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Bike techs Giles Alder, left and Mathew Dempster work on bike repairs at Bike Hounds in downtown Hamilton.Glenn Lowson photo

The early days of the pandemic prompted an unprecedented boom in biking as a safe, physically distanced way to get around – which was great news for Downtown Bike Hounds in Hamilton, Ont.

But the sudden surge in business was also a challenge, says owner Sean Burak, since his staff of four was spending a lot of time answering phone calls – mainly to tell people they were sold out of bikes – and it was affecting their turnaround time on repairs, which were also in heavy demand.

“We had very little capacity to handle the calls physically. The phone was just ringing non-stop,” Mr. Burak says.

He decided to update his business website to reflect the times: He pulled the blog and pages of information about the business and opted for a home page with two simple buttons that said: “My bike’s broken” and “I need a bike” to help consumers find what they were looking for.

Mr. Burak also added booking software that enabled customers to schedule their repairs online in advance, so his team could focus on fixing bikes.

“Even through a very busy season, we were able to maintain a three-day turnaround on average,” he says. “A lot of shops were backed up one, two, or three weeks.”

Many small businesses have made website updates like these since the pandemic began as the world shifted to online interactions. Experts say businesses with simple, easy-to-navigate websites have done well during the past 18 months.

Make the ‘call to action’ clear

A person usually spends about 90 seconds on a company’s website, says Dami Olugbake, a partner at the Calgary-based digital consultancy Connect4. “Most times, when somebody is going to the site, they have something in mind [and] often have different sites they are comparing from. If they don’t see anything that reels them in, they move on to the next option.”

Users will typically stay on a website for three clicks, adds Barb Marcolin, an associate professor in the University of British Columbia’s Faculty of Management.

“There’s often only one or two pages, maybe three pages, that people will search through,” she says. “It’s not very much.”

It’s crucial that consumers know where to find what they’re looking for when they reach a website’s homepage – and they shouldn’t have to click several times to find it, adds Mr. Olugbake.

“A lot of people are not as tech-savvy as you’d expect,” he says, noting the “about us” and “contact us” pages should also be very easy to find.

He recommends A/B testing, a process where designers create two versions of a home page and use each one live for a couple of weeks to see which one better drives customers toward a purchase.

If that seems too much, even just “A” testing is much better than nothing, says Prof. Marcolin, an expert in how users’ interface with business technology.

“You have to go show [some of] your customers the pages” to see if they know how to navigate them, she says. “My mother will look at a [website] button and go, ‘Now what do I do?’”

Prompted by a spike in pandemic cycling, Bike Hounds owner Sean Burak was inspired to improve the efficiency of his website, prompting customers to choose between two simple buttons: one saying “my bike’s broken,” and one saying “I need a bike,” on the shop’s homepage.Glenn Lowson

Use homepage real estate wisely

While the homepage may be the first thing a user sees, the top left corner will typically be the first place they look on the page, says Prof. Marcolin. “In English-speaking countries [where we read from the left], that’s our prime real estate.”

In other words, it’s a great place for a navigation menu or key branding elements, such as the company’s logo and a simple description.

She also recommends finding a balance between white space and functionality. If there are too many elements, she says, the page will feel crowded; while too few means a user might not find what they came for.

Prof. Marcolin also cautions against leading with a video, which could deter people in a rush.

“People say they want videos, but … they want your function first.”

Optimize images and video

A website that takes too long to load could also deter potential customers, Mr. Olugbake says.

“If it takes 10 seconds to load, I am going to go to the next website,” he says. “That’s an easy deterrent to the majority of customers.”

He says videos and images should be rendered for the web so they aren’t massive files. Photos should also be clear and sharp, since customers tend to make negative assumptions about companies whose sites don’t look professional.

“Subconsciously, that’s a deterrent,” he says. “Maybe you think their product is not going to be great.”

Upgrades to Bike Hounds' website have freed up staff to focus on bike repairs rather then answering the phone constantly.Glenn Lowson

Have enough text, but not too much

When it comes to text, Mr. Olugbake says it’s important that people know about the company and its values, but suggests refraining from turning it into a life story.

When describing the products, he says certain items don’t require a lot of description, such as outfits where the picture tells the story. However, consumers do want a lot of detail in categories such as cosmetics, where it’s not always obvious what the item is used for and its ingredients.

Companies should also be sure to use “the language of your customers,” Prof. Marcolin says, and avoid technical wording that can make the user feel as though the site is not for them.

At Hamilton’s Downtown Bike Hounds, Mr. Burak is on the second iteration of his website since the pandemic began.

Once the early rush levelled off, he added more information but kept the site simple. For example, the turnaround time for bike repair is one of the first things a user sees on the site, with a button for booking service immediately below.

“I do want people to see what we have and what we do, but the site is still really focused on why people are coming to find us,” he says.

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