Online buyers prefer the human touch

New research shows that what the growing number of UK surfers really want is a friendly voice

A study into online culture published today reveals that while the Internet is becoming more a part of daily lives, surfers still rely ultimately on other channels.

The report from consumer consultancy the Henley Centre -- commissioned among others by Abbey National, the BBC and BT -- found that 41 percent of surfers use the Internet on a daily basis.

The research dispels the myth that once savvy, people will rely entirely on the Web. Only 23 percent of people were prepared to find the answer to a customer enquiry question via a Web site while nearly half preferred to talk to a customer advisor.

There is good news for beleaguered dot-coms though. While many surfers have difficulty finding what they want on the Web, they are ready to persevere. "There is a high level of commitment to balance the high level of frustration," said Henley Centre analyst Chad Wallen. "People were willing to keep going because they were finding things out that were meaningful to them."

However, the research also found that people are no longer going online to browse. Instead, 81 percent of all users have a specific interest or question when they go on the Internet. For those dot-coms who launched their Web sites with funky graphics and moving images the message is clear -- keep it simple. People like simple clean designs and easy to use navigation, says the research. Marcus Hickman, assistant director of the Henley Centre, says there is an argument for standardising the way information is presented.

The study also found that the price of Internet access, long regarded as a barrier to use, is becoming less important once consumers have taken the step to get wired. While the PC remains the most popular platform for accessing the Web, interactive TV is becoming interestingly used for getting online. More than 60 percent of digital TV viewers have used interactive services and more than one in five have bought something through their TV set.

As part of its research, the Henley Centre filmed families 24 hours a day, revealing some quirky surfing habits. Many people, for example, do not bookmark favourite sites preferring instead to write the url down on a piece of paper. The argument for standardisation of Web sites was also given credence by the story of one surfer who searched the Ryanair Web site for 25 minutes trying to find the price of a particular flight. The problem turned out to be a simple one -- prices were given in GBP rather than using the pound sign, a symbol not familiar to the customer.

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