Summary: When we asked users to find a nearby store, office, dealership, or other outlet based on information provided at a parent company's website, users succeeded only 63% of the time. On average, the 10 sites we studied complied with less than half of our 21 usability guidelines for locator design.
The Internet may be virtual, but customers live in physical space and often need to visit companies in the real world. Given this, geography determines business success in a very simple way: Customers can either identify and find your location or they cannot.
Websites play a major role in helping customers find their way to company locations, including branches, stores, offices, dealers, and other outlets such as ATMs, package drop-off points, or facilities that accept return goods for e-commerce sites. Whenever customers need to transact business at a physical location, a company's website should help them find the most convenient location that offers the services they need.
To assess the usability of location finders on the Web, we conducted usability studies of website locators for 10 major companies: Andersen, the American Automobile Association (AAA), Bank of America, BMW, Caterpillar, Charles Schwab & Co., The Dow Chemical Company, Toys R Us, Verizon, and Wells Fargo. The number of locations represented by each website ranged from a few hundred to several thousand.
The bottom line: On average across the 10 sites, users successfully found appropriate locations 63% of the time .
An average success rate of 63% is fairly high relative to many of our other Web design usability studies. For example, we measured a 56% success rate in a recent study of people shopping on e-commerce websites and a 60% success rate in our study of professional journalists trying to find PR information . In studies of more complex Web applications or big intranets, we usually find success rates well below 50% .
So, one way of looking at the current findings is that a 63% success rate is one of the highest we have measured in our Web usability studies. On the other hand, a success rate of 63% implies a failure rate of 37% . That's a lot of customers to lose because they can't find your store, office, or dealership.
One Strike, and You're Out
Users attempting to find appropriate location information through a website face three challenges: finding the locator, operating the locator, and finding the best location and how to get there. Unfortunately, if they fail any one of these challenges, users will be unable to find the location .
Getting location information can be particularly difficult on sites that sell online, because online stores tend to appropriate the natural vocabulary used to describe physical stores. In clicks-and-mortar designs, it's often difficult to locate the mortar.
In our study, Toys R Us failed miserably because www.toysrus.com has been co-branded with www.amazon.com. Even though Amazon is usually a great site, the Toys R Us area was so oriented toward e-commerce that the vast majority of our users never found the link to the physical stores. The link was buried on the fifth screen from the top (on a standard home-user screen of 800x600 pixels) and vaguely labeled "Learn more about Toys R Us, Inc.," instead of something more descriptive like "Locate the Toys R Us store nearest you."
Best Locator: Charles Schwab
Although we were not conducting a competitive analysis that aimed at anointing a winner, one site did have outstanding usability in locator design: Charles Schwab & Co. , a major stock broker. The site's locator design succeeded in three key areas:
- It was easy to get to the locator from the homepage: Users simply followed the "Visit a branch" link.
- The locator tool functioned like a simple search and was easy to use. Also, entering a street address was optional, thus addressing users' privacy concerns.
- The site made good use of overview maps, while also providing detailed maps and directions.
Schwab scored a 75% compliance rate with our 21 usability guidelines for locator design. This level of compliance is almost unheard of for websites, which usually follow less than half of established usability guidelines. Indeed, in our study of 10 locator designs, the average guidelines compliance rate was 49% . The worst of the bunch was BMW, which scored a dismal compliance rate of 23% and had a 0% success rate in the test.
There was a clear connection between following the usability guidelines and having a design that supports user success. In fact, the correlation between guidelines compliance and success rate is very strong at R 2 = .61, indicating that the guidelines account for 61% of the variability in users' ability to use these websites. Other factors account for the remaining 39% of the variability. For example, it is easier to present options if a company has few locations. Also, as always in usability, details matter, and it is important to consider all design aspects and make them as simple and easy to use as possible.
The data provide a compelling argument for complying with usability guidelines. Each time you comply with one more guideline, you increase user success by 7% on average. When you consider the financial gain associated with getting 7% more customers into your stores, it's easy to justify the small cost of improving locators to meet usability guidelines.
Schwab scored a 100% success rate in our user testing. However, this does not mean the site is perfect. It does violate a few usability guidelines, though the violations did not prevent test users from completing their test tasks. For example, Schwab's location finder works only for American branches, and does not have a link for finding branches overseas. Because we only tested Americans users in this particular study, this usability issue was not a problem. Overseas customers would not be so lucky: To find European offices, you have to go Schwab's Europe page and find the less-than-obvious "Service Channels" link.
Read More: 56 Design Guidelines
142-page usability study report that contains the 56 design guidelines for improving locators, along with detailed examples of locator designs that worked and those that didn't.
(The link is to the new edition of the report, including newer research than covered in this article.)