If you're a business or UX professional trying to decide how to focus your efforts to have the most impact, it's helpful to know which types of brands have the greatest opportunity to improve their online UX. To answer that question, it helps to first expand our view beyond the online world to understand which types of brands are expected to offer rich experiences in general (whether online through their websites, or offline in their stores).
Four factors that bear on customer expectations
- Customers don't care about all brands equally. Even some brands that help them solve essential problems (e.g., heating their homes or feeding their families) are simply taken for granted. However, brands that serve a symbolic role in customers' lives—the brands that help people express their identity, tastes, and interests—garner greater interest. Customers tend to implicitly expect richer experiences when shopping brands that help them express some aspect of their identities. The identity-related qualities of a brand are intangible and are, in a way, invisible features of the brand's products. It takes a rich experience to bring those qualities to life and make them resonate with customers.
- Some brands present customers with high-involvement, high-risk purchase decisions (e.g., buying a car). Customers typically want to analyze a wealth of information to help make the right decision. As their need for information increases, their need to have that information presented in a richer, more readily intelligible way also increases.
- Certain brands, by their very nature, offer customers high levels of human interaction and product interaction prior to purchase (e.g., when buying a computer). The greater the level of interaction, the greater the potential and expectation for a richer experience.
- Some brands are able to envelop their buyers. When you go through the door of a retail store, for instance, you're walking into the physical incarnation of the brand—it's all around you. Customers implicitly expect richer experiences from brands that feature enveloping environments.
Verticals where rich offline shopping experiences are the most prevalent
Some industries or verticals are more likely than others to contain brands that:
- Garner high interest due to their identity-building qualities
- Are high involvement
- Have high levels of human interaction and product interaction
- Feature enveloping environments
The strongest examples that come to mind are:
- Automotive (e.g., shopping for a new car at a dealership)
- Retail (e.g., shopping for clothes at an apparel store)
- Education (e.g., visiting schools as part of choosing a college)
- Real Estate (e.g., shopping for a home and walking through the models)
Within each of these verticals, brands have spent decades creating rich offline experiences. They've done such a good job that we have to come to implicitly expect rich experiences when shopping these verticals. Think about shopping for a new car, for example. It's a self-expressive, high-involvement purchase made in an engaging showroom with lots of personal assistance and a hands-on test drive. All of this adds to a rich offline experience.
The offline–online gap
If you're wondering where you should focus your efforts to have the most impact, look for brands with online experiences that don't yet match the richness of the offline experience they've spent decades honing. When a company has a significant gap between its offline and online experiences, customer expectations are not met, brand differentiation is diminished, and business is lost.
When your experience of a company's website falls short of the offline experience you've come to expect, you lose your motivation to complete the purchase online. If there's a retail outlet nearby, you may abandon the website with the plan of visiting the store to feel comfortable making the purchase. You wouldn't be alone; MIT's Technology Review (citing Jupiter Research) reports that for every $1 consumers spend online, they spend $6 dollars offline as a result of research they conducted on the Internet. But what about those times you don't get around to visiting the store, or it's simply too far away? Those become lost sales. Even if you do make the trip, it still feels like a preventable inconvenience, and like the brand has let you down. And what about those times you do put up with the website experience and make the purchase online? You may be left with an uneasy feeling, wondering if you made the right decision, and with a less favorable impression of the brand.
The greatest gaps
Drawing on my own observations, I estimated the size of the online–offline experience gaps in 13 key verticals.
The greatest gaps I identified are in retail, education, and healthcare. Within these verticals, companies have a huge opportunity to improve UX, especially relative to competitors in their verticals. Closing the online–offline gap improves customer satisfaction, enhances brand differentiation, and prevents lost sales.
It's important to note that not all brands within "big gap" verticals are expected to offer a rich experience. Brands that emphasize low price are a key exception. In these cases people expect to forgo the rich experience in exchange for low prices.
But as you'll see in the next section, "big gap" brands are failing to offer online experiences that are differentiated from the experiences offered by low-price brands.
I recently went shopping for a jacket in both the offline and the online world, first at Patagonia and Walmart stores, and then at patagonia.com and walmart.com. Patagonia is one of my favorite brands, but even the strongest brands have opportunities to improve their online UX.
The shopping experience at the Patagonia store was noticeably richer than Patagonia's online experience. The store experience provided a livelier ambiance and greater opportunities to interact with the product and with helpful employees. I found the Patagonia employees to be enthusiastic about the brand and capable of answering tough questions like, "which of these jackets provides more warmth and more breathability?" Although patagonia.com provides a richer experience than most outdoor apparel websites I've visited, the online experience didn't give me as much confidence to make a purchase as the offline experience did. Online, I struggled to choose between four different jackets and worried I'd make the wrong choice.
Patagonia and Walmart are two brands at opposite ends of the low-price/premium-quality spectrum. In the offline world, it'd be impossible to confuse the two—the videos make that abundantly clear. But as the screencasts show, my experiences shopping for jackets at patagonia.com and then walmart.com weren't nearly as different from each other as one might expect. If I had wandered around the sites a little more, I would have encountered interesting things on Patagonia's site such as the award-winning Tin Shed (a virtual shed full of interactive props and stories). But I was on the sites to shop for a jacket, not to wander around and check out peripheral Flash microsites.
