Web Techniques Magazine
May 1997

Toward a Transactional
Web Site

By Ian Kelly
ian_kelly@geocities.com

Recently, I considered integrating an Oracle Database into the Web site I administer. This led me to think about allowable data types, then to ponder the nature of the data, and finally to compare how my mind stores and relates information with the way an RDBMS stores data.

Unremarkable though they are, these thoughts illustrate a chain of thought, in which thoughts lead to one another; not in a linear or predictable fashion, but based upon personal biases, interests, or the way the wind is blowing. People develop knowledge by cumulative discovery: We acquire one piece of information, then formulate our next inquiry based upon the impact of that information. Subsequent inquiries take into consideration the information garnered by previous inquiry, and soon our journey of discovery relies on one common element: context.

The Web, on the other hand, operates on a linear informational model where content resides in static text files or database systems that link to material the author considers relevant. Developers provide users with logical paths through the information they've produced, and users jump from one page to another very much at the whim or purpose of the content provider. For example, a large hardware manufacturer would not usually provide links to their competitor's site. Many do not even publicly acknowledge the existence of such a site. But we do not think that way. Our questions always far outweigh the answers we find, and information provided on the Weboften leaves us with a sense of unease as to its completeness. This failing is partly due to mass acceptance of the Enterprise Web Site: carefully crafted product information designed to entice and laud a portfolio of products or services. Marketing groups excel in this arena.

The Web is not, or shouldn't be, a showcase for collateral. It is an information source utilized by marketers but used by consumers, and consumers think within a transactional model. Obviously, content providers and Internet developers need to (again) shift the paradigm from the information they wish to provide to the information the consumer wants to know.

We must develop strategies that meet criteria set by the inquisitive human mind. Many sites assume that users' attention spans are no longer than a Dilbert cartoon, and therefore summarize content. In my experience, that's not the problem: Consumers want more information than you can provide. However, we are asking them to absorb information in a way that is not natural or interactive.

By way of example: I like to check the poor performance of my checking account via a telephone banking service. Upon connecting to my account I am appraised of my balance. I am then given a menu of options that informs which checks have been processed, the (infrequent) deposits I have made, and the status of a particular check. I consider this a great service, not for its convenience, but for its focus on providing me with answers to my queries. If I could interact with an enterprise site thusly, my Web forays would be more rewarding and productive.

Context

Context is the relationship that exists between all information. It is the glue that holds together disparate and sometimes conflicting information into an comprehensive vision. It enables us to judge the validity of arguments and discover the precedence of facts. And context is the basis of creating transactional Web sites that draw consumers willingly into an interaction that increases their interest by enabling them to understand what you provide in an intuitive, human manner.

Let's say company XYZ manufactures car batteries. They have a beautifully designed Web site, with astounding home-page graphics and a Java applet. They have divided their site along the lines of products and services. I can click on the product button and receive a menu of batteries and information about them. Each page has a standard header to promote brand awareness, a navigation bar to jump back to the home page or the comments form, and a "mail-to" link to let the Webmaster know what a joy the site is. This model appears all over the Web, but it has important weaknesses. For the X1234 model all-weather truck battery, for example, there is a GIF and some technical figures extolling its rate of discharge and speed of recharge. But what if I want other details? More complex products and services possess a context that the content provider understands: How it integrates with the product line, or third party solutions. The idea is to provide this information to our customers within a contextual, transactional model, not just an informational billboard.

Implementing Transaction

Implementing a transactional site requires an intellectual leap. A content provider must know:

This simple experiment shows: Obtain a list of the product or marketing managers. Talk to each one in turn about his or her product. When they mention a product or service not under their control, rudely leap from your seat, and switch to the manager in charge of that product. Continue this for any length of time and you'll notice that you 've talked to most of the managers several times. Now go back to your Web site and see if you have linked the information to anywhere near the same degree that the managers did. If not, you will start to understand how consumers feel when they visit your site and are presented with chunks of disparate information.

Many site management tools, like Netscape's LiveWire Suite or Adobe's Sitemill ,provide a map of the pages and link in a site. To create a map of the information in a site, you must understand the processes that bring a product to the shelf, then move it from the shelf to the consumer. To change the way you relate information, you may have to acquire more experienced people--a consultant can show you how to do this, but they can't know your business like you do.

All that remains is to implement a site design modeled upon the relationships between information.

The implementations of transactional schema are numerous as the relationships they contain. For an example, let's return to XYZ Company's car battery page. Instead of just a page of linear text, we have links to:

The list could go on. It will require good judgment to anticipate how to manage the volume of information you relate. Don't be afraid of users bouncing around inside a site, or all over the Internet. The user who engages in that kind of journey emerges a smart consumer, and smart consumers make good and loyal customers.

Conclusion

If you are not presenting information in context, you are not providing knowledge or education. And if you are not providing knowledge, you are not engaging the user in a transaction. And if you are not transacting, you are not using the Internet in a cost-effective manner.


Ian Kelly is the national practice manager of Internet services for Automated Concepts, Inc. in New York City. He can be contacted at ian_kelly@geocities.com

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Last modified: 2/5/97