Webscape: a Theoretical Framework of Web Site Design Impact on Consumers= Responses

ABSTRACT - This article is based on research on Web site design and the purchase environment in store to conceptualize the relationships between Web site design and the consumer behavior. The framework suggested here recalls the relationships between the design, the perception of the Web site and the consumers’ responses. It postulates that these relationships depend on the context of the visit. Its objective is to answer the question of the determining variables of action to influence the consumer behavior on the Web site, by taking into account the context of the visit.



Citation:

Jean-Philippe Galan and Christine Gonzalez (2001) ,"Webscape: a Theoretical Framework of Web Site Design Impact on Consumers= Responses", in E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 5, eds. Andrea Groeppel-Klien and Frank-Rudolf Esch, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 270-275.

European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 5, 2001      Pages 270-275

WEBSCAPE: A THEORETICAL FRAMEWORK OF WEB SITE DESIGN IMPACT ON CONSUMERS= RESPONSES

Jean-Philippe Galan, University of Social Sciences at Toulouse, France

Christine Gonzalez, University of Paris-Dauphine, France

[The authors wish to thank John W. Parlane for his valuable contribution.]

ABSTRACT -

This article is based on research on Web site design and the purchase environment in store to conceptualize the relationships between Web site design and the consumer behavior. The framework suggested here recalls the relationships between the design, the perception of the Web site and the consumers’ responses. It postulates that these relationships depend on the context of the visit. Its objective is to answer the question of the determining variables of action to influence the consumer behavior on the Web site, by taking into account the context of the visit.

INTRODUCTION

The number of companies creating Web sites is in perpetual growth since the advent of the Internet. These sites go from a simple page of advertising to the true environment of online shopping. Thanks to the multimedia and interactive character of the Internet, the Web sites provide greater capacities than the texts and photographs of booklets and catalogues. The Web designers must make decisions concerning all the elements which constitute their sites (Tiled background, typeface, music...) and do not always have at their disposal the tools to help them in their choices. However, professionals cannot always wait to have tools to make their decisions. Berthon et al. (1996) explain why the fear of not being on the Web overrides that of having a hastily and badly conceived site in such a way that the action often precedes the reflection.

There exists still few studies which provide solid elements to help the decision makers and it is clear that the rules of electronic commerce are new, complex and academic research will take a long time to apprehend the phenomenon as a whole. However, as Volle (1999) notes, if these rules are different, they must borrow from the past and a reflection on the electronic trade starting from the concepts of the traditional trade can only enrich our comprehension.

Concerning the consumer responses to the Web site as a virtual environment of shopping, the point of view defended here is that the findings resulting from research on the traditional point of sale find application in the Web site. This would initially make it possible to give elements of decision to the expert wishing to build a commercial site on the Internet. Moreover, that makes it possible to provide to the researchers a set of statements and hypotheses to be tested in this new field.

In the lines which follow, the influence of the Web design elements is presented within a framework of consumer behavior. It emerges from a review of the literature that the behavior of the Web user results from internal responses to the commercial environment (the Web site), themselves moderated by individual variables (characteristic and situational). The matter will be based on behavior models taking into account the environmental variables’ influence (Kotler, 1974; Bitner, 1992; Botschen et al., 1999).

Indeed, since the Seventies, academic research has paid increasing attention to the atmosphere of sale. Kotler is one of the first to have described the use of "atmospherics" such as the effort to design buying environment to produce specific emotional effect that enhances the purchase probability. The music, the colors, the scents, the luminosity... are such atmospheric elements. Thanks to the multimedia character of Internet, more and more of Web sites use such elements. How can the effects of these elements be predicted in this new environment which is the commercial Web site? Many studies are increasingly interested in Web site design elements. They show that the Web site, as an environment, can influence the responses and the behaviors thanks to its design elements.

The development of languages for Web site creation (Flash, php...), software and high flow connections (ADSL, cable...) accelerates the use of the "online atmospherics" as elements of Web site design. However, if technological solutions appear slowly, what about theoretical tools allowing the designer to suitably use these elements?

WEB SITE AS A COMPLEX STIMULUS

The Web allows the diffusion of information under multiple formats: text, images, sounds, animations, video... Hyper Text Markup Language allows the presentation of this information in various forms and allows navigation among information. Other languages (Perl, php, Java, JavaScript...) make it possible to make this presentation interactive by adapting it to the material and the user behavior. It is this total of information and functions which are represented by the Web site. The site is thus a complex environment that the designer often organizes it in an intuitive way. It has been shown in studies on the Web that the site can influence internal reactions and behavior thanks to the "online-atmospherics": screen background (Mandel and Johnson, 1999), music (Galan, 2000), pictures, colors and comments (Dreze and Zufryden, 1997), degree of abstraction of labels (Bensadoun-Medioni and Gonzalez, 1999).

