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Improving The Online Shopping Experience, Part 1: Getting Customers To Your Products

Amazon turned sweet sixteen this year, and, by extension, so did online shopping as we know it. As online shopping has grown over the past 16 years, so have user needs and expectations related to the online shopping experience. Setting up shop online is easy, but creating an experience that satisfies target users is a different story altogether.

In the traditional journey of a purchase, commonly depicted as a funnel, a business loses potential customers as they move closer to the purchasing stage. While this is natural and expected, improving the user experience can reduce this loss by removing unnecessary barriers to shopping online.

The purchase funnel and ways to improve the online experience1
Ways to improve the online shopping experience and reduce the drop in the purchase funnel.

The guidelines, techniques and best practices in this two-part series address common user experience issues on e-commerce websites. They are intended as a starting point; books have been written on many of these topics, and a few are recommended at the end. Improving the user experience requires a good understanding of your users and their goals on your website. Use that lens as you read through, to see which of the techniques will improve the online shopping experience for your users.

Further Reading on SmashingMag: Link

This first part covers the upper part of the funnel: getting customers to your website and helping them find your products. Part 2 will address the lower part of the funnel: guiding customers through the decision-making process and check-out.

Promote Your Online Presence Link

Make it easy for customers to find your website by using a combination of online and offline marketing tactics. Analytics will show you how users are coming to your website — for most websites, search engines and other online referrals, including social media, play a big role. What these reports will not show you are missed opportunities, such as customers ending up on your competitors’ websites instead of yours because of their search keywords.

  • Analyze your website and the websites of key competitors to compare how you rank on the search terms used by your target users and to identify areas for optimization. Personas, which are representative profiles of target users, can be used as a tool for search marketing efforts, helping you to identify and prioritize keywords, offers and features and to create targeted landing pages. Digital consultancy Roundarch has an example of a keyword persona that it uses when working on search engine optimization (SEO) for Avis.
  • If your business is selling in a competitive market, supplement your SEO efforts by buying relevant keywords for paid placement alongside search results, using services like Google AdWords and Microsoft adCenter.
  • Create business profile pages on services such as Google Places, Bing Business Portal and Yahoo Local: these will be highlighted in search results and on location-based social networking services. In addition to your business name, include your physical address, phone number, URL and hours of operation.
  • Use email campaigns to attract new customers and draw previous customers back to your website. In a recent Forrester study6, retailers ranked email as having the highest return on investment (ROI) among their marketing efforts, including paid search, affiliate marketing and Facebook marketing.
  • Create, join or support communities and social networks related to your products or related to issues that your product addresses. An example is Aspirin manufacturer Bayer’s involvement in and sponsorship of the Strong @Heart community on Facebook.
  • Go where your customers are; these days, that includes social networks. Companies are experimenting with Facebook ads and check-in coupons, offering promotions on their Facebook walls, and tweeting time-limited deals to their followers. Although companies such as JCPenney and have set up Facebook storefronts, their ROI is questionable7 in value.JCPenney’s storefront on Facebook8
    JCPenney’s Facebook storefront9 allows users to shop on the social network.
  • Use a short, simple, intuitive and memorable Web address, and secure alternate spellings (walmart and wal-mart) so that users can get to your website even if they misspell your name (jcpenny, jcpenney, jcp).
  • Increase visibility in search engine results using SEO techniques, including picking the right keywords and creating keyword-rich and search-friendly page URLs, titles, headings, tags and content. SEO is not a dirty acronym if done the right way. Trying to fool search engines may work for a while, but you will eventually be penalized, as JCPenney10 and Overstock11 recently discovered.
  • Feature the URL prominently offline: in printed material, while people are on hold on the phone waiting for service or support, in offline advertising and promotion, and in brick-and-mortar stores where appropriate. Quick Response (QR) codes12 give smartphone users quick access to a website, a sub-section or a particular page without having to type in a long address.

Instill Confidence In Customers Link

Instill confidence and trust in customers by prominently displaying clear policies, trust certificates, security badges and contact information. Customers are cautious when asked for personal information, and rightly so, with news of hacked websites being so common. Even established brands that customers recognize and trust can use these techniques to reinforce confidence.