During a separate patagonia.com shopping experience (this time shopping for a shirt), a chat box popped up and "Taylor" asked if she could help me. I had wanted personal assistance when I was shopping online for a jacket, but hadn't gotten it. This personal assistance, though a bit intrusive, would have certainly helped shrink the offline–online gap, differentiated the experience from the walmart.com experience, and guided me toward the right purchase decision. But perhaps there's even a better, less intrusive solution: adding a "Question? Chat live" button adjacent to product information. On occasion, I've seen a "Chat Live" button in the patagonia.com search area, but it's not always there and it's not in a place where you see it if you're looking at information about a jacket.
Patagonia.com could also be improved by increasing the use of video to augment product photos. After documenting my jacket shopping experience I took a deeper look at the site and found that 17 percent of their men's jacket listings included video depictions of the jacket. I hadn't stumbled on any of these during my initial shopping experience. If more jackets had accompanying videos, I would have been more likely to see a video. Well-produced videos enhance the richness and differentiation of the shopping experience, help close the offline–online gap, and guide customers toward making the right purchase decision.
The selection of a college or university is one of the biggest decisions a person can make in life. In the offline world, you can stroll the campus, audit a class, have lunch with current students, tour the facilities, check out the social scene, and so on. But in my investigations I found that the online experiences in the education vertical generally don't match the offline experiences. Sure, you can watch a video or a virtual tour, but you're just watching from behind the glass, not actively participating and interacting. In the education vertical, as in the retail vertical, the gap between offline and online experiences compromises brand differentiation.
Let's say I want to get my MBA at a school that's convenient to where I live and work. I know I'll be spending a lot of time on campus, so I want to make sure it's an inspiring place that's conducive to learning and working with classmates. Based on their proximity to where I live and work, the schools I chose to investigate were the University of Colorado at Boulder (CU) and the Northglenn Center of Colorado Christian University (CCU). As you'll note in the screencasts, the schools' websites made it hard to get a feel for each campus and to get help making this high-involvement/high-risk decision. And what information I did find wasn't presented in a rich way.
The online experience left me feeling that I'd have to make an in-person visit to experience each campus. So I visited both schools.
As it turned out, my offline experience with each campus made the decision an easy one. At one school—the much more expensive one—I felt immersed in the experience as an engaged participant, rather than merely as an observer. It was indeed a rich experience—much more so than online—and it differentiated the school from its low-price counterpart.
To check out the offline experience in the healthcare vertical, my wife and I shopped for the hospital where we'll have our next baby. We toured the family birth center at Foothills Hospital in Boulder, and got to meet the doctor. We found the facility to be more like a resort than a hospital—there was a jetted tub in the birthing room, a DVD player and queen bed in the recovery room, and a beautiful lobby, cafe, and waiting room.
Had we checked out the hospital online instead, our experience would have been far different. We are making an emotionally significant, high-involvement decision, but the hospital's website fails to welcome us with a rich experience. The entry point into the website is cold and off-putting, in contrast to the hospital's warm and inviting lobby. After a bit of searching we found a simple "Welcome Tour" slide show, but it offered none of the richness of the offline tour.
Just as we saw within the retail and education verticals, the offline–online experience gap in healthcare means that brands are missing opportunities for differentiation. An actual visit to Foothills Hospital sets it apart from other hospitals, but a visit to their website does not. In fact, I found a richer online experience with a lower-priced hospital serving an area that's pretty much the opposite of happy-go-lucky Boulder: South Central L.A., including Compton and Watts.
Closing the Gap
The online experience doesn't need to exactly mirror the offline experience; they play complementary roles rather than act as alternatives to one another. But when it comes to satisfying customers, differentiating your brand, and winning business, the richness of the experiences should be on par with each other. It's about creating the same richness online as customers have come to expect from those brands through years of offline experiences.
A good example of a rich online experience that complements and is nearly on par with its offline counterpart is the Volvo Virtual Test Drive of City Safety. The online test drive allows the "driver" to experience the brand's automatic braking technology in a way that would be terrifying offline.
Juan Sanchez, a UX Magazine contributing editor, explained the importance of complementary experiences this way: "I think a lot of companies fall short by siloing their online and offline experiences, or by making them feel too much alike rather than having them work as companions. There are things that online or mobile experiences can do that an offline experience can't, and vice versa. Industries should take into account the ‘experience ecosystem.' They need to consider all the interaction touch points to make the online, offline, mobile, and other experiences seamless. If I do something online and then go into a physical store, there ought to be some overlap in the experiences to make the transition state a smooth and inviting one."
What do you think?
As you reflect on brands that are behind or ahead in closing the offline-online gap, please share your thoughts with us through comments. You can also record your comparisons as we've done in this article, and include a link to them in your response. Whoever provides the best laggard example (big gap) and leader example (no gap) will receive a gift certificate to either Patagonia or Walmart.