Several studies exist on the elements of Web site design. However, very few studies state theories on the various forms which each element inside the Web site ca take. Most studies deal with textual information. Lohse and Spiller (1998) state six categories in which the attributes from the Web sites fall These categories suggest finally the various forms that information inside the site can take: merchandise (price, quantity, dimensions, variety) ; service (information on policy, conditions of return of goods, various means of transport, FAQ) ; promotion (conditions of reduction, innovations, last updates) ; convenience (functions of assistance, comments of other users, documentation...) ; checkout (information related to the procedure of order) ; store navigation (information on navigation, hypertext links, menus, synopses, plans of site, return to home page buttons...).

HOLISTIC PERCEPTION OF WEB SITE

It is easy to record and analyze consumer behavior during the visit of a Web site: it is thus possible to make studies in a non-intrusive way. However, it is difficult to interpret the relationships between the purchase environment and the consumer behavior without knowing the perception of the Web site and the consumer’s internal states. On the one hand, the literature on environmental psychology suggests that it is the internal responses of the consumer, and in particular its emotional reactions, which influence its behavior (Bitner, 1992). In addition, several researchers show that the consumer behavior and its internal responses are influenced not by the objective situation (purchase environment) but by the subjective situation (perception of the purchase environment).

All of the elements of Web site design are not perceived in an independent way but rather in a holistic way. Indeed, in a preoccupation with economizing processing resources, the human mind gathers information in dimensions determining the responses to the environment. Music, colors, typography... are elements of the palette which the Web designer can use to give the site its final form. It is the organization of these elements which will induce the consumer reactions. From this arrangement of stimuli several dimensions can emerge which are as many prisms through which each stimulus can be considered. The screen background color can be pleasant or not but can also form part of a color code and bring information.

Within the context of the Web site design literature, certain dimensions appear in a recurring way: informational dimension, entertaining dimension, interactivity and effectiveness (Eighmey, 1997; Dreze and Zufryden, 1997; Napoli and Ewing, 1998; Palmer and Griffith, 1998; Ghose and Dou, 1998; King et al., 1998; Muylle et al., 1999; Chen and Wells 1999). The elements of design are not related to only one dimension and each one can be considered along these four dimensions.

Informational dimension. The perception which the user has of the information contained in the Web site. It is one of the most important Web site dimensions. Indeed, many users come onto a site to seek information or to find an answer to questions. Most often, the information is related to the product, the company or the sales contract. As noted in Alba et al. (1997), this information makes it possible to evaluate the alternatives within the consideration set. This information must make it possible for the consumer to envisage how s/he will be satisfied after her/his purchase. The nature and the reliability of information are thus important dimensions in order to decrease the perceived risk.

Entertaining dimension. The perception which the user has of the recreation and of the pleasure provided by the Web site. This dimension was regarded for a long time as being additional, however it acquires more and more importance. Indeed, today, users use the Web as a place of relaxation and recreation: the increasing use of the term "surfer" symbolizes this behavior perfectly. It is advisable to distinguish certain sub-dimensions. An "aesthetic" sub-dimension related to the perception of the site as an aesthetic object: its beauty, its pleasant character. An "escape" sub-dimension: Korgaonkar and Wolin (1999) suggest that the Web site can provide the user a means of escaping (" I need to escape from reality ", " [ the web ] excites my emotions and my feelings "... ). A "recreational" sub-dimension, defined by Boulaire and Mathieu (2000) like the propensity of the site to propose games and means of amusements.

Interactivity. The interactivity is generally heard within the Web site’s context as the extent with which the user can take part by modifying the form and the contents of the site in real time (Deighton, 1996). For Ghose and Dou (1998) interactivity is a multidimensional factor which is materialized on the site by 23 interactive functions. Recently certain authors added to the interactivity a social dimension which materializes by the interactions between users (forums, chat sessions).

