Let’s get something out of the way up front: good design speaks volumes about a business. It’s important, because looks matter and online stores are not exempt from this rule. Are you listening, eBay?
OK, now that we’re understood on that, let’s put it aside for the rest of this article. I’m going to be omitting a whole lot of style considerations around branding and UI design, because the simple truth is that when we analyse many of the internet’s most successful eCommerce websites we see a similar trend: they’re ugly.
Beautiful design and effective eCommerce can absolutely go hand in hand, but the problem is that many design-focused people often don’t understand what makes eCommerce effective. And many eComm experts don’t know a thing about design.
Since I’m not a designer, I’ll do my part to help bridge that gap by outlining exactly what makes a successful eCommerce website tick. After all, before we can make an eCommerce website pretty, we have to make it work.
The first and most important thing to consider is how users are going to find what they’re looking for on your site. Your typical eCommerce site will have hundreds if not thousands of products, and a user can’t be expected to scroll through them all to find what they need. I often tell my clients that my ideal eCommerce website is a black and white wireframe that shows me exactly what I want on the homepage and enables me to check out with the click of a button. Did I mention I’m not a designer?
Since we haven’t quite hit this utopia of online shopping just yet, for the time being let’s focus our attention on what we can do with websites today. Here are the most important dos and don’ts of helping your users find what they’re looking for.
The most controversial of all conversion rate optimisation tools: the use of the Pop-up. The sad reality is that while these little suckers can be annoyances, they’re a very useful tool in funnelling a user’s attention.
Open up the pop-up when the user lands straight on the page.
I kind of feel like this one should be self-explanatory. How many times have you landed on a website that instantly served you a popup, and rage-closed the browser tab so hard you cracked your mouse? No? Just me?
To put it somewhat more technically, data shows us time and time again that bounce rates increase dramatically when users are walled with a pop-up call-to-action as soon as they land on the site. Give your visitors some time to work out what they’re looking at before you start shoving things in their face. Context is important.
Present a blanket offer that is without context.
Similarly, while ‘25% off when signing up to our newsletter’ is not a bad deal to offer, when it’s blasted in front of a user without any context, it can become an annoyance. Let your users acclimatise to what you offer before you start trying to pad out your EDM databases so you can hassle them even further.
Besides, that’s what remarketing is for anyway, right?
Trigger pop-ups with events.
Now, let’s imagine if the same ‘25% off’ outcome was presented to you when you have something in your cart already. Instead of being annoyed, now you’re interested. “I could save like 80 bucks here,” you think to yourself as you type in your email address.
Alternatively, you could have the pop-up appear when the user is diverting away from the cart. This 25% off might be just what they need to convert the sale.
Use inline messaging.
While there’s no doubt pop-ups have their place, as a best practice you should definitely avoid using them wherever possible – for the sake of your users’ collective sanity if nothing else. A great way to do away with pop-ups is inline messaging.
One method of inline messaging is to present a single line of text above the problem, and the browser is directed to focus on that point. This provides a much better user experience than a pop-up, which is particularly important during the checkout phase – but we’ll get to that.
Now we’re into the real meat of eCommerce. How visitors find your products, and how well they’re presented once found can make or break a shopping experience. What we’re about to discuss could make your website the next Amazon if you get it right, but if you get it wrong you could end up with this…
Overwhelm your customers.
So you sell every product mankind has ever dreamed up? That’s great, but placing each and every one of them on your homepage means you’ll probably struggle to sell any. Remember that nothing is important when everything is.
Instead of overloading your visitors with choice, focus on showcasing products they’re most likely to be interested in. Look at your sales data for this – what’s selling? What isn’t, but should be based on industry benchmarks?
Moreover, your showcased products should be indicative of your range in general. A visitor may not be interested in the specific pair of men’s shoes you’re highlighting on your page, but if they’re looking for men’s shoes in general now they know you offer them. Have clear calls to action to funnel users through the right path for finding what they need.
And of course, you can’t always have a showcase product for each and every item type you sell, so a prominent, well-operating search function is crucial too. More on this in a moment.
Skimp on product presentation.
I know I said I wouldn’t dive into design in this article, but this is too important to pass up. Never underestimate the importance of how your products look on the page.
