HCI and the Web

X.5 September + October 2003
Page: 47
Digital Citation

Books and mortar

William Hudson

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One of the Web's best-known booksellers appears to have become bored with the idea of selling books. The trickle of products other than books has burgeoned into a torrent flooding from its pages. In the early days, paddling among CDs and DVDs when trying to find books was not a particular problem. Few categories overlapped, so by searching for a few words in the title, you could usually find what you were looking for. But no more. Entering the words "easy RUP"1 results in the following product offerings (in order of appearance):

  • Safety cans under Scientific Supplies
  • Stirrups under Pet Toys and Supplies (horses are pets?)
  • More stirrups under Lifestyle and Gifts
  • Air beds and pumps under Lifestyle and Gifts

But no books. Okay, I did not say I was looking for a book, so I will give the site the benefit of the doubt. However, searching Books for "easy RUP" yields:

  • Three Magazine Subscriptions: Quick and Easy Painting, Quick and Easy Crochet, and Easy Home Cooking (apparently not quick)
  • Three Toys: a 24-piece puzzle bundle pack, a 10' x 30" pool (it is bigger than it sounds), and a sand and water table
  • Three Books, including the one I was after.

By now I am pretty annoyed. I specifically said I was looking for a book and I am still being offered products that fail to qualify, even by the most generous definition. When I mention my indignation to friends and colleagues, they relate it to the experience of being made to walk around supermarkets looking for the things you need to buy as opposed to the things the store wants to sell you. A resigned sigh usually follows.

But hang on; there are some problems with this line of thought. The first is that I was not just browsing or being asked to walk past shelves containing irrelevant products. I asked one of the world's foremost book retailers for a title that it could easily find if it felt inclined (other sites I have tried find it the first time). Instead, the retailer chose to offer me very weak matches based on a few letters from the words I entered. Secondly, the e in e-commerce exists for a reason. Web sites are not real stores, and I know that I should not have to endure clumsy attempts at cross-selling before I have even become a customer. As readers of Paco Underhill's excellent Why We Buy will know, bricks-and-mortar retailing is a pretty complex business. Not surprisingly, there are many parallels in e-commerce, with a few techniques at which Web sites really excel; adjacencies, add-ons, and point-of-purchase sales have much more dynamic and relevant equivalents on the Web; product information can be much more detailed than any printed carton; and shopper recommendations and feature comparison facilities have almost no real-world equivalents. Notice that there is one important point these techniques have in common: they are (or can be) passive. In most cases customers will have found a product they are interested in and can then choose whether to explore the myriad additional opportunities that we are offering them to part with their money. Customers who know exactly what they want or who are in a hurry can ignore these extra sections or links.

In contrast, techniques that actively prevent customers from finding what they are looking for are an electronic form of "bait-and-switch": the site holds out the promise of providing a product they are interested in but tries hard to sell them something else instead. This is a bad premise for improving customer loyalty. Customers' confidence wanes with each irrelevant item that is offered and their frustration mounts with every unnecessary mouse click or keystroke. With so many passive e-commerce tools to choose from it is surprising that such a high-risk strategy has found its way to an e-commerce pioneer. I hope it does not catch on as a trend, or I will be buying my books at the butcher's in the future.

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William Hudson >Principal Consultant >Syntagm Ltd >whudson@syntagm.co.uk

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1Rational Unified Process, from The Rational Unified Process Made Easy, by Per Kroll and Philippe Kruchten (Addison-Wesley, 2003). The Rational Unified Process is almost always referred to as RUP. It is not a book I would recommend from a usability or user-centered design point of view, but RUP is becoming increasing popular as a software development method.

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