Archive for September, 2008

Conversion Optimization and Beer

This was just a Friday post waiting to happen. Bryan Eisenberg at FutureNow wrote a post likening conversion optimization to the song 99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall.

Key points:

  • Repetition is good: In the song, you keep repeating yourself over and over. With conversion optimization, you must keep repeating the same cycle: analyzing the numbers and striving for continuous improvement.
  • Know where you’re going: There’s a clear goal in the song–to drink all the beer! Same with conversion optimization–you must have a goal and stick to it.
  • Do it together: singing alone is no fun. Optimization alone just doesn’t work, and that kills all the fun.
  • Numbers matter: in the song, someone has to keep track of what number you’re on, just like conversion. Someone has to watch the numbers.
  • 99 (+) items: lots of beer to keep track of, lots of conversion items to keep track of, but if you keep whittling away at the list one by one, it will steer you towards your goal.

He missed one, though: everything is better with beer! Make sure you stop to celebrate your accomplishments. It doesn’t have to be with beer, but when you stop to look back and appreciate what you’ve done, your team has renewed energy and excitement to move forward. Since the process never ends, you need that periodic reminder that what you’re doing makes a difference.


You have to read this page

Have you ever considered using white text on a black background on one of your web sites? Black backgrounds are very effective for showing off pictures, but really, really, really bad for reading. Why? Read this page to find out. Really read it. All the way down to the end. You’ll never want to make that mistake again.

Thanks to Bryan Eisenberg at FutureNow for pointing to the page.

Integrating Shipping Into Your Web Site or Application

Ever thought about adding shipping tools to your web site or software application? This is a great way to make your e-commerce web site more usable, by including shipping rates up front, and then providing automated package tracking notifications.

I’ve known for a while that there were “shipping APIs” out there, but haven’t really known the details of how they work. I had several questions:

  • What services do they offer? Are they all the same?
  • What’s involved in integrating them?
  • What programming language(s) can we use to integrate them?
  • Are some easier to integrate than others?

I’ve been investigating shipping application programming interfaces (APIs) and the programs that the major shipping carriers offer and this is what I’ve found so far.


FedEx offers a Ship Manager API that allows developers to integrate FedEx pricing, shipping, tracking, and reporting services into their web site or online application. The Ship Manager API enables developers to create custom applications to:

  • Determine service availability and estimate the cost of delivery
  • Request a courier for pickup
  • Print FedEx shipping labels
  • E-mail the customer when a package has been shipped and include the tracking number
  • Integrate tracking data into your own order management system
  • Create custom shipping reports

Language options are HTML, C++, Java, or Visual Basic. FedEx requires developers to register before they can download the API software, and once they’ve integrated it, you must contact FedEx and provide your code to allow them to test your application before going live. FedEx also provides test scripts for you to test your integration. Any third-party developer who is integrating the FedEx Shipping Manager into their own application must apply to be a compatible solutions provider, get approved, integrate, and then submit their code to Client Server Labs (CSL) for verification.


UPS offers several services that developers can integrate, most in XML, but a couple are also offered in an HTML version:

  • Tracking Tool (offered via HTML and XML): tracks the delivery status of a package. There are actually two tools: a traditional tracking tool and a signature tracking tool that includes delivery confirmation with electronic signature and address delivered to.
  • Address Validation Tool (XML only): allows you to verify a shipping address at the time of order.
  • UPS Rates & Service Selection (XML): provides rates and allows end users to select the most appropriate service for their needs. They have a separate tool for International shipment pricing that generates cost estimates for duties, taxes, and transportation, locate compliance and licensing information, and identify restricted trading parties.
  • UPS Shipping (XML): Integrates UPS web-based shipping into your corporate environment.

Independent software vendors and application service providers who want to integrate the UPS tools into their own software must apply to the UPS Ready program.


