Archive for August, 2009

Full results of mobile e-commerce user survey published today

Friday, August 28th, 2009

The detailed results from a survey of Britain’s 12 biggest mobile phone e-retailers are being released today by benchmarking specialist Syntagm (http://www.syntagm.co.uk). Scores show which sites provide the best experience for shoppers trying to buy a phone online – with some big surprises in the ratings.

Overall results:

• Expansys 62%
• O2 50%
• Argos 47%
• Carphone Warehouse 46%
• T-Mobile 44%
• Virgin Mobile 43%
• Mobiles.co.uk 43%
• Orange 41%
• Phones4u 41%
• Vodafone 41%
• Three 39%
• Tesco 36%

Syntagm compared the sites across 13 categories including content, design, navigation and online support. The results suggest that, in the rush to expand their online storefronts, the majority of mobile sites offer a substandard shopping experience and second-rate service.

However, the overall picture masks a number of excellent results in specific areas:

• Expansys achieved the highest or joint highest score in eight of the 13 benchmarking groups.

• O2 ranked in first place for content (83%) and online support (10%), and T-Mobile topped the table for trust (60%) and navigation (97%).

• Argos, Phones4u and Virgin Mobile were each marked top in one of the categories – checkout (85%), trust (60%) and accessibility (80%), respectively.

Results were not all favourable though. Tesco in particular performed poorly, receiving the lowest or joint lowest scores in five categories, and languishing in the bottom three in a further four groups.

And many of the mobile providers were found guilty of prioritising style over substance: half of the sites scored 80% or above for visual design, whereas three quarters scored 60% or below when it came to providing effective product information.

The shopping basket should be central to e-commerce, but the survey found it surprisingly difficult to access on some sites, and often poorly designed. The individual results for this category ranged dramatically from 28% for Tesco to a near-perfect 96% for Expansys.

William Hudson, Syntagm’s CEO, comments: “In the current climate retailers need to be making it as easy as possible for potential customers to find and purchase a product if they are going to survive tough consumer spending conditions and fight off competition from rivals.”

“Whilst there isn’t a direct correlation between usability and sales, we would expect a better shopping experience to result in higher customer conversion rates, and we encourage the companies to concerned to employ the results of our survey to that end.”

Ends

Notes for editors
About Syntagm:
Syntagm is a small consultancy based in Oxford. Established in 1985, it specialises in design for usability (user-centred design and user experience) and people development. It has worked more than 100 blue chip organisations across Europe and North America.

About the benchmarking report:
Benchmarking took place in late May and early June 2009, comparing the 12 mobile phone sites across 13 categories: content, visual design, navigation, engagement, accessibility, trust, persuasion, shopping basket, search, selection, checkout, account management, and online support.

Syntagm and its staff have no financial interests in any of the organisations benchmarked.

Why Metaphor is a Double-Edged Sword

Wednesday, August 26th, 2009

[Author’s note, 2009: This is the first article I wrote for the ACM’s interactions magazine, back in 2000. What is interesting, reading it again 9 years later, is that almost nothing has changed. The desktop metaphor is still in widespread use but remains largely broken. The shopping cart metaphor continues to be the best example of the effectiveness of metaphor, which is frankly more than a little disappointing!]

Don Norman is not one to steer clear of controversy. In The Invisible Computer he writes of his disapproval of metaphor in the design of user interfaces – an opinion that he has repeated in debate on the CHI-WEB email list.

What’s all the fuss about? The original issue in CHI-WEB was whether to use a shopping cart metaphor when designing e-commerce sites. Some contributors pointed with glee to examples of shopping sleds and wheelbarrows, while others insisted that a cart is a cart is a cart. Don said that we shouldn’t be using any of these things and should just have “lists of items purchased”. Naturally, this left quite an air of confusion over the whole subject. To try to iron things out, metaphorically speaking, we need to have a better understanding of some of the issues.

