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How do you let your users know about your site's particular benefits?

We get this question all of the time from designers. If you offer something that is unique to your organization (and chances are that you do--that's why you're in business), then how do you make the users aware of these benefits?

We compared two web sites: Sears.com and Dell.com. Part of the objective of each site is to sell expensive products. In the case of Sears, they sell appliances, such as refrigerators and washers. Dell sells desktop PCs and laptops.

When selling expensive products, financing is always a factor. Both Sears and Dell offer financing for their customers. Customers can, at the time of purchase, apply for credit and then, assuming they've been approved, pay for the product using their new account.

Financing is important to these companies. For example, while scanning the Sears site, we found a webcast of a financial report by the CEO, Allen Lacy. In his webcast, he clearly stated that a major contributor to Sears' success is that they offer financing on their major appliance sales. This is a way for Sears to get more people to spend additional money on Sears' products, not to mention the income from interest, finance charges, and late fees.

As we compared the sites, we examined how both entice people to finance their purchases. The day we visited the Sears.com site we found a huge square advertisement dead-center on the home page, featuring an image of a dishwasher, an image of a refrigerator, and large words proclaiming the availability of zero-percent financing on the purchases of select major appliances.

With this large ad on the home page, it seemed to us that Sears was trying to educate users that they could get financing on major appliance purchases with no interest. This probably appeals most to people who would like to pay for their purchase over several months, but are leery about how much they'll get "socked" on the interest payments.

Clicking the ad on the home page activates a pop-up window that explains the details of the financing plan. It's a small window, with just a few paragraphs of text--but what caught our attention was the "Apply Now" button. (To view an example of the Sears page on our site click here.)

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Jared M. Spool is a leading expert in the field of usability and design since 1978, before the term "usability" was ever associated with computers. He is the Founding Principal of User Interface Engineering (www.uie.com), the largest usability research organization of its kind in the world.