“Whether it’s finding product information, pricing or ordering the latest gadget, providing a reliable and engaging user experience lies at the heart of online success.” Arthur Moan, Country Manager UK & Ireland at UserZoom.

Over 80% of the UK population is online, and the UK internet economy currently accounts for an estimated £100 billion, or 7.2% of the country’s gross domestic product. That makes it the largest per capita e-commerce market in the world, with a reach that means that online experience now plays a vital role in brand perception.

As competition increases, online channels are expected to be the main market battleground. Traditional elements of differentiation, such as quality, product features, price and brand equity are becoming decreasingly important –the overall customer experience is becoming the key differentiator. Today, customers interact with companies more often and in more meaningful ways than they ever have.

Whether it’s finding product information, pricing or ordering the latest gadget; whether it’s providing product feedback or getting real-time technical support, users experience each business with an immediacy which has transformed expectation. Customers have more choice than ever before, and that means that whether a site is a direct revenue generator or a means of communication, how users experience a site affects both reputation and the long term relationship with the user.

This means user experience can have a significant impact on brand perception. A February 2011 Forrester survey found that 76% of respondents believe that improving the online customer experience is the most important objective in the coming year. A critical challenge is that the traditional way of understanding customer experience, customer satisfaction research, can’t provide the necessary insights into what exactly makes the difference to the customer online.

Something as simple as having clear contrast which makes copy stand out can make a huge difference to a visitor journey.

Making clear what the site is for, ensuring that users are given the necessary help to choose or buy products – this all seems obvious. But if it’s not done right, if users find it hard to navigate the site or complete a task, or if the site somehow fails to meet user expectations, that can result in loss of business, and reflect badly on the brand.

It’s a simple equation – increasing the ease of use (or ability of a user to complete their intended action) of any website will increase sales and conversion rates. Improved user experience can also lead to an increase in brand loyalty and return site visitors, and an improvement in the perception of your brand and whether or not they become advocates and recommend your site to their friends and family. The most successful companies take advantage of the medium, using well-designed identity and navigation systems that showcase a site’s purpose and provide a solid infrastructure underlying an intuitive user interface.

Knowledge of the importance of user experience has yet to translate into the everyday use of user experience methodologies and tools, although companies like Google are leading the way. They recently made public a framework to measure the user experience on a large scale (both attitudinal and behavioral) which they have applied to more than 20 products. The framework is called HEART: Happiness, Engagement, Adoption, Retention, and Task success.

Measuring the User Experience on a Large Scale: User-Centered Metrics for Web Applications

Users visit a site for different reasons, whether with direct focus on an e-commerce proposition, or to explore and wander around an entertainment site. The important thing is that everything within the site is designed to help, from the clarity of contrast in the navigation to the information architecture.

User experience tools are about enabling actionable and meaningful insights, refining your product, and serving your customer. What each business needs will be different, but without knowledge of user experience there can be no action. Tools range from something as simple as a true intent site survey also referred to as ‘Voice of Customer’, all the way to something as complex as quantitative task based un-moderated usability testing, which can deliver metrics such as effectiveness ( task success), efficiency (time taken, clicks and page views) and satisfaction . What your site needs may depend on complexity and budget, but there is always a way to ensure that you’re staying on top of what people want.

In order to improve the site, information is essential and user experience tools can provide the necessary data. That data can help you understand the challenges that your site provides, and provide evidence of the changes users need to see. And that’s the first step towards improving brand and business relationships online.