Metaphor attempts to express a new domain (the target) in terms of one that is already understood (the source). This is quite common in language where we discuss negotiation as if it were war (“he stood his ground”), use the term higher to mean more and view life as a journey (as in “where do you want to be in two years?”). Some psychologists even argue that thought and language are fundamentally metaphoric. Unfortunately this model of metaphor is very complex, requires a good understanding of both the source and target domains and is very specific within culture and language. An approach that suits user interface design better is called the structure mapping theory of analogy and is the work of Dedre Gentner and her colleagues. This theory still relates target and source domains, but by considering the relationships between the conceptual objects (concepts) within each.

The Controversy

What are the objections to metaphor in user interface design? The most commonly quoted are that metaphor is not helpful except to inexperienced users and that it is overly restrictive. The “desktop” metaphor, which is the basis of most graphical environments found today, is often cited as an example of the failure of metaphorical design. However, I think it deserves a closer look. Figure 1 shows a conceptual model of the source domain – an office of the mid 1970’s. The rectangles represent concepts while the connecting lines are relationships. I have drawn this in the style of a UML class model so that concepts and relationships are read from the labeled end of each line. So, for example, in-tray receives document and filing cabinet stores folder. This model (with some minor changes, such as printer instead of copier) was the basis of the desktop metaphor used on the Xerox Star, the inspiration for the Apple Macintosh, Microsoft Windows and other graphical environments. The trays, folders, documents and other concepts were represented with clear icons and descriptive text, allowing inexperienced computer users to rapidly learn the use of a complex and innovative computer system.

Notice, by the way, that Figure 1 includes a relationship that really isn’t of the same type as the others: desktop covered by blotter. While this relationship was certainly true of many desktops at the time, most of the other relationships are concerned with actions. The desktop relationship with blotter is superficial and not part of the system of relationships that interest us. This is called a non-systematic relationship.

Conceptual model of a desktop showing relationships between documents, folders, trays and similar

Conceptual model of a desktop showing relationships between documents, folders, trays and similar

Figure 1, Conceptual model of a mid-1970’s office

But why is the desktop metaphor unhelpful? I think the desktop metaphor on our computer screens has drifted too far from the original office domain. Microsoft Windows, for example, hides the in-tray and out-tray in an email application, variously called Mail, Inbox, Outlook or Outlook Express depending on the age and configuration of the system. The desktop is confusingly covered by wallpaper and printing documents by dragging them to a printer does not work reliably. The Macintosh does not fare much better and also has the odd feature of allowing users to drag the floppy disk to the wastebasket (“Trash”) in order to eject the floppy. From the office domain it’s obvious that the effect of that action (if any) should be the same as discarding a document or folder. So in most cases, the apparent problem with the desktop metaphor is that it does not correspond to the original office domain.

Now to the suggestion that metaphors confine their designers and users. This supposes that by establishing a well-understood system of relationships we are limited to just those relationships. Although it is likely that inexperienced users will understand the metaphor very literally, this same understanding will give them the confidence to explore and experiment. As long as we do not introduce anomalous relationships such as wastebasket ejects floppy, there will still be considerable freedom to innovate. For example, within the desktop metaphor, we could make use of a stapler to group and compress documents (as compared to the now common zipper concept which is not part of the office domain). We can also use bridging concepts to move from one metaphor to another. A screwdriver (Figure 2 ) could be used as a bridge from the desktop metaphor to the physical hardware. More advanced users might be able to drag the screwdriver to the filing cabinet to perform maintenance operations such as modifying partitions or defragmenting storage. All of these metaphorical design features could be in addition to more direct (but less predictable) mechanisms such as popup menus and shortcut keys.

Screwdriver

Screwdriver

Figure 2, Bridging concept from desktop to hardware

Some Problems

Having defended the general concept of metaphor, let’s be honest about its limitations. The first problem is that designers sometimes try to be too literal in their use of metaphor. For example, in a real office, mailing a document to a customer means that you no longer have a copy of it, unless you have explicitly made a copy beforehand. Enforcing this behavior in our virtual office would be incredibly frustrating to users. Mindless consistency is not an attractive design strategy.
A larger difficulty is that there really aren’t that many useful metaphors for completely new problem domains. The most successful metaphors are those which “virtualize” an existing problem domain. This means adopting not only the concepts and relationships of the domain, but also the activities, as shown for a “virtual store” in Figure 3 . Other candidates for virtualization are libraries, clubs, medical services, automotive sales and service – in short, most things that have well-defined domains.

