Practicing user-centred design can draw more customers and keep them coming back to a Web site, but it can also cut costs and boost revenue according to experts.

At an event held Wednesday at IBM Canada‘s seventh annual Make IT

Easy 2003 Toronto Software Lab, IBM customers and experts talked about how ease of use is critical in almost every aspect of doing business, but it can be a struggle when technology tools often seem complex.

“”We invest in the currency of complexity. It is a constant push for us to demand simplicity. This is not about PhDs building products for PhDs. We need to understand the business value,”” said Herschel Harris, vice-president of WebSphere server development and director of the IBM Toronto Laboratory, speaking at the event.

At Amicus bank, a member of the CIBC group of companies, user interface designer Sonia Lancione and her team worked with IBM on the redesign of the President’s Choice Financial site, with a goal to streamlining the front end and back end by taking a user-centred design approach.

“”We wanted to reflect the same powerful off-line brand with the online brand,”” said Lancione.

Some of the problems Lancione and her team faced were that the original site did not integrate with the PC Financial Family of sites, such as the points program and MasterCard, and it required more consistent navigation.

“”The users were more sophisticated and the site didn’t make use of updated design techniques. The site used frames which affected load times and printability,”” she said.

The goals for Amicus from the outset were to increase online banking registrations, deliver a better user experience and design a site that could scale with the business and its growing number of managed funds, as well as to create a template to be used by all Amicus banks.

Lancione and her team received user input throughout the redesign and asked for input on navigation. They began by creating plans on paper, including a site map and wire frames (a detailed schematic plan identifying issues up front), before building anything new, which meant minimal costs were incurred.

Today, the banking home page carries the same look and feel as the three previous President’s Choice marketing sites, which use a limited colour palette of three colours: red, with accents in orange and grey.

The site is also not only easier for customers to navigate, says Lancione, and it provides more opportunities for the bank to cross-sell at an early stage of customer interaction. Customers can also select a password/register call to action throughout the site.

“”We can now allow customers to sign up for many products at once. In the past they needed to open accounts individually and go back after each one was opened to do something else. Now they can open a savings account and opt for a line of credit at the same time,”” she said.

The changes to the site increased registration by 62 per cent — something Lancione says translates into savings for the organization because it means fewer people are using phone banking or President’s Choice pavilions to do their transactions. Online bill payments increased by 51 per cent and online customer feedback was reduced by 170 per cent.

As well, the virtual bank’s rating in the quarterly Gomez online banking scorecard survey went from 12th to fourth spot.

“”We were at the bottom of the scorecard a couple of years ago. We were just happy to make it there but we wanted to improve those ratings. Certainly, the scorecard was the means to get funding for redesigning the Web site but the focus was always the user experience,”” she said.

The site, which took about a year to overhaul, can now be more easily updated as new products or changes occur.

“”We can launch any new brand quickly now,”” she said.

A user-centred design was the goal from the outset for John Tolva, creative director at the Centers for IBM e-Business Innovation in Chicago. Tolva has been working on the Egyptian Culture Project, a multi-year project undertaken by IBM and the Egpytian government to digitize thousands of artifacts from 5,000 years of history and nine contributing museums.

Tolva needed to create a site with the ability to provide a user-friendly experience to a large audience in multiple languages.

“”The user needs are very different,”” said Tolva. “”The first language is not English and we needed to build a system that treats objects in a broader framework so when the time comes to put it together we have a variety of recognizable objects to stitch together in a story-telling piece,”” he said.

IBM called on its international offices to come forward with design ideas for the project (which will be launched in December), as the Egyptian government did not want the site to look overwhelmingly American or Egyptian in nature.

The project will make use of a handheld digital tour guide application in museums. When the PDA is returned at the end of a tour, the user will receive back a customized print-out of what they saw. This not only customizes the user experience, but gives the museum an idea of what is popular among visitors, said Tolva.

Tolva noted that the Egyptian project taught him that often, cultural factors trump the laws of usability. For example, when users switch from French to Arabic, the designers realized they needed to switch where the tools appear on the site.


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