Representation in e-commerce

1. Introduction
2. Origins
3. Benefits and Problems
4. Advertising
5. Three Case studies
6. Conclusion

1. Introduction
Electronic commerce (e-commerce) is the process of trading across the Internet, i.e. a buyer visits a seller's website and makes a transaction there. Less rigidly it includes deals where the Internet plays some role, e.g. assisting the buyer in locating or comparing products and/or sellers.

This document explores some of the ways in which representation appears in e-commerce.

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2. Origins
In the late 1960s the U.S. Defense Department developed a secure and robust communications network (ARPANET) linking organisations engaged in defence research which was designed to continue functioning even if part of it was damaged, e.g. by nuclear attack. During the 1970s ARPANET became increasingly used by academics for sharing research material and eventually evolved into the worldwide network of inter-connected networks known as the Internet. At this time it was still a text-based system, access to which required the typing of commands at a flashing cursor.

The 1990s saw the availability of affordable desktop computers combined with the emergence of Microsoft's Windows as the dominant operating system. Its point-and-click graphical interface utilised a set of universally understandable icons to represent tasks such as file management and printing. Around the same time the World Wide Web (WWW) started to become the familiar face of the Internet. The WWW allows hypertext, graphics, animation, sound and video to be accessed globally using software known as a browser, the first of which (MOSAIC) was developed at NCSA in 1992 [Encyclopaedia Britannica; Encarta Encyclopedia; The Computer Museum History Center;].

Matthew Gray, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, estimated there were a mere 130 web sites in June 1993, which had risen to 650,000 by January 1997. Leading search engine Google now claims to index 1,247,340,000 web pages. Global Reach placed the worldwide number of Internet users at 369,400,000 in Sept 2000. The Electronic Telegraph [4 July 2000, 10 million are now on Internet at home] quoted a survey by MMXI Europe in July 2000, which found that nearly one in five people in Britain uses the Internet from home. Many more have access to the 'net at work or school, or from public libraries and Cybercafes.

As the web has grown so has the range of tools available to designers for representing their ideas. HTML, the basic web language, has been extended by the availability of JavaScript, Java applets, a whole range of plug-ins and more recently Macromedia's Flash. Typographic purists are able to define the precise appearance of a page on a user's screen with Cascading Stylesheets. The ever-increasing array of web authoring facilities is a double-edged sword for designers who must balance the temptation to exploit the latest technology against the needs of users with older hardware and software.

The academic origins of the web created a non-commercial ethos in which information was made freely available. Indeed, a vast amount of valuable content remains free including daily newspapers such as The Times and the entire contents of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. However, as Cyberspace grew so did its exploitation for commercial purposes

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3. Benefits & Problems
The potential benefits of e-commerce are enormous. For the consumer Cyberspace provides an environment of near perfect competition in which prices from many suppliers can be compared within seconds; sites such as DealTime and mySimon enable consumers to find the best online deal for whatever they want - free of charge. For the elderly, disabled or those simply short of time, goods may be ordered online and delivered to their doorstep. The majority of e-tailers employ a real world shopping metaphor complete with shopping trolley and checkout for ease of use by the layman.

Cyberspace means businesses are no longer limited by geography, they have a potential worldwide audience of over 300 million, which is growing daily. Savings in overheads will be made as retail outlets and office space become redundant. Many more workers will be freed from the daily drudgery of commuting as home working becomes widespread. The new medium provides unprecedented opportunity for small operators. David B. Whittle writes "The web site of a small company fills just as much of an individual's screen as the Web site of a multi-national conglomerate". 'Net shapers such as Yahoo, Netscape and even Microsoft all started small.

The biggest obstacle to growth in e-commerce is concern over the security of online payments. Consumers who would happily mail their credit card number, read it down a telephone line or even hand it across a bar hesitate before typing it into a browser screen. News reports of hacker attacks on 'net giants such as Yahoo [Electronic Telegraph, 10 February 2000, Hackers cripple web sites with 'junk' messages] and Microsoft [Electronic Telegraph, 28 October 2000, Microsoft humiliated as hackers crack Windows] intensify such fears.

E-commerce currently offers secure server and encryption technology as a solution to the security risks associated with transmitting data through Cyberspace. Encryption is a representation of information in a form such that only the intended recipient can interpret it. The commonly used public key encryption involves two keys for each user; a public one, made freely available, and a private one known only to the user. Sensitive information (e.g. a credit card number) is encoded using the intended recipient's public key before transmission, even if intercepted by a hacker it is thus useless without the corresponding private key [Whittle pp 99-103]. Secure web sites are represented to the user by a padlock icon in the browser.

Some products cannot be represented in Cyberspace as effectively as others. Books, CDs and software sell well across the 'net because the customer has a clear idea of what he is getting. Goods such as clothes and audio equipment fare less well because consumers like to experience them (by trying them on or listening to them) before buying.

This may account for why only an estimated 2.7% of new-car sales in America in 1999 took place over the Internet while as many as 40% involved the 'net at some point, e.g. for information gathering [, 24 February 2000, Define and sell]. The consequence may be an increase in manufacturer's showrooms, such as the Sony Centre in Tokyo, where visitors can peruse, but not purchase, the company's latest gadgetry.

Advances in virtual reality capabilities will permit more realistic representations of products to be presented. Already estate agents are able to provide virtual walk-throughs of properties. Avatar technology will provide users with a physical representation in Cyberspace that could be used, for example, to try on clothes in virtual boutiques.

The ease with which individuals may represent themselves misleadingly also gives cause for concern. Before entering a credit card number consumers demand reassurance they are dealing with a legitimate supplier that will meet its side of the bargain rather than a geeky adolescent running a scam from his bedroom.

