In our previous article we discussed one of three different approaches to forming your e-commerce strategy.

In this article we discuss a more analytical approach, Utility.

Increasing Perceived Utility

I'd like to introduce the concept of Perceived Utility. This is a bastardisation of sorts on Perceived Value Modelling, but I've changed it so it's directly related to the things website managers can do, you'll read why in a second.

But firstly, we'll look at what happens when you turn to your customers and ask them what they want.

Creating Passionate Users - User Surveys
(Image from the infinitely more clever and talented Kathy Sierra)

It's easy to get trapped into the thinking nicely summarised by that famous(and probably apocryphal) Henry Ford quote "If I'd asked my customer's what they wanted, they would have asked for a faster horse". This quote implies that you shouldn't turn to your users, and that's just untrue.

Disasatrous inventions

Every time you don’t consult with your customers, disaster is likely to strike...

What you need to do is interpret their requirements, why do they want a faster horse? Iterative questioning like this will soon lead to what is actually needed, rather than the "sharp peaks" of users' immediate wishes.

What we need to find out is what actually matters to our website visitors, and a neat-o way of doing this is by Perceived Value Modelling.

Perceived Value Modelling allows you to find out what elements of an experience are important to your users, and how your website ranks against your Competitors (and Substitutes and Alternates if you're doing a full-on CIM freak out, but that's not for today).

Perceived Utility = Perceived Use + Perceived Price

We start by running a survey asking customers about the top five things they look for in a website. You might like to offer a drop down list of 20 options, but always provide an 'other' category. You don't know everything. It's a pain because they'll be misspelling abound, but you only need around 100 responses for this to be of use.

As an aside - I've found SurveyGizmo the best solution for doing this, but any survey software that allows you to pipe responses into other questions will be fine.

The reason you need piping, is because you then ask the participant to rank how important that aspect is to them. They have, say 100 points to spend across the five aspects they've chosen.

Now, here's the science bit. You then ask them to rank your competitors sites against yours. Note that SurveyGizmo is a bit clumsy here, the best solution I found was the 'Star Ranking' option.

Survey asking people to rank websites against yours

So, having done that, we pick the five top aspects, and the proportionate importance given to them by our customers.

Perceived Use Value (PUV)

  • Product Photography/Video (15 points)
  • Ability to compare (15 points)
  • Wish List/Save for later (30 points)
  • Instore Collection ( 20 points)
  • Methods of Payment (20 points)

Perceived Price (PP)

Now, in Perceived Value Modelling, you would then map this against the price of your product, and where you sit in the market. However, since for many of us, we can't directly make decisions about the price structure for the websites that we manage, what other elements of an e-commerce experience can be perceived as a price?

  • Site Speed.
  • Ease of Use.
  • Reward for loyalty.
  • Cost of Delivery.
  • Speed of Delivery.
  • Ease of Return & Refund.

From experience, it's best to pose these questions as positives. (It also helps with our calculation next).

at least it didn’t spell “boobies”

What? Maths? Give me a break here Matt

There’s no way I can make this sexy and fun , unless I pepper the post with stock photography of attractive people holding calculators.

You can then perform exactly the same method as you did with Perceived Use. I've found it easier to ask customers to pick three aspects of price, but you might wish to ask for five.

Now we pick say the top three competitors identified, and the five Use and three Price aspects ranked, and we stick them in a lovely table. Out of the star rankings, we normalise them to a -2 (0 Stars) to +2 (2 stars) scale.

Product Photography 15   2 -1 -1
Ability to Compare 15   -2 1 2
Wish List 30   -1 1 0
Instore Collection 20   -2 2 1
Methods of Payment 20   2 -1 2
Site Speed 40   1 -1 -2
User Friendliness 35   2 0 -2
Availability of Support 25   1 0 1
Use     Total A Total B Total C
Product Photography     30 -15 -15
Ability to Compare     -30 15 30
Wish List     -30 30 0
Instore Collection     -40 40 20
Methods of Payment     40 -20 40
      -30 50 75
Site Speed     40 -40 -80
User Friendliness     70 0 -70
Availability of Support     25 0 25
      135 -40 -125
Total Score     105 10 -50

You could even chart them if you like?

So what does this tell us?

Well looking at our competitors...

Site A: Light on the features that matter but they have great photos and accept lots of payment methods, because of this, the site is faster and much simpler than ours.

Site B: Very similar to ours overall. However, what they have done to integrate instore collection has slowed the site down.

Site C: Feature rich, but it looks like they're contracted featuritis, they have only redeemed themselves by making support available.

So what can I do about this?

