Women are a burgeoning demographic. They constitute 63% of online shoppers and influence 80% of household spending.

When the archetypal woman is online, she's looking for a connection. She wants products and pertinent information that relate to her health, her family, her life. For her, the Web is a tool, not a toy. She knows exactly what she's looking for; she searches the Web efficiently—viewing 40% fewer pages than men—and, when she achieves her goal, she's gone.

Her favorite sites connect with her on multiple levels. They are thoughtfully planned and simply designed: almost 65% of women rate good design and ease of use as extremely or very important qualities in a Web site.

Successful sites don't happen by chance. A compelling online experience geared toward women is developed with care and the understanding that she has to be considered from the very beginning of the process.

To help your site take up residence in her bookmarks, here are suggestions for developing a Web presence that connects with women.

Avoid a Tragedy: Adopt a Persona

In Ancient Greece, theater productions consisted of a few actors playing several parts, using only masks to differentiate between their characters. Each mask was a persona.

Fast forward from Medea to modems, and imagine your site as such an actor. Profiling who's using your site will, in turn, allow your site to wear different masks and entertain multiple audiences. Building the personality profile (or persona) of your typical users will not only help you define your content and user experience but also drive your site's technical requirements.

Write her bio. Give her a name—is it Maria from Miami or Aunt Alice from Albuquerque who is browsing your site? Does she listen to Maroon 5 or Abba? Does she drive a used Grand Marquis or does she have a second home on the Amalfi Coast? Is she a mother, a grandmother, a businesswoman, single, all of the above? Does she have dial-up, DSL?

An example: the Nike Women Web site (www.nikewomen.com) is built completely in Flash. Nike knows that its audience is technically proficient enough to have the latest browser or to update their plug-ins if the latest version is not already installed.

In contrast, L.L. Bean's site (www.llbean.com), geared toward a generally older customer, uses plug-ins only to enhance their content. For this potentially less-savvy Web user, there are no roadblocks to prevent them from having a satisfying, easy shopping experience—even if their computer system isn't up-to-date.

Both of these companies knew who was going to be using their site (and why) long before they coded their first HTML tag.

A River Surfs Through It

The days are gone of Web sites simply being a collection of linked static pages that people hop to and from, like mossy rocks poking out of a river. The Web now offers a customized, personalized, fluid relationship. It's a unique medium that has the ability to interact with your audience, particularly women, like no other.

Users are now swimming up and down the river and walking across those same rocks—in some cases, even altering the river's course. This is the new, communicative user experience.

So when mapping out your site, instead of asking "what's on this page?" focus on "what can she do at this step of her experience? What if she wants to download this or alter her preferences here?"

Whereas the answer to the first question leads to a sitemap that resembles a tree, sprouting uniform branches, the answers to the latter ones will lead you to a map of a river with many interconnected, nourishing tributaries.

You've Been (Wire)Framed

Picture this: Alice is shopping for new chew toys for Archie, her Akita. She found the perfect toy—The Super Chew. She's shopped around, but your site is unique—it allows her to customize the color, size and flavor of Archie's toy. You've got her.

She adds the Super Chew to her shopping cart. She's about to check out when she realizes that she chose the wrong flavor of Super Chew. But how does she get back to the spot where she customized her Super Chew? There's no apparent link here. She clicks back to the home page, but now she's lost. And, like most of women, she's extremely busy. She'll order the Super Chew later. You've lost her.

Without precise forethought, beautiful interfaces can fail. One way to prevent this is to ask your developer for a wireframe—the critical step between knowing where the user is on your site (sitemap) and seeing how the Web experience actually looks (final design). Think of it like this: a wireframe is a visual representation of the functions or tools available to your user as she shops for Super Chews.

But make it simple. You don't want to see a final design—just a black and white printout with boxes accounting for what navigational signposts are present at every step of the experience.

A wireframe also aids you in the content-creation and gathering stage, efficiently focusing you on where appropriate content, copy and visuals will go.

Use your wireframe like a treasure map—guiding you along the path to the checkout and showing you that X marks where the "continue shopping" button is supposed to be.

Use the Buddy System

Fostering a sense of community is one way to develop a Web site that connects with women. And there is no better way to do this than to partner with someone who offers products or content that complement your brand and help make it into a culture—a place for people to visit, share, learn, stay and talk for a while.

Take Altrec.com (www.altrec.com) as an example. An online retailer of outdoor gear, it not only offers all the accoutrements for almost any outdoor activity but also enhance its brand's value by partnering with GreatOutdoors.com (www.greatoutdoors.com), which offers editorial content about outdoor adventuring. Altrec integrates relevant articles directly into the home pages for each unique activity.

In return, GreatOutdoors.com offers a gear search that loads product you've selected into an Altrec.com shopping cart. This enhanced experience transforms both of these Web presences from being simply separate sites to resources.

Successful partnerships are more than simple reciprocal links. They have an impact on your programming and on the user experience, and so need to be carefully planned in the beginning stages of development.

Checking Out

In addition to the more involved suggestions above, here are a few final thoughts.

Women are demanding, detail-oriented, multitasking customers. Conceiving of anything that she might wish she could do, no matter how much it may seem like overkill, could lead you to that one indispensable tool that your user comes back to every day. Dream big, regardless of budget. There will always be plenty of CFOs to keep things grounded.

Don't be afraid to ask your developers questions. Ask what's going on under the hood of your site, even if their responses sound like Klingon. You'll inevitably learn something.

Do as Picasso did. Pablo said, "Good artists borrow. Great artists steal." Collect ideas and inspiration from competitors' sites and those of seemingly unrelated industries.

Don't underestimate the power, positive or negative, of your Web presence: 30% of women say that a bad Web site will not only induce them to shop somewhere else online but may also make them less likely to buy from the same company offline.

Women are looking for ways to enhance and simplify their lives, all the while staying connected and informed. Concentrate on developing an easy way for her to find relevant information, services and products—and she'll not only trust your brand but even add your site to her discriminating selection of bookmarks.

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Bill Morton is Designer and Technology Manager at Imago Creative (www.imagocreative.com), a strategic marketing and creative design firm specializing in marketing to women age 35+.