Diagram showing relationship between shopping, checkout and delivery activities

Diagram showing relationship between shopping, checkout and delivery activities

Figure 3, Activity (state) diagram for a virtual store

The Name is the Thing

The debate over terms shopping sled versus shopping cart may seem relatively trivial at first sight. It is easy to forget that to inexperienced web shoppers, a shopping cart may be a familiar comfort. Arriving at an e-commerce site that does not use the shopping cart metaphor may be a learning experience, rather than a shopping one. It could also be a wasted learning experience if most other web sites use different concepts and activities. The novelty will be beneficial only if it offers a real improvement over familiar solutions and is adopted by the Internet community as a whole.

An Iceberg Model of Metaphor

Many concepts are domain specific. For example, a cash register is almost always associated with shopping and the activity of paying. Other concepts, such as money are much more general. The image of money in an e-commerce site may be associated with paying, but it may mean pricing, discounts or currency. The difference is that using a domain-specific concept such as a cash register invokes the system of hidden relationships to which it belongs. The cash register may be the only visible evidence of the metaphor, but the rest of the shopping domain is lurking beneath the surface.

This iceberg model of metaphor can present problems as well as providing solutions. A number of web sites have taken to using the term check in. Some use it as an activity required of visitors to the web site (i.e., registering or joining), while others ask existing members to check in. Which is right? The term check in is used almost exclusively in the travel industry to mean registration for a pre-arranged journey or stay and so is associated with a reservation as shown in Figure 4 . The question of whether the customer is a visitor or a member does not really arise, except that a member might be tenuously considered to have a reservation. It would be best not to use the term at all outside its travel context.

Image showing reservation as a concept hidden below the surface of check-in

Image showing 'reservation' as a concept hidden below the surface of 'check in'

Figure 4, Check in has a reservation hidden below the surface

Metaphoric Guidelines

My own view is that metaphor is an important tool for user interface design, but must be used with care. The guidelines below cover some of the most important issues:

Metaphors operate on systems of relationships, not on individual concepts. Make sure that the system of relationships is reflected in your user interface and do not use concepts out of context.

Metaphors do not have to be complete, but interfaces need to provide adequate clues to users. Omitting less important concepts or changing them slightly may not have a large impact on usability, but only testing will tell.

Metaphors should not rely on mere appearance. A concept should not just have the appearance of a shopping basket, it should behave like one too. It needs to have the same or similar relationships in the target domain as it did in the source.

Avoid non-systematic relationships (such as desktop covered by blotter in Figure 1). Most of the important relationships will be how concepts interact with each other, particularly from a user’s perspective.

Don’t let abstract relationships interfere with the metaphor. For instance, it may be true that a desk and a filing cabinet are both instances of office furniture. However, it’s their purpose that is of interest.

Choose metaphors that provide concrete images. The shopping domain is useful because it contains a number of domain-specific concepts that can easily be represented visually: shopping cart (or basket, trolley, etc.), cash register, price tags, discount signs, etc. A catalog metaphor, by comparison, is relatively devoid of distinct concrete images (an order form is not as immediately recognizable as a cart or basket).

Try to get as close to the original domain as possible (unless an alternative has obvious advantages). Mail-order shopping and vending machines are already one step removed from the source shopping domain. Also, some aspects of the vending machine domain are not entirely beneficial to e-commerce: Vending machines usually sell low value items, most require payment in advance, and not all are reliable.

Beware culture-specific metaphors and concepts. Cart (US) versus trolley (UK) is a minor issue since the image is the same. However, kiss and ride (dropping off a loved one at a purpose-built public transport facility) does not enjoy wide-spread recognition.

