Matthew Curry is head of new media at Wiltshire Farm Foods, a firm that predominantly sells to the older generation.

And by older, we’re talking 80+, rather than 55+. As you might imagine, this is both a challenge and an opportunity. 

Matthew explains why usability and testing matters so much, and why you shouldn’t believe everything they tell you about the scroll bar.

Tell us a bit more about what you do, and why it’s different to the average e-commerce firm?

Wiltshire Farm Foods is a very grey brand. I’m sure most Econsultancy readers will have never heard of us, however, if they spoke to their grandparents, they would certainly recognise the name. We’re a company that provides a range of frozen ready meals, hand delivered, specifically created for an elderly audience. Among other things, I control the Wiltshire Farm Foods website. You’d think there wouldn’t be much call for that sort of thing given the nature of the business, but after running it for nearly 10 years now, there definitely is. 

The website now represents around one fifth of the entire business, something we’d never have even imagined when we started out. We originally assumed it would be what we call “influencers” ordering online on behalf of their parents, and initially it was, but now around 60% of our web visitors are consumers ordering for themselves. 

There must be all kinds of challenges associated with creating a usable and accessible website specifically for older people?

My oldest customer is 103. It sure was fun talking them through how to register for Mastercard Securecode, back in the bad old days when the banks left it up to us to explain the process to their customers. It’s not the most user-friendly process at the best of times.

A good fraction of my customers also have either motor or visual impairment, which again brings some unique challenges. 

When you’re on the phone to a customer (I try to speak to as many customers as I can), they tell you they are blind and you ask them to turn up their speakers so you can hear what the website is saying to them, it’s incredibly humbling. So as you can expect, usability is everything to me.  

My favourite experience was visiting website users in their homes, it’s a different world to a usability lab, one where sticky notes on the screen (with a password written on, of course) can obscure a key navigational element. 

We tend to throw every usability testing trick in the book at the site. Eye-tracking however, I’ve never held much belief in. It doesn’t always work, and we found, doesn’t work at all when your test subject has a glass eye.

One astounding thing we found, was that as laptops and netbooks are the most affordable and simple entry-level machines, our test subjects were more familiar with trackpads than mice.

So yes, we spend an awful lot of time focusing on usability, helped by Headscape (a usability-focused design and development agency), but it pays off in our conversion rate. 

What are the key challenges for you then, in terms of site design and having a clear proposition?

Well, for “brand entry” visitors, it is practically a guaranteed sale since the site doesn’t get in the way of placing an order. It’s even better if they have a catalogue in front of them, in which case we really get out of the way and give them Quick Order, and yes, that’s my finger.

I won’t tell you the conversion rate for this, but frankly, you’d sacrifice your first-born for it.

The hard part is for non-brand visitors. Unlike most sites where say, someone wants to buy a blue dress and it’s the site’s responsibility to say “Hey, we have a large selection of nice blue dresses, buy from us!”, I have to first sell the visitor on the concept of buying frozen meals as a solution to their problems, be them health or convenience related. I then sell them the concept of having them hand delivered, which requires them to be in at the time, then finally, show them the product range, and let the site – ‘the conversion machine’ – do the rest.

How do you attract your customers? It’s a pretty specific demographic you’re going for, right?

It’s a minefield. I would love to be able to target my audience directly, but it’s impossible.

I simply cannot get demographic data with granularity beyond the ubiquitous ‘Over 55+’ segment. Despite reassurances from the IAB that this will be rectified soon, it means a lot of tools that emarketers rely upon are useless to me.

When you look to the 85+ population, most of the data is modelled on postcode. In Hitwise, for example, you try and find lifestyle and magazine sites that the Mosaic Segment “Old People In Flats” visit, which should cover potential customers in Sheltered Accommodation, it also covers areas like low-income, tower block housing and gives you a website for aspiring DJs as the top answer.

Am I right in thinking that Wiltshire Farm Foods operates a franchise model? Does that impact on the website?

Oh yes. Like all franchise businesses, our success doesn’t come via edicts from head office, but rather the entrepreneurial spirit and drive of our franchisees. 

Part of this is that franchisees have control over the pricing and products that they want to sell – there is a ‘core range’ that they must stock, but pricing can vary from region to region. This is normally varies by only a few pence or so, but it allows the franchisee to tailor their offering for the territory they operate in.

This means, when you first visit the website, I have absolutely no idea what prices and products I’m meant to be showing you. This is something that is insane in e-commerce terms.

However, we think our ‘max price’ model is quite elegant. When you first visit the site we show you the maximum price charged for that dish anywhere in the UK. When you enter your postcode, the price shown will either stay the same or go down, so it’s a win in the customer’s eyes. 

