The Web is such an ethereal creation that it's hardly surprising ity - accessory for any company looking to stay alive in modern business. But before you go leaping into the virtual void, take care that what you design satisfies all of your business needs. has become the subject of so many myths and misapprehensions. The most pervasive myth is that a Website - preferably bursting with animated graphics, sound clips, fancy typefaces, forms, frames, cookies and all manner of other gizmos - is already de rigeur for any company that wants to be in business for more than the next five minutes.
In fact, only about half of UK businesses are so far on the Net, and the other half should think carefully before joining them, argues Roger Till, director of e centre, the e-commerce trade association.
'You've got to have a serious business plan,' he says. 'You have to think about your customers and suppliers - whether they're technically clued-up and competent, and indeed whether they want e-commerce at all. There's a danger of thinking, "Oh, I've got to get a Website" and jumping in with both feet.'
The most important thing is to treat a Website like any other branch of business, and ensure the technology - and the designers - don't get the upper hand. The internet myth says the way to succeed is to have the biggest, jazziest Website the pony-tail brigade can design. Unfortunately, most such sites have yet to make any money, so canny e-traders are beginning to turn the rule book on its head.
One mould-breaker is Vista Computer Services of Northwood, London, a leading supplier of software to the publishing industry. Vista estimates that 60 per cent of phone calls from bookshops to publishers are about pricing and availability, and another 30 per cent are queries on outstanding orders.
'If you could provide a self-service mechanism, where bookshops could log on to the Net and check these things for themselves, you could get rid of most of these calls,' says Martyn Daniels, strategic development director at Vista.
Several companies have made a name for themselves with this kind of service, such as courier firms Federal Express and UPS. But each strives to be different from its rivals, which can be confusing for customers. If a reader requests a book, the bookseller may not know who publishes it, and may wish to enquire about several titles at once. Booksellers don't want to have to flit from one publisher's Website to another.
'Trade users want to go in quickly, see the information they want and get on with their lives,' explains Daniels. 'They want a virtual one-stop shop, otherwise they'd go to a wholesaler.'
Vista has established PubEasy, an online community where publishers and distributors each have their own Website. Booksellers can either go direct to one of these or to a central index. A key element of the system is that all the publishers' or distributors' sites must look identical, and users can hop between them without having to log in again. The uniformity gives the impression that users are on a single site and makes it much easier to use, while still allowing publishers to maintain their own sites with their own data.
'Users say the really smart thing about the system is that everywhere you go it looks the same,' says Daniels. 'We've made it aesthetically as simple as possible. There's no ambiguity on the screen.'
Information is displayed on a single screen which is quick to access.
Extra details such as jacket designs, blurbs and sample chapters are available, but only if the bookseller wants them. The look and feel is deliberately very different from online bookshops such as Amazon.com and Blackwell's Online Bookshop, with plain text, minimal graphics, concise information and identical layouts on every screen.
Daniels is dismissive of the fancy graphics favoured by many consumer-oriented Websites - and some business sites, too. 'Most sites are designed by the "garage boys", straight out of college with no experience of business,' he says. 'Our business isn't about fancy graphics - they only slow down the internet. We did have a revolving globe, but we soon made it static so the page could be downloaded faster. Now we've removed it altogether to make the site even faster.'
Any graphics that are deemed essential are stored and displayed as efficiently as possible to increase the speed of navigation. And when users link to other sites, a separate session is created, so that when they return to PubEasy the screen can be re-displayed instantly.
Another myth about Websites is that they will make interaction between human beings unnecessary. In reality, this is unlikely. Websites are highly efficient for some tasks, such as comparing prices, obtaining product information, placing orders, or checking order or delivery status. But there often comes a time - in at least half of transactions, say the experts - when the customer wants to talk to a live person.
This occurs not only when things get complicated and they need some help and advice, but also the first time they deal with a company, when they need some psychological reassurance that these are 'nice people to do business with.'
At a basic level, this means including your phone number, fax number, address and a sprinkling of names of people in sales and marketing on your site. It's amazing how many Websites don't have this or make the visitor hunt through 15 different menus to find it. But it's also noticeable that even the most gung-ho electronic sellers, such as Dell, provide prominent phone numbers on their sites specifically for Web customers to call.
Alternatively, there are various ways of establishing two-way contact with the visitor while they are still visiting the Website. The simplest is text chat, which allows for real-time exchange of typed messages, like a private internet chat room. This is technically very simple, as it can be done via the customer's existing Web connection and requires no special hardware at their end.
Text chat works well for technical queries, especially between technical people, and it's efficient because often one operator at the company's end can handle several customers at once. Text chat is also ideal for deaf people, and it's worth including it specifically for them.
But most customers are likely to prefer voice contact and Websites are beginning to include callback facilities linked to telephone call centres.
In its simplest form, this means having an on-screen button which visitors can click. They type in their phone number, log off and an agent in the call centre phones them back, either dialling the number manually or via an automatic predictive dialler.
More sophisticated callback systems download an active element onto the customer's PC, which cuts off their internet session and uses their modem to dial the company. This has the advantage of being virtually instant, and also making the customer pay for the call if desired.
Simple callback gives a voice connection to the customer, but cuts off their internet connection. This is no good if the customer really wanted some guidance on filling in a form or navigating round the Website, or if the call centre agent wants to guide them around or show them a presentation.
If the customer has two phone lines or a mobile phone, the callback can be made on the other line, with the Net connection still intact. Then the agent can take control of the customer's browser and use it to show them pages on the Website, a technique known as show and tell.