Further Reading

Gentner, Dedre and Markman, A. B. (1997), ‘Structure mapping in analogy and similarity’, in American Psychologist, Vol. 52, pp. 45-56.
Ortony, Andrew, ed. (1993), Metaphor and Thought, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Copyright Notice

First appeared in interactions, Volume 7 , Issue 3 (2000), pages 11-15, Association for Computing, New York, NY.

Permission to make digital or hard copies of all or part of this work for personal or classroom use is granted without fee provided that copies are not made or distributed for profit or commercial advantage and that copies bear this notice and the full citation on the first page. To copy otherwise, to republish, to post on servers or to redistribute to lists, requires prior specific permission and/or a fee.

Mobile Phone Sites Fail to Connect

Wednesday, August 12th, 2009

Despite selling the technology frequently used for social networking, Britain’s biggest mobile phone e-retailers are failing to plug into the phenomenon, according to a report from benchmarking specialist Syntagm (http://www.syntagm.co.uk). The study of 12 leading mobile sites found that the majority offer very limited interactive features, and don’t encourage user-generated content or attempt to foster a sense of community – in stark contrast to e-commerce leaders like Amazon.

Recent research from Ofcom revealed that 30% of British adults now have a social networking profile, with many accessing this virtual world via their mobile phone. And consumers have come to expect the same level of interactivity when shopping online: user reviews, self-service and control over purchasing are commonplace everywhere from ASOS to eBay.

When it comes to buying a mobile, however, customers might as well skip the online experience and stroll into a ‘bricks and mortar’ store if they’re looking for an interactive shopping experience. Whilst some of the sites provided interactive search facilities or 3D phone viewers, only two (Three and T-Mobile) allowed potential customers to chat online to a sales advisor.

None of the sites made personalised recommendations based on previous visits, and most did not even attempt to show users the products they most recently viewed – a serious flaw given the amount of ‘site hopping’ people tend to do when shopping online.

Several sites subscribed to ‘read only’ third-party product reviews, but it wasn’t possible for users to make comments about their own experience of a particular product, or leave questions to be answered by other punters.

William Hudson, Syntagm’s CEO, comments: “Successful e-commerce sites echo the sense of community that has made social networking sites so popular, by enabling users to communicate and share information. In our survey, only outsider Expansys came close, whereas its bigger competitors seem to have got their wires crossed when it comes to social networking opportunities.  There’s a lot more they could be doing.”

Syntagm’s benchmarking report compared user experience between Argos, Carphone Warehouse, Expansys, mobiles.co.uk, O2, Orange, phones4u, Tesco, T-Mobile, Three, Virgin Mobile and Vodafone.

The study concluded that the sites are failing consumers on some of the most basic services needed to buy a phone. And the biggest names were often the worst culprits: relative unknown Expansys was the only site to score above 50% on overall experience for online shoppers, putting its mainstream competitors to shame.

Hudson adds: “At a time of intense competition between the main mobile traders, they need to offer their online shoppers a more engaging experience. Our report clearly shows where their strengths and weaknesses lie – we hope the companies concerned will make use of the information it provides.”

Ends

Notes for editors

About Syntagm:
Syntagm is a small consultancy based in Oxford. Established in 1985, it specialises in design for usability (user-centred design and user experience) and people development. It has worked more than 100 blue chip organisations across Europe and North America.

About the benchmarking report:
Benchmarking took place in late May and early June 2009, comparing the 12 mobile phone sites across 13 categories: content, visual design, navigation, engagement, accessibility, trust, persuasion, shopping basket, search, selection, checkout, account management, and online support.

Additional sites can be benchmarked on request. Syntagm and its staff have no financial interests in any of the organisations benchmarked.

 For further details or to purchase the summary report visit www.uxbench.com

Buying a Mobile Phone Online? Prepare for Confusing Content and Poor Customer Service

Thursday, August 6th, 2009

A substandard shopping experience and second-rate service are blighting Britain’s biggest mobile phone e-commerce sites, according to a new report from benchmarking specialists Syntagm (http://www.syntagm.co.uk). Findings show that the majority of mobile sites suffer from poor navigation, lack of information and virtually no online support – failing consumers on some of the most basic services needed to buy a phone.