Everything is based on postcode, (and yes, we do swap out “o” for “0”!) so much so that we can’t implement a third party e-commerce platform. Everything we have has been totally built from scratch, which also means I have to have a pinpoint knowledge of e-commerce architecture. We have to innovate to be able to achieve what we need because there’s no pre-existing solution.

What do e-commerce managers need to do to cater for an older audience? What are the most important user experience factors to get right?

Again, it can be the simple things that matter. Some studies that say all users are comfortable with scrolling, but just watch an 85 year-old use your site and you’ll see they don’t, unless prompted to. There are all sorts of visual clues you can use, but we found that adding a visible “scroll for more” label helped, and it might seem a bit weird, but the next step is for “Scroll for more” to be clickable.

In fact we pay a lot of attention to micro and nanocopy. We’ve hired a copywriter specifically to look at this. Personally something I’m looking at, at the moment, is the word ‘Checkout’. What a horrible Americanism. It’s as bad as UK sites that still say ‘Shopping Cart’. I remember when Checkouts were called Tills. You must talk in the language of the user, and if you’re using a metaphor for the interaction, such as a Shopping Basket, for crying out loud be consistent!

What is your focus in terms of analytics and testing?

I have a degree in Statistics, in fact I studied to be an actuary, so we do a hell of a lot of user analysis, multivariate testing and behaviour modelling on our site. 

We have regression analysis, cluster modelling, and covariance calculations running most of our behavioural engines. Nearly every change in copy is run through Google Website Optimiser first. I’m surprised they haven’t started charging me for overuse.

We’re pretty much pushing the boundaries of what’s possible with Google Analytics. The new Multiple Custom Variables addition has been a godsend. The things I can now do, it keeps me awake at night. One thing I’m working on at the moment is looking at using Custom Variables to track purchase activity across multiple sessions, that way I can see, for example, how much of my brand PPC traffic is still coming from regular customers. If I find it’s significant, I can then do a campaign that educates customers about bookmarks.

For a business that you would think might be very traditional, we do throw an awful lot of technology at our site. Our behavioural analytics program is pretty cutting edge, in fact, it won an Econsultancy Innovation Award last year. All this from a business that delivers frozen meals to the elderly. It doesn’t sound like a sexy business, but it’s an incredibly interesting and consistently surprising niche that with a challenge you won’t find elsewhere.

Where are you seeing the innovation this year? 

This will sound biased, but I think a lot of innovation is coming from the little guys. One site I frequently look to for inspiration is Graze. I love that site. Their ordering mechanism and checkout is a work of art, it screams positive reinforcement at every step. They’ve taken quite a complex concept and made it a pleasure to go through. Clearly a lot of love has gone into that, they’re really fighting to make sure their site is a success. 

And that’s what it comes down to: always fighting. Never stop and pause for breath because the moment you do your competitors will be at your heels. Test, change and retest. 

Come in on a Monday morning full of enthusiasm, full of ideas you want implementing, like, today. I think that for a lot of my peers, their job has stopped being ‘fun’ and has become ‘serious business’. Sure, this is expected when you putting millions of pounds on the bottom line, and sure I have to get stuck into budgets each quarter, but there should be joy in what we do. We’re all fortunate enough to work in the best industry there is. 

Not enough etailers attend SXSW or FOWD. They should be hanging out with the cool kids, finding out what the bleeding edge is doing, rather than swapping business cards at Internet World.

You’ve been a passionate commentator on our blog. What, in a nut, is your beef?

It annoys the hell out of me when I see brands with a lot more money and resources then I have, put out such a vanilla site, or something that been clearly led by a print agency, rather than have someone map out the user experience.

Given the budgets at play here, I’d expect to go to some of these sites and go “Wow! That’s an idea I’m going to steal for the next development”.

I think a lot of it comes from complacency, which is only a disease of the successful. Or in some cases, which shall remain nameless, sheer wilful arrogance. I can’t be complacent, and the only thing holding me back should be my budget.

Something simple, like an abandoned baskets program, or an order feedback email, should really be e-commerce 101, but so few sites do it, there’s a “lets just stick in e-commerce platform X, cross our fingers and hope for the best” attitude. There’s no excuse for a £100m+ online brand not to have their product data sorted, or to have a sloppy implementation. I’s should be dotted and t’s crossed, each interaction should be analysed and reanalysed, not just in terms of functionality but also the message you’re sending to the user.

I hope they forgive me for this because otherwise it’s a great site, but recently I was on the Jigsaw website, where your first call to action isn’t to “add to your basket” or “select a colour and size”, but to check stock availability. Isn’t it insane for the website of a national brand to have stock availability issues? They then further push this negative message by offering substitutes on product pages. It wouldn’t fill me with confidence when buying, and I really bet it affects their conversion rate.

Of course, it’s probably as insane as an e-commerce site not having a national pricing system.

So really that’s it, e-commerce usability is my lifeblood, and so yeah, I can get a bit shouty when it gets ignored.