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4. Advertising
Advertising's role is to inform and persuade by providing a representation of a product emphasising its most positive features. It is big business, with over $320 BILLION spent worldwide on advertising in 1999 [Adworld].

The largely academic roots of Cyberspace meant advertising on the net was initially viewed with suspicion. In 1994 two Arizona lawyers, Laurence Canter and Martha Siegal, posted advertisements to a large number of newsgroups offering legal help to foreigners seeking U.S. work permits. Their act caused outrage, resulting in thousands of complaints including death threats. Since then attitudes have changed with most users accepting most forms of 'net advertising as a means of paying for the huge amount of valuable free content available, just as television advertising pays for programmes.

Corporate websites are advertisements, but those receiving most visits offer valuable content alongside the sales pitch e.g. a supermarket providing free recipes. Whittle predicts a blurring of the distinction between information and advertising in Cyberspace along with users being able to determine what kind(s) of advertising they are subjected to.

Banner advertising involves sites making a small area of their page available to other sites in return for payment, or a reciprocal arrangement. A more annoying variant involves the use of JavaScript to spawn a multitude of regenerating pop-up windows upon loading a particular page.

The most controversial form of Cyber advertising is spam, the e-mail equivalent of direct (junk) mail. The 'net makes it easy and cheap for advertisers to mail millions of recipients. Programs trawl Cyberspace collecting e-mail addresses, which are traded on huge lists. The result is that anyone who has published his e-mail address is bombarded with worthless messages like:

Sell 1 million products on your website.
Re: Winning Confirmation n7 17746
No Flame Lighters Hottest Christmas Gift and More (200)
You'll Be Amazed!! What a Great Adult Site!!

to quote a few examples from my own mailbox. Every such message has to be transmitted and then downloaded before it can be discarded, given the number of recipients that implies a huge amount of wasted time. Many e-mail services such as Yahoo and Hotmail offer "filters" to automatically delete such messages.

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5. Case Studies
Amazon, one of the best known e-commerce successes, was founded in 1995 by Jeff Bezos as an on-line bookstore. Amazon has since diversified into areas including videos, software and toys. In addition to the usual search options Amazon encourages visitors to review its offerings, allowing potential buyers to benefit from the findings of others. Its database makes recommendations based on previous purchases - the virtual equivalent of your friendly local bookseller - and its patented "one-click" technology provides a simple and effective representation of the purchasing process.

Amazon backs up its excellent Cyber-presence with a reputation for fulfilment and delivery. Whilst it is not the cheapest e-tailer, according to the Economist [24 February 2000, Amazon's amazing ambition] 66% of its sales go to repeat customers .

E-commerce is an ideal vehicle for home shopping. Two major U.K. supermarkets that have implemented online ordering/delivery services are Sainsbury's and Tesco. In my opinion Tesco's site is superior to Sainsbury's.

Both companies require customers to register and to use a customer number and password to access their sites. Every time a user logs into Sainsbury's a message appears stating that it will take a few minutes for the shop to load. Eventually the user is asked to select a delivery time from a table with unavailable time slots filled in a darker colour. In the example used to research this paper the entire week was unavailable (i.e. the user had to click again to display the following week). This representation provides the user with a negative image by graphically illustrating what the company cannot do.

Both companies organize their product ranges hierarchically. Sainsbury's provides a top-level alphabetical menu down the left-hand side of the screen. Selecting an item "opens" it, revealing a more detailed sub-menu. Selecting sub-menu items displays a product list in the main part of the screen. On a typical home user's display of resolution 800x600 only five products can be displayed at a time, making comparison difficult.

Tesco's shopping page loads within a few seconds of logging in. Its hierarchy has four levels giving a closer representation of a real supermarket, i.e. departments, aisles, shelves and products. The aisle, department and shelf menus are permanently displayed, clearly indicating the user's position in the hierarchy (store). Tesco helpfully keeps customers informed of the contents of their trolley and the total cost by means of a frame located in the bottom left. On an 800x600 display the site is capable of displaying eight items a screen. Upon checking out the user is presented with a choice of available delivery slots beginning from the following day. Unavailable slots are not displayed.

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6. Conclusions
Cyberspace has experienced phenomenal growth in the last five years both in terms of number of participants and the variety and sophistication of features which they can access. Continuing improvements in communications technology and access devices coupled with an ever richer array of software tools with which designers can realise their vision suggest the impact of Cyberspace is set to increase unabated for the foreseeable future.

Cyberspace promises to liberate business, consumers and workers alike. The momentum acquired thus far is likely to inspire innovative solutions to remaining problems such as security issues and representational difficulties.

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A. Glossary
Avatar A photo-realistic, three-dimensional, animated representation of a person.

Cyberspace A term first coined by sci-fi writer William Gibson in his novel Neuromancer, it is commonly used synonymously with the Internet.

e-tailer A retailer trading wholly or partly through e-commerce.

Hypertext Text containing words or phrases which, when clicked, take the user to another part of the document or open a new document, display a picture, play a sound etc.

Java applet A program written in Java which can be incorporated into web pages and run on computers of almost any type to provide animation and other fancy features.

JavaScript A scripting language, developed by Netscape, which is included in web pages to give them additional functionality and interactivity.

Plug-in A small program designed to add specialised functionality to a larger one, e.g. an MP3 (sound) player for a web browser.

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B. Reference
Whittle, David B.,Cyberspace: the human dimension, Freeman 1997

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All information correct and links valid at time of writing, Dec 2000.

© ( 2001