Over a single line, the only way to show and tell is by using a voice over IP (VOIP) connection. As long as the customer's PC has a sound card, speakers and microphone (or an internet phone), the voice and data traffic can be carried on the same phone line via the customer's existing internet session. With a video camera, VOIP can even support crude video-conferencing.
The drawback is sound and video quality are not good, even on a 56K connection.
It could be five years before the equivalent of land-line sound quality is possible.
It's early days yet for these technologies, at least in Europe, but the experts are already getting excited about them. 'Consumers find technology such as VOIP a refreshing change from the usual lack of service you get over the Net,' says Stephen Wood, a consultant at research group Ovum.
'I think people will flock to it. It's the keystone which will make e-commerce viable for ordinary people.'
Integration with call centres raises another issue for Website designers: how to present a common image of the company across multiple channels, which may also eventually include interactive TV. The answer may be to use the same processes and tools to deliver customer interfaces in each medium.
'The processes carried out in the Web environment should be similar to those which are carried out in a call centre,' says Chris Luckett, principal consultant at KPMG.
But he warns that 'it will be a while before the truly intelligent Website is aligned with a call centre infrastructure'.
The courtship is already beginning, as businesses Java-enable their call centre systems and publish them on their Websites. This means internet users are effectively being asked the same questions and given the same information as they would if they phoned the company's telesales operation.
Call centre software is already being Web-enabled to support this.
Whatever resellers decide about integrating their Websites with the rest of their business, there are some basic rules, whether they design it yourself or get the professionals in.
Any fool can set up a Website, and many do. Software gizmos which claim to have you online in no time are fine for consumers. But Alex Barnett, sales and marketing director of London Website design company Bluewave, recommends businesses take professional advice rather than knocking up a site using a basic Web page authoring tool.
He says: 'These tools are a bit like saying, "Here's a product that will let you set up your own shop. It's got a wooden box and a table, and a carpet you can dye any colour". You're not going to stand out from anyone else or convey much about your business.'
That said, laying out a Website is rather like designing a shop. Just as eye-level displays shift more baked beans in a supermarket, so some positions on-screen grab visitors' attention - usually near the top left, where people naturally start reading.
Despite the emphasis on selling, a Website is as much a shop window as a checkout, with customers frequently doing their preliminary research online, but preferring to close the deal in person.
'Just because someone hasn't actually bought from your Website, it doesn't mean the site has failed,' says Barnett. 'A visit to the Website is now part of the buying process, and customers can easily be encouraged or put off.'
Simplicity and approachability are key, especially on your home page, where people may be seeing your site - and your business - for the first time. 'The trick is to make the site very easy to use,' he adds.
You need good keywords and everything should be self-explanatory. This extends to the 'architectural' layout of the site - which pages you put things on and how these are linked together. Visitors shouldn't have to guess what's behind a button called 'services', for example, so give a bit more explanation. Beware the temptation to organise the site according to your company's internal structure.
To most people, 'design' means fancy graphics, big pictures, animations, sound clips and so on. These are fine if you're Disney or Legoland and have a leisure image to promote, but for selling PCs and software they may do more harm than good, slowing down access and discouraging serious customers. If you must use graphics, keep file sizes small to reduce download times.
Simple layouts and colour schemes, easy-to-read typefaces which work in all the common browsers, and digestible amounts of information are key elements. The golden rule is: if it doesn't add value, don't do it.
Plain text on a white background is surprisingly popular with Net users, and many people turn off graphics to speed up access, so avoid having links with no explanatory text. And not everybody can access frames, especially now that palm computers and mobile phones are being Web-enabled, so if your site is frames based, offer a simple non-framed alternative.
Basic customer service issues are important, too. Make sure your site is reliable and available, as Web shoppers expect round-the-clock service, especially if they are in another time zone. Don't let the site become littered with dead or incorrect links, under construction pages or out-of-date information. Update it regularly and give the date when this was done. And check grammar and spelling.
Don't wait three weeks before answering customers' emails. Despite all the complaints about speed, users regard the internet as an almost instant medium and expect responses quickly - 24 hours is a long time in cyberspace.
Finally, don't confuse design with content. Just because the design of a site is simple, it doesn't mean the content needs to be small or superficial.
A good Website can present a huge amount of useful information, but only if it's structured so that visitors can find it, and so they're not overwhelmed with detail they don't want.
E-COMMERCE - IS IT SAFE?
Public confidence in Web-based trading is still shaky, with many consumers worried about breaches of privacy, catching viruses and whether they will ever receive their goods.
In March, the three UK Institutes of Chartered Accountants (ICAs) teamed up to offer a seal of approval for Websites, called WebTrust. Firms of accountants will vet companies that run Websites, which will then be allowed to display the WebTrust logo.
'The aim is to differentiate the good guys from the bad,' says Chris Howard, director of assurance services at the ICA for England and Wales. 'It tells consumers that this site is run by people who really exist and who will do what they say they will.'
The checkers must satisfy themselves that the company's management is serious about e-commerce and understands the issues. IT systems will be tested to ensure they are processing Web transactions correctly, and extensive security checks will be made. Business processes will also be tested, including fulfilment processes, complaints procedures and the safety of personal data.
The seal of approval will enable visitors to drill down to see the checkers' report, and checks will be repeated every three months. The process could be quite expensive, with a complex review costing about £15,000.
WebTrust is not unique, but is claimed to be the most comprehensive scheme of its kind. It was developed by accounting institutes in the US and Canada, from whom it has been licensed. UK accounting firms are now being trained and accredited to perform the reviews, and will start awarding seals of approval in late summer.
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