type messages.
Many of Marks and Spencer’s competitors take a different approach to the presentation of the product page. There isn’t necessarily less information but it is laid out in a way that makes it easier for users to digest.
Use of white space is essential as it provides a buffer and emphasises the most important information.
Providing alternative images which are quick and easy to switch between is the simplest way to present the product. It will also significantly increase the chances that a customer will make a purchase online as it increases their confidence in the product.
Navigation is central to any website and research has shown that users search for content using trigger words. In Marks & Spencer’s case, visitors may arrive at the site looking for specific links such as ‘Jeans’ or ‘Womenswear’. The homepage advertising has recently used words such as this within the ‘Perfect’ range.
This is potentially problematic as customers may use these links expecting to view the entire range from M&S, not realising Perfect is a particular product line. As a result, being given a far smaller selection of items than would be expected, customers may leave the site, believing M&S did not have the item they were looking for.
It is a similar situation for the M&S sale which is cleverly disguised as ‘Current Offers’. With retailers struggling in the current climate, promoting anything that is likely to attract customers such as sales should be priority.
Competitor sites such as ASOS.com promote their sales and provide a dedicated section where customers can search all sale stock. It is also possible to narrow a search within the sale by colour/size/price etc.
The M&S site labels any sale items under ‘offers’ and categorises each section by department. Although the segmentation is useful it is not visually appealing and it also forces the customer to read through each offer within each department until they find something of interest. Unlike ASOS, it is not possible to narrow search within sale items.
However, there are things which Marks and Spencer does well and should be commended for. Firstly, navigation is designed to help customers search for items in a variety of ways. For example, they can search by brand, department, size, colour, price and so on.
This is extremely useful and allows both browsers and hunters to find what they are looking for quickly. Secondly, there are a number of personalised features which appear when you log into the website. This includes ‘Recently viewed items’ which you can access from the ‘Your M&S’ tab. This is another time saving element which is presented in a user-friendly manner with a small thumbnail image above the product details.
The only hurdle is making it clear where customers can find this; otherwise the purpose of the idea is lost.