Effectiveness. It is the perception which the consumer has of the Web site effectiveness. GVU’s study (G.V.U., 1999) stresses the importance of this dimension which was often neglected by the researchers. Indeed, according to this study, the quality of the purchase experience is deteriorated mainly by a bad organization of the commercial Web site and by an incapacity to find the required information and products. Tools like search engines or FAQ make it possible to improve Web site use. However, Web site effectiveness is not limited to its ergonomics. The use of pictures, screen background, music, etc makes pages which take much longer to load. As a result, the visit of the site is perhaps slowed down by a bad management of the Web site multimedia elements. One can thus isolate two dimensions of the effectiveness of the Web site: the ease of navigation and the loading time of the pages.

CONSUMER RESPONSES

The Web site characteristics and the perception which the consumer of the Web site has of them can act on the various levels of response (cognitive, emotional, physiological) - as it is suggested for example, in Bitner (1992), Botschen et al. (1999), Fiore et al. (2000). Whereas research on the in-store atmosphere concentrates on the emotional reactions of the consumer, Bitner (1992) proposes to study in parallel the cognitive responses, the emotional responses and the physiological responses.

Cognitive response. The site always proposes a certain volume of technical or commercial information which is presented as text. The site also provides information through its environment, its design. As well as Bitner notes, (1992), the environment can make it possible for the consumer to carry out categorizations (expensive, elegant, cheap...) and thus to form or modify its beliefs. The Internet is a virtual world where the company must make a place in the minds of the consumers for its Web site, to relate it to what they know already, in order to reassure them. It would be interesting to study trust as a cognitive response to the environment of purchase. It could be also interesting to study the relations between the cognitive responses of the consumer and its emotional responses. Indeed, Fiore et al. (2000) suggest that the environment can also produce a cognitive pleasure by the mental imagery which it produces.

Affective response. The major idea is that the atmosphere acts in a context of minimal involvement, by a peripheral way. In particular its effect is often considered along the factors pleasure, activation and dominance of Mehrabian and Russel (1974). The environment can generate emotions which influence consumer behavior during the visit and the evaluation of their experience.

Physiological response. The Web site can involve certain physical reactions. Indeed, the luminosity, the sound volume are elements which the Web designer can modulate and which have a physiological impact. This results in behaviors of approach or avoidance. The human body adapts to the sound in the same way that it deals with the variations of light or temperature.

Evaluative responses

Several studies show that the activity of shopping is judged according to two aspects : utilitarian or hedonic. Thus, according to Titus and Everett (1995), the effectiveness of shopping is judged compared to the achievement of an hedonic (recreation) goal and / or of a utilitarian goal (search for a product). Babin (1991) determine two values of shopping: a utilitarian value (effectiveness of the visit) and a hedonic value (recreation / pleasure). In the context of the Web sites, measurements of evaluation emphasize this distinction between utilitarianism and hedonism. The studies on the evaluative responses towards the Web site (attitude towards the site, satisfaction, behavioral intention) are often placed in one of these two prospects. Raman and Leckenby (1991) isolate two dimensions of the attitude toward the Web site: a hedonic dimension (evaluation of the Web site on dimension entertainment) and a utilitarian dimension (evaluation of the Web site on the effectiveness dimension). The existence of these two dimensions of the evaluation of the visit was confirmed by Bensadoun-Medioni and Gonzalez (1999).

The utilitarian point of view is that the evaluation of the site arises from a variation of the information cost or from the information value. Weinberg (2000) studied the cost of the access to information by modulating the time of remote loading of the pages. He explained why the information of a site, if it is too expensive in time will involve a negative global evaluation and will decrease the intention to again use the site in the future. For Muylle et al. (1999), the satisfaction of the Web user, its intention to visit the site again in the future and its intention to convey a positive evaluation by word of mouth depends on the value of the information obtained by the user. In particular, the authors suggest that relevance, precision, comprehensiveness, comprehensibility of information are dimensions which can influence the Web site evaluation.

Boulaire and Mathieu (2000) regard the Wb site as an experiential product with a high hedonic value. Their postulate is that the emotions felt at the time of the visit build the affective commitment of the user and therefore, fidelity. Chen and Wells (1999) develop the concept of attitude towards the site by using, as a basis work, on the attitude towards advertising. Their measurement is founded on the idea that the Web user will have a positive evaluative reaction if s/he likes it overall.

The majority of the studies do not separate utilitarian and hedonic dimensions and approach both at the same time. Indeed, as Eighmey (1997) notes, Web site users benefit from finding information in a context that adds value in and of itself: effective Web sites demonstrate the productive intersection of information and entertainment.