DHL offers several tools that allow developers to integrate DHL shipping into their web sites or software applications via XML APIs, including:

  • ShipIT: for domestic and International shipping from US addresses. Your web site or software can transmit shipment information to DHL in a standardized format and receive a real-time response that includes all the data required to format and print a return shipment label, including the assigned tracking number, and label image (If desired)
  • ReturnIT: for domestic and international returns. Similarly to ShipIT, you transmit return shipment information to DHL with similar response.
  • RateIT: get pricing for domestic or international DHL shipping. Send a request to DHL and receive estimates for all DHL services (Express 10:30 AM, Express, Next afternoon, Second day and Ground).
  • TrackIT: track DHL packages via your own web site or software. Request and receive the:
    • Detailed status and tracking history of a DHL shipment
    • Delivery signature (JPEG image) and the date and time of delivery
  • DHL also has an Electronic Data Interchange that allows you to get shipment status updated up to 18 times per day.

Corporate developers must have their application certified by DHL support. Independent software vendors must have their software certified by DHL in order to be recognized as a DHL third-party provider. 

 US Postal Service

The USPS offers several web tools for integrating shipping options into your web site or application (and somehow it was easier to find and understand than all the corporate hoo-haa–way to go, USPS!) Here’s what they offer:

  • Address information: You have to request permission to use these APIs, but once granted, you can use address standardization to correct errors in customer or staff-entered addresses, do a zip code lookup or conversely, a city/state lookup based on the zip code. 
  • Delivery information: track packages shipped via Express Mail, Global Express Guaranteed, or Global Express Mail®, check the delivery status of packages shipped with Delivery Confirmation™ service, Signature Confirmation™ service, Certified Mail or Registered Mail, or check the expected delivery time between two zip codes for other USPS mail services.
  • Rate calculators: for both domestic and international shipping.
  • Print shipping labels: for delivery or signature confirmation, priority or express mail, and international shipping (including customs forms). Allow customers to print a return shipping label from their own computer.

Service providers can register to become a USPS Web Tool Service Provider. Once USPS has verified your solution, you can be listed on the USPS site as a service provider.

ProgrammableWeb lists several more shipping APIs and the mashups that have resulted from each, complete with user ratings (in some cases).

Seventh Generation Let me Down

I was reading a blog entry on Treehugger this morning, ignoring the banner ads as most people do, when somehow an ad caught my eye. It does happen once in a blue moon! This one was for Seventh Generation, and it intrigued me because it was different than most ads that are trying to sell you something. The message on this one was “support ingredient transparency by creating your own ingredient tree”. Hmmm, I thought, what’s an ingredient tree? and I clicked on it.

The Ad that Got me to Click:

The Landing Page:

I landed on a page that was completely blank except for a copyright blurb and a link to their privacy policy.  There’s nothing to click (except the privacy policy, which I’m not terribly interested in reading), nothing to do, nothing to enter, no information at all! It’s a complete nothing page!

How much do you suppose they spent on that ad? How much did they spend testing the landing page? I’m guessing they spent a lot more on the ad than on the QA process. They couldn’t possibly have INTENDED the user to go to a completely blank page, could they?

Come on, Seventh Generation, I expected better things from you!

Use Verbs on your Buttons

Jeff Saxton at FutureNow pointed me to a post by Dmitry at Usability Post with a really good point.

It’s more usable if, instead of the traditional “Yes” and “No” buttons, you use strong verbs such as “Save” and “Don’t Save”. I don’t even have to show you the example dialog box he shows (but I will, anyway) for you to understand what the “Save” and “Don’t Save” buttons mean–where with the “Yes” and “No” buttons, you would have to read the question on the dialog box and think about what you are saying yes or no to.

What’s more usable?

windows save dialog

Or this:
OS X save dialog

Great point! Thanks for bringing it up, Dmitry!

Offering extra service to your Online customers: Domino’s Delivers!

If you’re a store that normally does business by phone or face-to-face, offering a little extra something for your online customers is a great way to encourage and stimulate that channel of business. One area where there’s definitely room to take advantage of the online channel is pizza delivery.

I must be a total dinosaur because I just, for the first time, tried ordering Domino’s pizza online. (Actually, I’m really into saving the earth and eating our own homegrown food, so ordering or eating out is a rarety for us.) The kids and I were really excited to encounter the “pizza tracker”–once you’ve placed your order, a “pizza tracker” appears, showing the five stages of pizza preparation and delivery, and what stage your pizza is in. What an great idea –this is a fantastic example of “delivering” a little extra to your online customers!

