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Set your sites high

Even though the internet has now become fully embedded in our everyday lives, it is easy to underestimate what a dramatic effect it has had on the behaviour of businesses and consumers.

For example, various studies identify that last year, mainstream television networks, both in the US and UK, lost between 10 and 20 per cent of their traditional audience share from airborne and cable networks to internet viewers.

Having already seen the decimation of high-street sales for products such as music and books, major retailers are now finding their supremacy challenged by online retailers for a far wider range of goods.

Internet-enabled mobile phones mean that increasing numbers of consumers will look at an item in store and then Google the same item while in the shop to decide if they want to buy it immediately or save by ordering online if they wait a few days. This is likely to significantly erode differentials between high- street and online ordering.

Inevitably, a lot of people ask me to look at new online services aimed at IFAs and their clients before they launch. Sometimes, this means you get an advanced view of some exciting new services but all too often it is a matter of looking at solutions designed to meet the marketing aspirations of those commissioning and designing the site rather than the needs of the target audience.

In practice this means that the vast majority, if not all, of the money spent on the service or site delivered is, in practice, wasted.

Two weeks ago, I came across a classic example of the latter. Tempting though it may be to identify the organisation involved, I believe they are genuinely trying to do the right thing so on this occasion they will remain anonymous, not least because the collection of sins witnessed on the planned service are ones I see all too frequently and several other organisations are equally culpable.

To help providers planning new services for advisers and advisers designing their own online sites, I hope the following will be useful benchmarks to consider.

Developing any new service inevitably means spending many months focused on the project. In practice, it is virtually impossible not to get too close to a project.

Getting an objective dispassionate view is essential. You may think a site does what you want it to do but how apparent is this to the target audience?

In seeking such views, it is essential not to ask people closed questions.

If you ask the right questions in the right way, it is easy to get people to give you the answers you want but does this really tell you what you need to know about your product or service?

It is far more valuable to find out what people do not like than being able to put a tick in the box on your project plan to say that, when asked, eight out of 10 cats, etc.

As an industry, we love jargon, the trouble is that consumers hate it. They find it condescending and patronising and overall a turn-off. Clear, concise plain English should be considered an absolute essential. This is another reason why it is crucial to have people who are distanced from any project to review the user exper- ience in detail.

It may be tempting simply to roll out a service once it is built but it is important to remember the old maxim about only having one chance to make a good first impression.

If the initial user experience is poor, the chances are that people will not return to your service, even when you have improved it a few months later.

Where users are asked to enter significant levels of detail, giving them the ability to save and reuse this information must be seen as essential.

If an adviser spends time entering all a client’s details into a service but cannot reuse this information later in the process, they will probably never use the service twice.

It is desirable to put tools and calculators on public areas of site but the option to save any data should always be provided. Who wants to key in the same information on multiple occasions?

These are just a few key points that I frequently see missed from new services, space does not permit an exhaustive list.

In the past, I have seen far too many technology projects fail because companies did not invest in the right level of training as they wanted to shave a few percent from the overall budget.

Invariably, this undermines the level of benefits achieved and return on the overall investment is significantly undermined.

A similar trend seems to be emerging due to lack of impartial user-testing. This is a major false economy.

At a time when budgets really are under unparalleled pressure, it has never been more important to make sure that technology actually delivers.

This means both taking costs out of businesses and driving greater efficiency. Failing to properly research the needs and experiences of users must be fundamental to this process.

New services must deliver what customers need rather than giving marketing another opportunity to push the messages they want.

In today’s market, if your online service does not deliver what the customer wants, that customer, whether they are an adviser or a consumer, will simply find another supplier who will.

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