The benchmarking report compares user experience between 12 of the leading vendors – Argos, Carphone Warehouse, Expansys, mobiles.co.uk, O2, Orange, phones4u, Tesco, T-Mobile, Three, Virgin Mobile and Vodafone. Whilst visual design scored highly, with an overall average of 75%, account management scored just 12%, and online support was the weakest area across all sites, trailing the results table with a paltry 2%.

Most sites did not provide login accounts for purchasing – customers had to rely on email updates or ring customer service to track or cancel an order. And features which are mainstream on most e-commerce sites – allowing users to view or modify recent orders – are conspicuously absent if you want to buy a phone online (unless you’re shopping on the Expansys site).

When it comes to dealing with delivery delays and reporting or returning damaged goods none of the sites came up to scratch. Not one site lets customers ask a support question and get an immediate response online, although Expansys, O2 and Virgin offered online forums. When asked ‘How do I return a phone?’ Virgin’s automated Q&A service wonders if you would like to buy a phone. The other nine benchmarked sites would only deal with problems or questions through telephone help desks (often at national-rate charges).

Many sites performed poorly in providing effective product information. The content average was only 57% with O2 scoring the top mark of 83%. Trying to find a handset by feature was impossible on most sites, and only two (Three and T-Mobile) allowed potential customers to chat online to a sales advisor. And Tesco’s search facility returned products from across its entire product range – even though the search was performed from the mobile phone pages (a search for ‘LG’ turned up fridge-freezers and flat screen TVs as well as phones).

For online reviews and control over purchasing and support, mobile e-retailers could learn a lot from facilities customers have come to expect from sites such as Amazon. None of the sites made personalised recommendations based on previous visits, and most did not even attempt to show users the products they most recently viewed – a serious flaw given the amount of ‘site hopping’ people tend to do when shopping online.

Tasks which consumers take for granted in a physical ‘bricks and mortar’ shop, such as checking whether a product is actually in stock, are surprisingly absent in UK mobile phone e-commerce. Expansys was the only site to include clear availability information for every product, and Carphone Warehouse provided a fully functional ‘phone finder’, but seven of the 12 sites surveyed scored zero on this measure. In fact, some even promised next day delivery of a phone that was out of stock.

As a whole, the sites left users to research and understand terminology, features and key purchasing decisions themselves. Other common problems included a lack of clear delivery information and, in some cases, checkout pages that would challenge even the most determined purchaser.

William Hudson, Syntagm’s CEO, comments: “Customer service should be a priority even if you aren’t physically dealing with a person. Based on our study, consumers are, at best, confused and, at worst, badly served by mobile e-retailers. If they want to build their brands as trusted online retailers, in the same league as sites such as Amazon, Dabs and More Computers, we would recommend they look at creating a more rewarding shopping experience and providing proper online support beyond the purchasing process – and especially when things go wrong.”

Ends

Notes for editors

About Syntagm:

Syntagm is a small consultancy based in Oxford. Established in 1985, it specialises in design for usability (user-centred design and user experience) and people development. It has worked more than 100 blue chip organisations across Europe and North America.

About the benchmarking report:

The benchmarking took place in late May and early June 2009, comparing the user experience between 12 of the leading UK vendors: Argos, Carphone Warehouse, Expansys, mobiles.co.uk, O2, Orange, phones4u, Tesco, T-Mobile, Three, Virgin Mobile and Vodafone.

Syntagm compared the sites across 13 categories: content, visual design, navigation, engagement, accessibility, trust, persuasion, shopping basket, search, selection, checkout, account management, and online support.

Each category received a numerical score and written observations. The numerical scores make it possible to see clearly where strengths and weaknesses lie for each of the mobile e-commerce organisations concerned, and improved scores can be used as targets for future development.

Additional sites can be benchmarked on request. Syntagm and its staff have no financial interests in any of the organisations benchmarked.