As the pizza progresses through the process, the stage it’s in pulsates in red (sort of like a hot pizza oven). So I could tell at a glance when the pizza was being prepared, baked, boxed, and finally delivered. When the pizza guy drove up, I was ready for him. I had the tip all ready, the table cleared and set, and the daughter well on her way into her homework (except she kept getting distracted by that cool pizza tracker thing).

Domino’s does a great job gathering feedback from this channel as well. Just below the pizza tracker is a “rate our service”–a survey, but it’s so easy to fill out, it doesn’t feel like a survey. Since I kept the site open throughout the entire delivery process, it was still open after we’d finished eating, and as I went to close it, I was drawn to fill out the “how did we do?” portion of the site by clicking on the stars. They add some great personal touches by giving the names of the delivery person and the cook as you’re clicking on stars to “rate” them, then you can add a personal note (or not) and send it off. I’ve got to say, I will never order pizza by phone again! This online experience was waaaaaay too fun.

If you’re a multi-channel store, what are you doing to keep your online customers engaged? What little extra are you doing that keeps them coming back?

Experiences with DimDim Free Web Conferencing

I decided of the three free web conferencing tools I’d looked at, I’d decided to give DimDim a try. The first time I tried it, I had issues with sharing my desktop, but I heard back from their customer service folks and they said to check the box that says “do not show this again”, so I did. The 2nd time I tried it, I still had to click the “Allow” button three times on the popup (after clicking the “do not show this again” checkbox) before it shared my desktop, but the third time I tried it, the popup didn’t even show up. It just worked!

What I like about DimDim:

  • You don’t have to install any software to attend a meeting! That’s awesome! The only thing that requires a software install is sharing your desktop. Attendees don’t even have to register. You only have to register on the site if you want to host a meeting.
  • They do seem to have given some thought to usability and the customer carewords factor. It’s got a very simple layout, with large, easy-to-find-and-click buttons and clear labels. They use icons very effectively to help users interpret the areas of the screen. The features are named with user-friendly words. You can see all the meetings you’ve scheduled, and very easily start or join a meeting.
  • Web conferencing is really easy. I’ve only done a couple quick tests, but we found we could draw on the whiteboard, and my participants could see and hear me via the video/microphone on my computer without dialing into a conference line. (I couldn’t hear them because neither of my helpers had a microphone.) There is a conference line available, though, so how does that work with the folks who are just using microphones on their computers? Not sure.
  • Chatting was effective and easy. I would say something through the microphone, and my helpers would chat back at me.
  • You can easily see who’s there in the list of participants on the left. I also discovered participants can change their “mood” to agree (thumbs up), or disagree (thumbs down), leave for a moment (be right back icon), etc. I’m not sure how many users will find that little feature because it’s not obvious, but perhaps it’s not that necessary either.

What I don’t like:

  • It’s awkward how the desktop sharing software installation happens without warning during the meeting. My friend was really confused when I quit talking and “disappeared” on her just when I said I was going to share my desktop with her. I didn’t know it was going to happen, either, because they’d been so adamant about “no software to install” on the web site, so it totally took me by surprise. 
    • A better way to handle this might be to inform the meeting host right away when they schedule or initiate the meeting that they will need to install some software in order to share their desktop during the meeting, and would they like to install it ahead of time. If it’s at the beginning of a spontaneous meeting, you need to inform the participants what’s happening (or better yet, let the leader of the web conference say something to their participants before starting the install). This is obviously something they didn’t usability test this or they would have noticed a glaring problem there.
  • It’s great that DimDim is browser based, but then again, the problem is that it’s browser based, so if for some reason your browser crashes (even if the reason is unrelated to DimDim), your meeting is gone. That’s scary if you’re giving a demo of some web-based application, for example. Maybe in some cases, installing software may be a good thing, at least for the presenter.
  • For some reason, my boss wasn’t able to join the meeting when I tried to use it for a real meeting. Yet, my other coworker (who’s in San Fran) was able to get into the meeting even after I’d given up and ended the meeting. My boss says he tried 4 times over 10 minutes and it wouldn’t let him in. I’m not sure what’s up with that, but now I can’t use it for any meetings with my boss. Sigh.

That’s a short summary of my brief experiences with DimDim. Overall, it’s a very usable tool, and it seems to work pretty well, once you have the desktop sharing software installation taken care of.