Remember those men’s shoes we showcased before? Make sure you have a good picture of them. An iPhone photo of Brad from Sales with them on his feet, against your 70’s era carpet won’t make the product look desirable.
Neither will a stock photo clearly ripped directly from the manufacturer’s website – that could make people question whether you even have the items in stock.
Invest in decent photography for product display – appearances matter.
Make search and categorisation your top priorities.
A good search function should be the centrepiece of your website. But even more importantly, it needs to function flawlessly – Google shouldn’t be better at finding things on your website than you are.
Equally as important is ensuring your products are clearly and sensibly categorised, and that it’s easy for the user to navigate from one category to another without needing to click dozens of times. This topic could be an article all on its own (and may well be in future), so I don’t want to dive in too deep.
Suffice it to say this is not something to take lightly.
Prompt customers with similar products.
There’s no better tool in your arsenal than the ‘people also liked’ call to action. When you look at eCommerce data, you see this technique working time and time again.
Showing similar products encourages a user who may not be interested in the specific product they’ve found not to bounce away altogether. It also takes advantage of our natural tendency to impulse purchase – what may have been one item going into the cart could become two or three.
Just be careful how you present your similar products – might be worth scrolling back up and rereading the section above on popups.
Lastly, closing the deal. Data shows us that users are prone to drop out of the check-out process at even the slightest provocation. When it comes time to build the check-out process of your eCommerce website, you should picture yourself holding a live, venomous snake… Don’t. Make. Any. Sudden. Movements.
Distract from the purchase.
The golden rule of eCommerce is this: never distract a customer who’s about to make a purchase. There’s a time and a place to encourage newsletter signups, and before somebody’s put in their card details and hit the ‘buy now’ button isn’t it.
Try to hide shipping charges.
Getting the lowest possible shipping prices possible is vital to a successful eCommerce site. But depending on where you are in the world, or where your customers are, low costs aren’t always possible.
It can then be tempting to hold off showing shipping costs until the last possible minute – I think the rationale here is often: “if they’ve already filled everything in, they’re more likely to commit to the higher shipping.” Unfortunately, the data shows us that’s just plain wrong.
If you make a customer put in all their details and get all the way through the purchase process before you suddenly double their cart value with shipping, not only will they bounce away, they’ll bounce away, never come back, and tell everyone they know about how bad the experience was.
Always be upfront and transparent about your shipping. It’s a good idea to let customers calculate their shipping at the very beginning of the checkout process – and if you can’t offer them a decent price on shipping, considering offering them other incentives that make up for it.
Make purchasing easy.
People get bored easily – you don’t want to make them have to click any more times or input any more fields than is absolutely necessary. When designing a checkout process, there’s one question you should be asking yourself over and over – is this really necessary?
If the answer is no, get rid of it. If the answer is yes, ask yourself 3 or 4 more times just to be certain.
Although I get the argument for mandatory account creation, it’s for this reason I’m personally of the opinion that there should always be an option to purchase without it. Any hurdle to making a purchase is a hurdle a great deal of people won’t bother to jump.
The other aspect of making purchasing easier is to ensure people have the option to pay with whatever their preferred method may be (within reason… I wouldn’t recommend cheques in the mail). PayPal is one of the easiest payment methods available, both for customers and vendors, and yet I still see so many eComm businesses that don’t offer it. The mind boggles.
It’s 2016. Do I really need to make it clear that keeping your eComm up to speed with the latest financial security technology is a must? Good, I didn’t think so.
What’s equally as important is to make that security obvious to your customer. They should feel 100% as confident typing their credit card details into your site as they would be handing over that card at a McDonalds Drive-Thru.
Every story needs a moral, so here it is: success in eCommerce is about making life easier for your customers. That’s it.
If that’s the only thing you take away from everything above, I’ll be happy. At the end of the day the internet is a big, noisy place with a lot of people trying to sell things. As a customer, what you want is the easiest, fastest and (preferably, but not necessarily) most affordable way to find and buy what you need. Businesses that succeed in the digital space are businesses who understand this.
Sure, this oversimplifies things and leaves out a whole lot of nuance surrounding design and digital marketing, but stick to this principle as the foundation of your online business and you’re off to the best possible start.
As you might have noticed, I love talking about this stuff. Feel free to reach out to me at Yoke and we can chat all of this and more over a coffee.