So you have two options, you can start looking at implementing features that actually matter to your customers (Increasing your Use score) or making your site friendlier to use (Increasing your Price score).

I can't help you on increasing your Use, I'm afraid, since this will be something unique to your customers, but there's plenty we can do about Price. If you are looking at increasing Use, bear the effect it will have on Price, you might contract Featuritis!

Increase your Price Score

Often the "quickest win" in terms of improving your Price Score is to look at your Site Speed. This seems like an easy one to fix, but first it comes with monitoring. There’s plenty of companies out there that will help you with this – Keynote, Gomez, Sci Visum to name three.

If you’re on a budget, then there are add-ons to Firefox that allow you to measure page speed, and the Activity option in Safari can quickly show you if there’s any elements on your site that haven’t been properly optimised.

Speaking of optimisation, Yahoo has a great (if rather techie) guide on Site Optimisation.

Look to your developers, and see if they have cunning plans. I really have to give one of my guys a shout out. One of the developers at a web agency I use, Dave McDermid, recently revealed he’d been working on a way to move parts to the site from classic ASP to .NET MVC – speeding up the site by orders of magnitude not possible by simple database tweaks. You should encourage this sort of “underground” innovation in your developer teams.

In terms of Ease Of Use & how to get delivery right...may I remind you, you're reading this article on Econsultancy?

There’s some sites that do Return & Refund very well. Fashion and clothing sites could learn a lot from (yes, them again) – who not only have a strong business model, a kick-ass mobile site, and some of best behavioural analytics this side of Tesco, but also have a cast-iron, falling of a log simple returns policy. They even have an entire part of their site dedicated to it.

Right! Well done you for getting this far. Next up is the last strategy, Innovation.

Matthew Curry

Published 20 January, 2010 by Matthew Curry

Matt Curry is Head of E-commerce for online sex toy retailer LoveHoney. He spends a lot of time working on user experience and customer satisfaction is his highest priority. He frequently has to be penetration tested. You can follow him on Twitter, although he does often talk about dildos. He also has a LinkedIn profile, where he has to act professional.

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Comments (6)

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Thanks, that's a fascinating approach.  I can see this method being used to prioritise others wish lists too (e.g. security requirements) where resources are limited.

The "Listening to users" diagram brought a smile to my face.  You could add two more splats to this:

  • what the site owner wants (based on the PVM analysis) and specifies
  • what the agency actually delivers based on the specification

There will be some overlap between these, but they are never the same!

over 8 years ago



Wow, your strategy goes into so much detail - puts my eShop tips to shame!

I've got to agree with the 'talking to your customers' point.  Your right - disaster will strike.  I am really interested in relationship marketing and I love how certain brands are on Twitter and Facebook engaging with their audience.

Yeah, I got a free $9 t-shirt from my Web Host after entering their contest on their Facebook page, but because they respond back to my posts and chat with me, I am more likely to help them out and make suggestions.  Equally, I am also happy to recommend them to my friends.  

They find out what I want and what matters to me.  I get a nice warm feeling that my hostiing company cares and listens.  It's win win.

over 8 years ago



Interesting article,thanks for the SurveyGizmo reference.

My 2009 big project was speeding up our suite of sites - and yes some type of web performance monitoring software is useful to keep you aware of your site speed from different parts of the world, especially if your customers are global, we were surprised at how radically the page load speed of a few of our sites, differed from continent to continent. Shop around because we found quotes to vary hugely for a similar type of performance analytics.

At the begining we hired a specialist to do some "manual" speed optimization to speed up our sites and though effective it became very expensive and we were constantly needing to call him in whenever we made site changes - after a lot of research we ended up using an Aptimize website accelerator software and that has saved us a huge amount of money as it automates optimization and has significantly increased our page load speeds.

over 8 years ago



If only more would take the approach of  'talking to customers' . 

 Rather pushing a package.

e-commerce websites and operations are no different than other relationship driven services.

People do business with people they like.

Great article.

over 8 years ago


Utility Warehouse Distributor.

Talking to your customers is the way to cement people to you.  Building relationships  and making people feel important will pay dividends.

Good businesses online and offline make their customers feel special.

We all feel better when people make us feel special even when we know it's only good marketing.

over 8 years ago



Many site owners under estimate the value of a fast loading site. Several of these site owners haven't a clue where to begin when it comes to optimizing their sites for speed. I suggest using a good web host. Read reviews and look around forums for recommendations on what web hosts offer the best service. Good hosts will often optimize your site at minimal or no cost. Obviously as your site grows, they will try and upsell you to a bigger pricier hosting package.

over 8 years ago

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