The central character Pip in Dickens’ classic novel Great Expectations was an idealist, who on experiencing or learning of something better than he already had, immediately desired to obtain the improvement. The improved state then became his baseline for further ambition.

Like Pip, online shoppers also have great expectations for their experiences, and having seen faster and faster web browsing on their home-based laptops and tablets, they now desire the same and better when out and about on mobile.

Mobile is the platform of choice

This increasing dissatisfaction with technologies previously deemed superior is aptly demonstrated by advancements in mobile networks over the last 20 years. In the early days of the 21st Century, the UK’s Trade and Industry Secretary Stephen Byers hailed the introduction of 3G as having:

The potential to transform everyday life, opening up full scale, multi-media access to millions of people. 3G users will be able to surf the net, download e-mails, music and high-quality pictures and hold video conferences all on the move.

A decade on from its introduction, having realised that 3G wasn’t delivering well on these latter promises, 4G came in offering the same possibilities but at speeds akin to your home broadband. Now we have 5G rolling out and delivering speeds way beyond most domestic fixed-internet connections; making mobile the platform of choice for well over half of web users.

Over the last year, Google has been using mobile-first indexing of websites to recognise this shift in device primacy, and from June of this year it made mobile page experience a central factor in its ranking algorithm. Measured by what they call their Core Web Vitals, Google essentially quantifies key aspects of the mobile user experience. These measures relate to initial loading speed and how quickly a user can reliably interact with a page even whilst it may still be loading some of its content.

Resetting expectations

For a number of years web designers have accepted that after 3 seconds with no page content loading, over half of mobile users will abandon the site; often never to return. With the current industry average delay before mobile web content of just 2 seconds, this new baseline may reset expectations and see abandonment rising further for the worst performing sites.

The fact that Google catches these slow-to-load, high bounce sites and drops them down their search results pages is a double-whammy for those without their fingers on the performance pulse. Google’s mission is to try and serve up the best content to answer a searcher’s question as quickly as possible. A user coming straight back and clicking on a different result, or rewording their query, is a sure sign to Google that they got it wrong, and they don’t like that.

Security is a hygiene factor

We mustn’t limit customers’ expectations of their online experience to those criteria that they might express if asked. There are also those expectations that have long since become hygiene factors in web browsing and shopping, such as data security.

Younger, so-called digital natives - as well as the more web-savvy Gen-X consumers - no longer check for the small padlock in their browser address bar; it is considered as given that a site will use some kind of encrypted communication to safeguard our data. But as a direct result of the ongoing pandemic and successive lockdowns, customers with less experience and confidence transacting online are now also using digital channels for shopping, banking and communicating, and they need to be further reassured before they will share personal information.

So how might any of these online customers, confident or not, feel about a brand if the website is blocked by a browser or if it triggers a security warning, simply because an SSL certificate has expired? It won’t matter how engaging the brand’s content is or how good their products and services are, the majority of customers won’t get past the browser-block.

Don’t overlook accessibility

Another “table-stakes” expectation of websites relates to a less well-served segment of the population. Around 1 in 10 adults in the UK has some kind of visual impairment. This can range from full blindness to limited vision, or to having difficulty distinguishing colours and finding it hard to read text overlays on a low contrast background. For them, browser tools known as screen-readers are essential to access the online information, services and entertainment that the rest of us take for granted.

These screen-readers do what the name implies, they read out loud the text on a web page and also try and make sense of visual and multi-media content through accessing alt-text descriptions or transcripts. If pages don’t have this additional metadata, or if they have complex page layouts that render a screen-reader’s narration disjointed, they are not meeting the basic expectations of accessibility and are excluding a sizeable customer population. In some jurisdictions this would also render them vulnerable to class action litigation with potentially severe financial penalties for the brands involved.

Your site was the future once

Perhaps the biggest issue with all consumer expectations of digital experiences is that many organisations fail to keep an eye on how their sites are performing. What may have been launched years ago as an award-winning, highly-performant and trouble-free digital experience could now have atrophied through bloated visual content and poor content governance. Or it could simply be that what was once considered beyond customers’ expectations can no longer measure up to their ever-shifting baselines.

In Great Expectations, Pip eventually learns that loyalty and conscience are more worthy ambitions than wealth and advancement, but there are few signs that digital consumers will settle for anything less than ever increasing speed and bandwidth in their quest for richer, instantaneous and friction-free online experiences.

We changed again, and yet again, and it was now too late and too far to go back…

Wunderman Thompson Technology recognises that website performance is key to meeting the great expectations of online shoppers and has established a multi-tiered service to help enterprise-level organisations determine how well their sites stack up across a range of experience measures. It is widely understood that a site’s search ranking, loading speed, accessibility of content and security can all lead directly to increased revenue and future growth - or the loss of it!

Kicking things off is a free, no-obligation initial assessment to identify areas of potential concern and to inform any further investigations. Having run these checks on numerous sites, it is clear that only a very few perform well in all key areas.

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