Magazine article American Banker

How Consumer Research Drives Web Site Design

Magazine article American Banker

How Consumer Research Drives Web Site Design

Article excerpt

For executives in charge of making the Internet a vital channel, attracting customers to their bank's Web site is only half the battle. The other half is getting them to stay there and conduct more banking business online.

These days, more banks are taking cues from consumer-product companies, which have long relied on focus groups and in-depth surveys to guide new product development. Now bank researchers are taking their notebooks into usability labs, and even into consumers' homes, to figure out how to design sites customers will keep using.

National City Corp., for example, conducted a modern day form of anthropological study for the latest redesign of its site by watching customers at their home computers as they navigated the bank's Web site. And Wachovia Corp. runs a usability lab that has a two-way mirror to view customers as they move through the site.

Such efforts are aimed at overcoming one of the biggest pitfalls of selling banking products: their complexity. Bank insiders often do not realize how little consumers know about them, said Steve Ellis, a partner at Change Sciences Group Inc. of Irvington, N.Y., which studies and benchmarks Web sites.

Home equity products offer a good example, he said. Few banks follow the best practice of explaining up front the two main types loans and credit lines and many consumers are confused about them.

"You simply need to answer questions in a way regular folks can understand," Mr. Ellis said. "It's really hard for a lot of organizations to do."

Scott Linabarger, a senior vice president and the manager of Web marketing at National City in Cleveland, echoed that view. The biggest challenge in building a Web site is the "hubris of thinking you know what the customer wants without asking," he said.

National City has tried to sidestep that pitfall by putting customer research at the front and center of its Web site design. Its efforts helped it generate $7 billion of account applications in 2004, up from none in 2000. Its site ranked third among the 14 bank sites in Change Sciences' second-quarter 2004 benchmark of online customer acquisition practices.

For the latest redesign, National City conducted wide-ranging research. It interviewed customers in their homes as they banked online, taking note of mundane things like what they kept in their desk drawers and whether there was a calculator on the desk. "We wanted to see how online banking fits into their lives," Mr. Linabarger said.

The company also interviewed customers who were shown preliminary mockups of new Web pages. And it used a technique called card sorting, in which customers are asked to arrange cards describing various parts of a process in a way that makes sense to them. National City's Web designers use the research to see how customers make connections, Mr. Linabarger said. "You realize in many cases how wrong you were."

National City's overall goal is to make it as easy as possible to for customers to find new products, evaluate them, and apply, Mr. Linabarger said. "We've seen over and over that you lose consumers at almost every step of the process," he said.

The bank examines Web logs and other traffic analyses to evaluate its processes. If it sees considerable drop at a particular step, it knows there is a problem, such as unclear language or an unexpected question, at that spot, Mr. Linabarger said.

Wachovia, which ranked fifth in Change Sciences' benchmark, also relies heavily on customer research in designing its Web site.

Wachovia runs a usability lab in which engineers put consumers through various online tasks while watching them through a two-way mirror. It conducts 25 to 30 such tests a year, studying 10 to 20 people in each test, said Jason Ward, the director of its interactive design group.

The company conducts tests "anytime we don't know how to create the right experience" on matters ranging from site redesign or the best sequence for resetting a password, Mr. …

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