Why do online shopping experiences have to be so difficult? It’s as if companies forget everything they know about customer service when they build a Web site.  The IT wizards work their magic behind a curtain and the marketing and sales folks accept whatever bells and whistles are handed to them.

A New York Times article about online books quotes Peter Meyers, author of “Breaking the Page,” as saying:

A lot of these [Web-based] solutions were born out of a programmer’s ability to do something rather than the reader’s enthusiasm for things they need.  We pursued distractions and called them enhancements.

This seems to describe much of what goes on in Web site development today. The gap between an elegant Web site from an IT point-of-view and the quality of experience from a customer’s point-of-view appears to be as wide as ever. The recent flap about the Obamacare Web site (www.HealthCare.gov ) and the Web-based "Common Application" (www.commonapp.org) for college admissions are just two examples. If the developers of these sites had started with a great customer experience being the end-goal, they might not have had the launch problems that occurred.

Eszter Hargittai, professor of communication studies at Northwestern University, writes:

What may be completely intuitive actions for Web designers and engineers are far from the norm for those who only use the Web occasionally and mainly do so to correspond with family members once in a while on Facebook or by email.

All organizations whether government, business, or nonprofit, need to design the Web experience for the customer, not for IT. Engaging with the Web site should be an emotionally positive experience as well as result in a successful transaction. It’s not enough to have the right boxes, right forms, and right buttons. Customers want to feel the same dignity, respect, and trust that they feel in a well-run store, restaurant, or entertainment venue.

This is not easy. I know from my own experience developing Learning2BGreat an ecommerce Web site, that trial and error, based on feedback from customers, is part of the process. What’s important is keeping the goal in mind. Is it to have something that is technically sophisticated or is it to have something that customers enjoy using? I’ve caught myself more than once being so excited about functionality that I lost sight of the goal.

Web site developers could learn much from Zingerman’s approach to the customer experience. Zingermans unique approachZingerman’s is a deli and gourmet food retailer that Inc. Magazine calls “the coolest small company in America” and is included in Bo Burlinghan’s book, Small Giants. After 25 years and many mistakes and successes, the company has figured out how to create a great customer experience. First of all, they take a one-customer-at-a-time approach. Staff have rules but they also break the rules when it meets the needs of a customer. They have processes but when a moment-of-truth arises, they do what they need to do to keep a customer coming back.

This kind of customer service is a challenge for Web sites that are intended to work exactly the same way for every customer and collect and disseminate exactly the same user information. However, they don’t and shouldn’t. This is what managers need to realize. They need to work with IT to develop a site that adapts to the needs of users from different backgrounds, motivations, and abilities. One-size-fits-all might work for ball caps but it doesn’t work for the user experience.