No research establishes relationships between Web site perception, internal responses of the user, hedonic value and utilitarian value of the visit. However, the results of research on hedonic and utilitarian evaluations of traditional shopping and of consumption experience provide a first apprehension of these relationships. For example, Babin (1991) shows that the functional value of shopping depends on functional qualities of the store (judgement on the sale’s personnel, the layout of the store, localization etc.) whereas the hedonic value of shopping is influenced by the emotional states " pleasure " and " excitation ". Babin and Attaway (2000) suggest that there is a relationship between emotional states, hedonic and utilitarian value of shopping and customer share (the extent of temporal and economic resources proportionally spent in the store compared with the competition).

Behavioral reactions

Research on the atmosphere of the store studies (1) shopping behavior ,(2) purchase behavior, and (3) the communication with the other consumers and the employees of the store. Within the context of the Web, certain studies were focused on these three levels of behavior.

Shopping behavior. Research on Web site design was often interested in its impact on the customer in terms of Web site traffic (Dholakia and Rego, 1997), duration of the visit (Raman and Leckenby, 1998; Dreze and Zufryden, 1997) and number of pages seen (Dreze and Zufryden, 1997). Initially criticized due to the fact that robots which search the Web in order to catalogue all the existing sites distort all measurements of audience, or because the use of proxies does not make it possible to obtain all the behavioral data, these approaches now reached rather high levels of sophistication by proposing marginal approaches of audience. For example, Ferrandi et al. (2000) develop a model of measurement of audience distribution between Web site pages, making it possible to measure the impact of ergonomic changes on the flow of visitors between the pages of the site.

Purchase behavior. The sales on the Web remain relatively weak: the Web remains firstly a means of collecting information. It is thus interesting to measure not only the purchase but also the intention to buy by the intermediary of another channel of distribution: "paper" catalogue or physical store. The majority of the measurements made in the study of product choice on the Internet are considered from the utilitarian point of view where the cost of information is the explanatory variable (Hoque and Lohse, 1999). The Web site is an informational environment whose contents can have an impact on the product choice. Thus, Deregatu et al. (2000) show that, for certain products (detergent, margarine, paper towel), the fact that much information is available and easily accessible decreases the impact of the sensory attributes of products and the impact of the brand name. On a hedonic level, some sites are conceived to be entertaining and thus to facilitate impulse purchases (Veillet, 1999).

Communication with the other consumers and the firm. Forman and Sriram (1991) note that the growing segment of the population which suffers from a feeling of loneliness often regards shopping as an privileged means of developing social contacts. There is no physical contact with other customers or the employees of the store. However, certain Web sites include elements (forums and chats) which make it possible for Web users to express themselves, to share their point of view, to find answers to certain questions, to exchange information, to meet new people. The fact that the consumers have the opportunity to have discussions about the products and services of the company makes it possible to decrease the perceived risk of the purchase decision. For Hendon and Hendon (1998), the fact that the site represents a virtual community allows the users to enter into a more stable relation with the company. The electronic mails sent by the consumer to the company as well as the requests for information also provide an indicator of the communication between the consumers and the company.

It is interesting to study the consumer behavioral reactions. Indeed, they provide an indicator of the Web site effectiveness. However, behavioral measurements remain ambiguous: how to explain the duration of a long visit? By an incapacity to find the product required or by the consumer involvement in the visit of the Web site (Bensadoun-Medioni and Gonzalez, 1999). In order to measure this Web site effectiveness, it is advisable to take into account the evaluative responses to the site and the moderators which can influence the consumer responses.

MODERATORS: INDIVIDUAL SENSITIVITY TO THE ENVIRONMENT

It is not possible to consider the environment and the behavior in an isolated way. The atmosphere influences behavior through cognitive processes but the cognitive processes determine which of the environmental dimensions have an influence (Everett et al., 1994). The responses to the environment are not the same ones for all the individuals, they are idiosyncratic. The individual sensitivity will be understood here as the individual propensity to react in a certain manner to the environmental modifications (here materialized by the elements of Web site design). This manner of reacting depends on individual characteristics (sex, age, socioeconomic status) and on situational factors (temporal pressure, waiting, familiarity with the environment...).

Personal factors

Demographics and personality. In a recent study, Donthu and Garcia (1999) try to give a profile of the online shopper in order to include/understand their characteristics, motivations and attitudes. On a sample of 790 respondents, their results suggest that age, income, innovativeness, risk aversion, impulsiveness, variety-seeking propensity, attitude towards direct marketing and attitude towards advertising are significant variables to explain online purchasing. For example, online shoppers are older and earn more money than the Web users which do not buy. They are also more impulsive and in search of variety.

