5 Tips to Avoid a Health Crisis on Your E-Commerce Site
The now notorious Healthcare.gov marketplace website seems to have returned consumers to the 1990s, a period when trying to buy anything online was frequently challenging and frustrating. In its early days, e-commerce struggled because the internet originally had been developed for transmitting information, not conducting secure and easy transactions. As technology advanced, however, and retailers gained a better understanding of how consumers wanted to interact on the web, companies modified their e-commerce sites and thrived online.
Clearly, developers of the healthcare marketplace didn't have a full understanding of the way consumers would react to the launch of the site. In its first day of operations, for example, 2.8 million people tried to register on the site, and whether the result of overwhelming volumes or simply faulty coding, Healthcare.gov essentially crashed. Weeks later, most visitors still were unable to enter the site to shop for healthcare insurance.
These same types of pressures led to the demise of many e-commerce sites in the early days of online shopping. For example, a company would promote special products and prices for the holiday season and then discover that it was unable to fulfill the high volume of orders that ensued. Angry consumers went elsewhere and those online companies failed. Even some well-known global brands has issues like this in their first forays into e-commerce, which they've corrected over time. On the other hand, retailers flourished when they designed their sites in ways that appealed to the shopper's needs and were capable of reliably conducting transactions and shipping or downloading purchases.
What could Healthcare.gov — or your own e-commerce team — do to improve performance and attract eager consumers? Consider starting with the following approaches that can help your site both create and meet demand:
1. Load test your website. Before introducing or expanding your e-commerce site, test it by simulating a big surge in volume that stresses your technology. You'll discover any significant problems in these pre-launch simulations, giving you the opportunity to address them before consumers visit the site.
2. Lead with information that helps shoppers make a decision. Ensure that you understand what's most important to your customer. If the product's appearance is crucial, be sure your homepage provides multiple images. For items that consumers compare based on performance, product specifications should be placed up front.
3. Make your site easy to enter. Avoid requiring visitors to register and log in as a first step — that demands a commitment the consumer may not yet be ready to make. (In the case of Healthcare.gov, it appears as if the decision to force consumers to sign in to browse created a bottleneck, causing log-in issues.) Allow visitors to enter as guests and enroll as a final step in the transaction process once they know your products and processes.
4. Create unique product descriptions. Don't rely on generic descriptions furnished by a product's manufacturer; reshape those descriptions to fit your particular audience and the tone of your website to leave an impression that's in line with the goals of the overall site. In the case of Healthcare.gov, moving beyond standard product descriptions would not only facilitate a more personal connection with consumers, but would also make it easier to find the right products via search engine optimization. With a product's unique properties in the product description, consumers would more easily find the specific products they require by searching for those characteristics from a search engine.
5. Create positive community sentiment. Right now most consumers expect a poor shopping experience on Healthcare.gov, and the government is trying to manage perception as it addresses the site's problems. Like the government, it's very important for retail brands to proactively monitor and manage customer perceptions. Online shoppers rely on reviews that appear on individual e-commerce sites, on separate review sites and in social networking posts to help inform their buying decisions.
Do all you can to make ratings and reviews on your site easy for consumers to find and create. Solicit reviews through your social media sites, and make it possible for consumers to share products and likes on sites like Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest. Take every opportunity to create a more personal connection with customers, creating a two-way conversation, and address any product or service issues that consumers bring to you in a timely and public manner.
The first step in building any website should be building an understanding of the people who will use it. That knowledge will help you ensure your site generates profits instead of problems.
Kevin Simons is the manager of user experience at MICROS, which develops point-of-sale, e-commerce and enterprise information system software for retailers.
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