For further details of the report or to purchase a copy visit www.uxbench.com

Mobile Phone E-Commerce Report Delivers Blow to Big Brands

Thursday, August 6th, 2009

Only outsider Expansys scores above 50% on overall experience for online shoppers

Britain’s biggest mobile phone brands are lagging behind relative outsider Expansys when it comes to the design and usability of their e-commerce sites, according to a new report from benchmarking specialists Syntagm (http://www.syntagm.co.uk). Findings show that the majority of mobile sites suffer from poor navigation, lack of information and limited online support – failing consumers on some of the most basic services needed to buy a phone.

The benchmarking report compares user experience between 12 of the leading vendors (Argos, Carphone Warehouse, Expansys, mobiles.co.uk, O2, Orange, phones4u, Tesco, T-Mobile, Three, Virgin Mobile and Vodafone), revealing some big surprises in the ratings – and an unprecedented overview of the market as a whole.

Specialist handheld reseller Expansys topped the results tables in eight of the 13 groups (including some tied scores) but its overall score was still only 62%. O2 was ranked in second place overall with a score of 50% and Argos scraped into third position with 47% for overall user experience.

Tesco may be marching further into the mobile market, but online it slows to a crawl: it received the lowest scores for trust and shopping basket design, and suffered from problematic navigation and an indiscriminate search facility. This combination of weak results earned Tesco the bottom position overall, with a user experience score of just 36%.

Many of the mobile providers were found guilty of prioritising style over substance: half of the sites scored 80% or above for visual design but only O2 had a respectable content score (83%), with the majority performing poorly in providing effective product information (three quarters achieved 60% or lower).

Online support was the weakest area across all sites, scoring just 2% overall. Expansys, O2 and Virgin received some marks for offering online support forums, but the other nine benchmarked sites received zero scores for only dealing with problems or questions through telephone help desks (often at national-rate charges).

With current levels of spam, phishing attacks and credit card fraud, consumers have every right to be suspicious of e- commerce sites. Yet very few of the benchmarked sites provided adequate levels of reassurance. Clicking the ‘Internet shopping is safe’ logo on the Orange checkout page produced a certificate error.

A surprisingly poor performance came in the area of persuasion (trying to sell services), which only averaged 11% in its benchmarked group. And, where accessories or upgrades were offered they were often irrelevant to the phone selected. The most commonly offered additional service was handset insurance, despite this already being included in many home contents policies.

“Having spent seven years benchmarking and offering design advice on intranets we’re now turning our attention to e-commerce sites, starting with mobile phones. The overall results were unexpected and disappointing, but we hope that the companies in the survey will find the information useful,” said William Hudson, Syntagm’s CEO.

“At a time of intense competition between the main mobile traders they can’t afford to lose customers due to confusing content, shocking customer service and missed sale opportunities. Expansys may not be a mainstream mobile phone site, but the user experience it offers puts many of its bigger competitors to shame.”

Ends

Notes for editors
About Syntagm:
Syntagm is a small consultancy based in Oxford. Established in 1985, it specialises in design for usability (user-centred design and user experience) and people development. It has worked more than 100 blue chip organisations across Europe and North America.

About the benchmarking report:
The benchmarking took place in late May and early June 2009, comparing the user experience between 12 of the leading UK vendors: Argos, Carphone Warehouse, Expansys, mobiles.co.uk, O2, Orange, phones4u, Tesco, T-Mobile, Three, Virgin Mobile and Vodafone.

Syntagm compared the sites across 13 categories: content, visual design, navigation, engagement, accessibility, trust, persuasion, shopping basket, search, selection, checkout, account management, and online support.

Each category received a numerical score and written observations. The numerical scores make it possible to see clearly where strengths and weaknesses lie for each of the mobile e-commerce organisations concerned, and improved scores can be used as targets for future development.

Additional sites can be benchmarked on request. Syntagm and its staff have no financial interests in any of the organisations benchmarked.

For further details or to purchase the report visit www.uxbench.com