Web users won't put up with sites that don't work. If they come to your business and find pages down, HTML paths that lead nowhere, or other problems, they'll go somewhere else -- and all the excuses in the world won't bring them back.

Getting customers to your site is hard enough. Don't let them experience problems when they get there. The answer is building a site that never crashes, a site that works as well as out-of-the-box software. VirtualBank CEO Rory Brown explains how it's done.

Don't Think like a Developer
Don't insist that your users act in a certain way. That's the wrong approach.

"What we found initially was that a developer will tell you, 'Well, the customer did the wrong thing," says Brown. "You have to be prepared. Customers are always going to do the wrong thing."

Instead of thinking like a developer, you should think like a customer.

"As a consumer, you have probably been at a Web site where you've put in all your information, selected all your products, got to the end, and then it crashed. To me it's happened dozens of times in trying to buy things," Brown says. "Research indicates that if it happens to a man, he will still go back to the same Web site. If it happens to a woman, it';s unlikely that she will go to that Web site again."

Design around Behavior
If you're going to design a crashproof site, you have to build one that responds to the way users behave -- not the way you want them to behave, but the way they actually behave.

"If you have a Back button on your browser, you can write somebody an instruction when they're in secure mode that says, 'Please don't hit the Back key.' Unfortunately, they will always hit the Back key on their browser," Brown says. "Most people fail to realize, when they're building software for the Internet, that you have to assume the people using it are going to do what they? re going to do regardless of what you instruct them to do."

Instead, you have to watch what users actually do with your site. Brown says he watches the behavior of about five people a day on the VirtualBank site, which he then reports to developers and programmers.

"Look, this is the path somebody went down, and here's what happened. How do we make it so that when they go down that path, they end up with the result they're looking for instead of the result we thought they wanted?" Brown asks his staff.

Learn from Customer Exit Points
Brown looks at user behavior electronically, using tracking tools and hosting focus groups to see behavior face-to-face.

"You have to start looking at where people are exiting your Web site and try to determine why they're exiting at that point," Brown says.

VirtualBank looks at its site as a sales tool. If a customer visits, inquires about sales, and doesn't order services, VirtualBank wants to know why.

"By following you down that sales path, we're trying to determine why you exited when you did and what we need to do to keep you going down the right path. Was our application too long? Was it not intuitive enough?" Brown asks.

"As a site gets better and evolves over time, you learn that if you give people instructions to do this, they will do this, and you'll decrease the probability of their leaving your site."

If they stay on your site, they're more likely to buy. That's a goal any online business can get behind.

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