:: By Paul Fu, Alibaba.com ::
Many technology trends for 2014 have already been deduced based on data and observations from 2013 and prior years. Some areas of focus include smarter TVs, wearable devices like smart watches, personal clouds, better natural language search capability, and revolutionary 3-D printing.
Trends can be helpful predictors of where both businesses and consumers will be focusing in the near and more distant futures. Smart small business owners realize their websites are a critical component in not only perception but functionality. So what trends should they be aware of to keep pace and improve a website’s user experience in 2014?
The two most interesting components to evaluate for 2014 are mobile and cross-border sales.
According to IBM’s 2013 holiday benchmark report, mobile traffic grew to 39.7 percent of all online traffic on Black Friday. Mobile sales were also strong, reaching 21.8 percent of total online sales, an increase of nearly 43 percent year-over-year. Consumers love the "instant-on" feature of mobile devices as it enables immediate browsing. Other research has found that 60 percent of desktop computer-based Web research starts on a mobile device. To that end, mobility is playing a more important role in e-commerce. Businesses can implement a few simple things to improve the user experience for consumers who visit their site from mobile devices.
Because creating a mobile app is costly, a small business's mobile site has many advantages over an app including its immediate availability, better compatibility to different devices, ease of upgrading, and relatively low cost to build and maintain. Avoiding the investment of app creation is the way to go until advances in development allow for improved return on investment (ROI). To ensure businesses can engage its customers when they browse via a wireless device, businesses needs to ensure its websites are compatible with mobile browsers.
For example, if a website uses “mouse over” for navigation, because a touch screen doesn’t support mouse utilities, the site also has to function without a mouse. Another example is to avoid popups on a website, as a small popup will force the user to zoom in and scroll in several directions to hunt for the popup to dismiss it.
Many different screen sizes exist for mobile devices and a website must work well with all of them. Ensuring the layout and content is flexible will enable its functionality on a variety of devices. For example, when screen size changes, more important blocks of information are displayed higher on the page if the width is flexible.
Smooth entry to mobile site
It’s essential to ensure the entry pages for a website work cleanly with mobile devices. For example, if providing a link in marketing emails, make sure the linked page is mobile friendly.
As many populations within developed countries across the globe become more able to purchase consumer goods due to an increase in disposable income as well as access to the world at large, opportunities for online sales grow. Consumers in these emerging markets are eager to use online resources to buy everything from clothing to electronics that aren’t available to them locally.
Indicators of cross-border opportunities are everywhere. To take advantage of cross-border possibilities, here are three simple actions a small business can take to increase its website’s ability to capture sales: market understanding, machine translation and culture compatibility.
Understand your Potential Market
It is important to first determine where a user is coming from. Many Web analytics tools can track a user's IP address to provide location information. Also, conducting research to identify keywords that can be used to entice a target audience to purchase products or services can improve search engine optimization by incorporating them into website content.
Machine Translation Friendly
Many cross-border sales are completed with the help of a machine translator. Some users browse websites through Google Translate or by using Chrome’s browser translation function. If investing in multi-language sites is too expensive, small businesses can make their site more machine translation friendly. For example, use relatively simple English for more accurate translation. Also, because machine translators can’t read text contained in graphics, websites should avoid using graphics for navigation components such as tabs, section header and buttons.
It is essential to review proposed copy, color and graphics before posting on a website to ensure it is appropriate for the target market. For example, a common North American “okay” hand gesture made by connecting the thumb and index fingers in a circle and holding the other fingers straight is considered obscene in Latin America. Taking the time to check cultural sensitivities will pay off.
Within the next few years, these two critical trends (mobile and cross-border sales) will be seen as standard and commonplace among successful businesses with a significant online presence. The time is now to update and adapt, to ensure emerging sales opportunities are not lost as early adopters step in to take the bulk of market share.
Paul Fu, director of user experience at Alibaba.com. He leads a team of developers and designers in the U.S. and China that implements changes to Alibaba sites.
Fu has a Ph.D. in Human Factors in Industrial Engineering from Purdue University, and M.S. and B.S. degrees from Tianjin University in China. He is the co-author of the Chinese-language book Human Computer Interaction: User Centered Design.