The Internet might be virtual, but customers live in physical space and often need to visit companies in the material world. Given this, geography determines business success in a very simple way: Customers can either find your locations 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.
A website's most fundamental purpose is to serve as a company's business card in cyberspace and say, "Here we are." Of course, a good website goes far beyond this simple function and supports customers in many other tasks. Nonetheless, it is important to retain this fundamental feature and help customers easily determine your real-world locations.
Two Research Studies
To assess the usability of store finders and locators on the Web, we conducted two rounds of usability studies, where a total of 25 users tested the location finders on 20 websites.
For both rounds of testing, we chose companies that represent a range of industries, from traditional retailers, financial institutions, and high-tech companies to restaurants and the post office:
Sites Tested In Study 1
Sites Tested In Study 2
American Automobile Association (AAA)
Bank of America
Charles Schwab & Co.
The Dow Chemical Company
Toys R Us
United States Postal Service
Each website represented a number of locations, ranging from the Dow Chemical Company's 141 manufacturing sites (at the time of Study 1) to the U.S. Postal Service's 37,000 post offices (at the time of Study 2). Most companies had about 1,000-2,000 locations.
In both rounds of testing, we asked users to find the company location closest to them (or closest to a specified address) and to get directions to that location. Sometimes, we also asked users to find a location that met certain special requirements, such as being open on a Sunday or carrying a certain product line.
Trends in Locator Usability
We conducted Study 1 seven years ago, so comparing the two rounds of testing allows us to assess long-term trends in locator usability. And wow, have there been changes.
Most strikingly, user success rates in finding and using the locators increased from 63% seven years ago to 96% now.
Given that the average success rate in our recent website testing was only 70%, 96% is an astoundingly high success rate. Of course, finding an appropriate location address is a very simple task compared to using other website services. Consider, for example, the much higher complexity of tasks such as managing your investments, researching automobile purchases and financing, deciding which hydraulic excavator best suits your copper mine, or even buying a birthday present for your nephew.
Still, it's great to see locator usability increase this much in only 7 years.
All is not perfect, however. Users accomplished only 64% of tasks easily. Thus, even though users directly failed only 4% of the time, they encountered difficulty with the locators 32% of the time. Particularly for a simple feature like the locator, it must be not only possible to accomplish the task, but also easy and pleasant to do so. On this stricter usability requirement, locators still have a ways to go.
Successfully using a locator involves three steps:
Finding the locator
Using the locator to find your desired location
Getting directions from your starting point to this location
All three steps must be easy if users are to complete the overall task successfully. One of the biggest reasons for the dramatic increase in locator usability in Study 2 was that the first step is now fairly easy because — as recommended — most sites offer clearly labeled links to their locators. Made-up or fancy link names are almost a thing of the past. In Study 1, only 30% of sites included an obvious link to the locator, whereas 90% of the sites in Study 2 did so.
Step 3 is also easier now, as most sites use better mapping services than we saw 7 years ago.
Step 2 is the main culprit in usability problems these days: The actual location finders are either too complex or they generate location listings that don't meet the needs of users.
Search as Locator Entry
Another big difference in Study 2 compared with Study 1 is the strong increase in search dominance. This is no surprise; we've found increasing search dominance in many other recent studies as well.
It's still striking that 73% of users went to a search engine (mainly Google) when we asked them to find a nearby location for a specific company. Only 13% went straight to that company's own website, while the remaining 13% went to a dedicated mapping service.
Given this changing behavior, we now have guidelines for search engine optimization (SEO) for the locator.
This changing behavior also raises a question: Should you eliminate the location finder from your own site, since so many people turn to search first? The answer is no, for two reasons:
As soon as users already on your site decide to do business with you, they should be able to easily access a location finder. Because they might make this decision on any page of your site, all pages should link to the locator.
Ideally, even people who start out at a search engine will be directed to location information on your site rather than on a third-party service. To make this option possible, your site must have a locator.
Many New Guidelines
The new research confirmed all of the 21 usability guidelines in our report's first edition (though we have refined our interpretation of some of them in light of changing user behavior and changing norms for Web design). Even though locators are now easier to use, the basic requirements remain the same and any site that violates the original guidelines will be in trouble.
A better user experience across the Web raises the bar for individual websites. While the original guidelines are still necessary, they are no longer sufficient. As users demand better sites, companies must do more to deliver an ever-better user experience. Based on our new research, there are now 56 usability guidelines to follow if you want to meet or exceed best practices for location finders.
Using the (admittedly rough) metric of number of guidelines, the requirements for a good locator are now 167% higher than they were 7 years ago. That's probably about par for the general increase in the usability level that a site needs to be deemed good.
The full report about the usability of store finders and locators with 56 design guidelines is available for download. It is published as a volume within the report series about e-commerce usability but can also be read as a stand-alone report. It does include design advice for non-e-commerce sites (e.g., retail chains, banks, etc) as well as e-commerce.