FIGURE 1

WEBSCAPE: A THEORETICAL FRAMEWORK OF WEBSITE DESIGN IMPACT ON CONSUMERS= RESPONSES

Expertise. Familiarity with the Web in general is an important regulator of the behavior on the site. Boulaire and Baffolet (1999) explain why, for the laymen, the hindrances and motivations with regard to the Internet depend partly on experiences and attitudes with respect to the computer and on technology in general. In the absence of personal experiences, it is possible that the imagination, influenced by the media, plays a dominating part in the field of representation of the Internet and the electronic commerce. For Hoffman and Novak (1996) the skill of the Web-user must be balanced with the action opportunities on the site. If the expertise of the visitor matches the challenge posed by the Web site (and reciprocally), then the visitor can have an "optimal experience" of the site (flow construct).

Situational factors

Familiarity. There are two levels of situational familiarity: familiarity with a specific site, familiarity with the company. For Muylle et al. (1999), these types of familiarity are related to the satisfaction which the user can draw from the site.

Involvement. The process of visiting a retail Web site implies a certain degree of situational involvement: it is up to the Web user to seek the site, to go there to recover information or to carry out purchases. Hoffman and Novak (1996) isolate enduring involvement with the process, enduring involvement with the product, situational involvement with the product, situational involvement with goal. A study carried out by Mano and Oliver (1993) on the hedonic value and the utilitarian value shows that their intensity depends on the involvement with the product.

Temporal pressure. The temporal pressure is one of the important constraints which weigh on shopping (Park et al., 1989). In the context of the Web, this constraint is even more important since the time of connection is often paid for. Weinberg (2000) shows that the latency of perceived loading is directly related to the service evaluation and for reconsidering the site. In the event of strong temporal pressure, the consumer is more sensitive to the effectiveness of the Web site whereas in the event of low temporal pressure, the consumer is more sensitive to the recreation provided by the Web site.

The motivations of the consumer at the time of the Web site visit. In this area also, it is interesting to refer to the literature on shopping. Tauber (1972) is one of the first researchers to have been interested in the motivations of the consumer during a supermarket visit. He isolated some motivations which were synthesized by Dawson, Bloch and Ridgway (1990) in three motivations: (1) the purchase of a product or the search for information, (2) to have fun or pleasure, (3) a combination of these two motivations. This typology was taken again by Hoffman and Novak (1996). It distinguishes several objectives: to find a product, prepurchase search for information, construction of purchase-related information database, opinion leadership, and to have fun. According to Hoffman and Novak (1996), each objective implies a behavior. Product purchase, prepurchase search for information implies a goal directed behavior whereas the construction of a data-base of information, the desire to be a leader of opinion and to have fun imply an experiential behavior.

The intensity of the hedonic value and he utilitarian value of shopping seem to depend on the context of the visit. Indeed, Babin (1991) show that the individuals tending to have motivations of the experiential type test in a more intense way the emotional states "Pleasure" and "Excitation" and grant a more important hedonic value to shopping. One can thus make the assumption that the relationships between perceived Web site characteristics, internal responses, behavioral responses and evaluative responses depend on the objectives of the consumer.

CONCLUSION

The future of electronic commerce depends on the user interface which the Web site can provide. The Web site becomes the intermediary between the consumer and the company and makes it possible to replace a physical sales environment. This work stresses the impact which the design of a site can have on the responses of the user. The framework developed here takes into account the importance of the combination of perceptions of the site, the characteristics of the individual and the situation of the visit. The various variables of the models are exposed in figure 1. That makes it possible to provide to the researcher a certain number of hypotheses concerning the Web site elements and their relationships with the consumer responses. This framework can thus be used to study the relative influence of the various elements of Web site design, to measure the weight of the moderating factors, to determine the impact of the evaluative responses on the behavior and reciprocally.. The influence of the situation of the visit appears to be very important. Upcoming research on the evaluation of the Web site as a shopping environment must introduce this variable. Research in store already showed that the evaluations and behaviors could be different according to whether the customer is goal-directed or is engaged in a hedonic surf behavior. Certain works (Raman and Leckenby,1991; Bensadoun-Medioni and Gonzalez,1999) suggest that within the context of the Web site this variable is just as important.

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Authors

Jean-Philippe Galan, University of Social Sciences at Toulouse, France
Christine Gonzalez, University of Paris-Dauphine, France



Volume

E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 5 | 2001



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