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How much time will you spend online today—to shop, bank, stay connected with friends, get the latest news or plan a trip?
More importantly, how much of that time will be pleasurable and how much will be aggravating and unproductive?
According to a new American Customer Satisfaction Survey (ACSI), most of us have a positive experience when we use the Web—78.2 points on a 100-point scale. That's almost 2 points higher than the overall satisfaction rate for all the companies and services we deal with throughout the year.
It found that credit unions (86), shipping companies (85), banks (85) and hotels (84) had the highest scores.
"These industries do an extremely good job of providing a satisfying experience because they know they must have websites that are easy to navigate and provide users with the information they're looking for," said David VanAmburg, ACSI's director.
With a rating of 78, Internet retailers were just below the national average (78.2) for all websites. Wireless telephone service and Internet travel (77), health insurance and Internet news (73), subscription TV services (72) and Internet service providers (70) also rated below average.
At the very bottom of the list: social media websites, with a score of 68.
The 2013 ACSI website satisfaction survey is based on more than 25,000 interviews that reflect user experiences with hundreds of companies in 33 industry categories. ACSI says it's the first time anyone has done such comprehensive research into how users feel about their online experiences.
Why did social media do so poorly? Many users said they felt inundated with advertising on social media sites. There was also significant concern expressed about privacy.
"It's the feeling that one is constantly challenged to protect the very information they put out for certain people to see, but not for others to see," VanAmburg told me.
The survey also shows that a good website cannot compensate for weaknesses in other areas of customer service.
For example, the airline industry got high marks for its websites (80), even though most passengers are not very happy with their flying experience. Airlines are one of ACSI's lowest-rated industries for customer satisfaction.
"A great airline website isn't going to fix problems with on-time arrivals, baggage problems, long lines to get on the plane or being crammed into seats like sardines," VanAmburg explained. "These issues are going to weigh much more heavily on customers at the end of the day as far as how they would rate their overall experience with the airline."
The Web is now and it's also the future
The Internet is already a powerful channel for commerce and communication. It will become an even more important revenue generator in the years ahead.
Albert Shum, director of operating system group design at Microsoft, says successful retail sites must deliver a relevant shopping experience.
"It's more than just here's the product and here's the price," Shum said. "The really good websites let you compare products and features to decide which one is best for you. How is it rated? What's the user feedback? It's really a shopping tool."
When it comes to website design, flashier isn't necessarily better. Visitors want information and ease of navigation. In fact, the No. 1 complaint in the ACSI survey was that it took too long or too many clicks for the user to find what they wanted.
"Most websites are built by technology folks and then you slap a design on top of it," said Jeffrey Rubin, associate professor at the School of Information Studies at Syracuse University and CEO of SIDEARM Sports, a major provider of college athletic websites.
Rubin believes good design is focused on usability—making it easy for people to interact with the site.
"It matters how big a navigation button is and where it's located, it matters what font you use and what size it is. Contrast and colors are also important. All of that user behavior can get lost in the 'I just need a website' mentality," Rubin said.
David Sherwin, director of interaction design at Frog, a global design firm, believes a good search function is an often overlooked way to reduce user frustration and boost satisfaction.
"Companies spend a lot of time thinking about and getting feedback from customers about how to navigate to the basic content, but sometimes the search doesn't get the same level of consideration," Sherwin said. "Search is hard to do well, but when it is done well, it can be extremely powerful."
These days it's not enough for a company to have a website that is optimized for desktop users. Designers must also consider the way people now access Web content, which is increasingly from mobile devices. Sites must be adaptive. They need to respond based on the device being used—whether it's a desktop computer, smartphone, tablet or interactive television.
In the digital world, customer expectation is constantly changing. Successful websites will keep pace with that change to give users what they want.