  • Looks matter, and your website’s design is often the first impression that a customer will get of your business. Creating a professional-looking website is easy and inexpensive, so get the basics right and make a good first impression. This includes designing for accessibility and especially ensuring that your website renders well on mobile devices.
  • Highlight security on secure areas of the website to remind customers that their information is safe; even though browsers have small built-in indicators to show secure areas, reiterate it on the page. Amazon does this through its sign-in button; other websites display a padlock icon near the log-in area.
    Amazon’s sign-in button reinforces security13
    Amazon14’s sign-in button reinforces a sense of security.
  • Clearly state your business practices (including privacy, security and return policies), and make them accessible from every page. Don’t make users hunt for this information; rather, present these links contextually where appropriate (for example, display a link to your privacy policy near the email-address field).
  • Visible contact information instills confidence, even if the customer does not have to use it. Offer contact options and alternatives: even though Amazon does not publicize its customer-service phone number, it makes up for it by offering excellent support via email, chat and call-backs.
  • Lesser-known brands should do all of the above, as well as instill confidence by displaying trusted third-party certification and affiliations. These include trust certificates (e.g. TRUSTe), security badges (e.g. VeriSign), accreditation (e.g. BBB) and ratings (e.g. Bizrate).Build confidence using trusted third-party certifications and affiliations15
    Instill confidence with trusted third-party certification and affiliations.

Enhance Product Findability Link

Enable customers to quickly find and discover products by offering robust search and navigation. Customers will not always start on your home page — a search engine or QR code could drop them many levels deep on your website — but good navigation and search should help them find their bearings.

  • Create a strong foundation through distinct product categories and user-centric labels that help users explore other areas of the website. Involve users in the design process by conducting exercises such as card-sorting to understand their mental model and to create an architecture that is intuitive to them.
  • Mega-menus can be used to expose multiple category levels without making users drill down. See Econsultancy’s article “25 E-Commerce Mega-Menus Dissected16” for more examples. Keep in mind, though, that mega menus aren’t a panacea17, they also require profound usability considerations.Officemax mega-menus facilitate category scanning18
    OfficeMax19’s mega-menus facilitate the scanning of categories.
  • Breadcrumb navigation enables customers to identify where they are on your website and helps them backtrack or broaden their search results if needed.
  • Keep the search box consistently in the same location across the website. Customers expect20 it to include a text field, followed by a button labeled “Search,” usually in the top right of the screen.
  • Accept colloquial synonyms and common misspellings as search keywords, and match results accordingly. On Amazon, a search for “iTouch” brings up the iPod Touch, and a search for “polar bear book” (as information architects so lovingly call it) brings up Information Architecture for the World Wide Web (which happens to be a great resource that looks closely at many concepts mentioned in this section).
  • Help users get faster and more relevant search results. Predictive type-ahead options help users select the appropriate term before running a search. Providing related search terms helps with typos and more common alternatives.
  • Display results based on relevance, but give users the options to refine, filter, compare and sort results based on various criteria and to control the number of results displayed at a time.
  • Display a summary of key product information in the search results to speed up identification and selection. In addition to the name and image that the user expects, provide pricing, availability, ratings, shipping details and other relevant information.Best practices in Amazon’s search results21
    The search results for “polar bear book” on Amazon, which include: (1) predictive type-ahead; (2) tolerance for synonyms; (3) sorting options; (4) filtering options; (5) summary of key product information (ratings, reviews, formats, pricing, availability).

Stay tuned for the second part, which will focus on guidelines and techniques to help customers make purchasing decisions and to guide them through the check-out process.

Further Reading Link

(al) (vf)

Footnotes Link

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Lyndon Cerejo is a certified user experience strategist in Capgemini's Rapid Design & Visualization practice, with a successful track record with clients including Allstate, American Express, Coca-Cola, General Motors, Merrill Lynch, and Wal-Mart. His key areas of expertise are user experience analysis, information architecture, rapid prototyping, usability testing, online strategy & marketing. He is the co-author of - a book about marketing adaptations on the Internet.

  1. 1

    Hatmadita Ramuny

    September 15, 2011 11:42 am

    Excellent article with clear points and nice balance between theory and ‘real-world’ implementation. Looking forward to the part 2 !

    It would be great if the author could write on “non e-commerce subjects” as well (eg. how to make an effective corporate website, etc.).

  2. 2

    An interesting read, they are all things that I would expect anyone in Ecommerce to be following in general. Good article. I am not looking forward to Part 2.

  3. 3

    Its nice to read an article from time to time which in simple language reinforces the message.

  4. 4

    It may be also worth reading this, as some customers didn’t proceed to the checkout because they didn’t recognise the trustmarks

  5. 5

    completely psychic reasrch white papers… Wonderful and amazing article… I’m looking forward to Part 2 anyway….


    Khursheed Alam

  6. 6

    Thank you Lyndon. What will we read in part two?

    • 7

      Part 2 will cover guiding customers through the decision-making process and checkout. This will include sections on product detail pages, shopping carts, registration, and the checkout process.

  7. 9

    Great help as I am just setting up my first store right now – many thanks!

  8. 10

    Another great article from Smashing Magazine

  9. 11

    Anymore, UX Design is meshing with SEO (including PPC) which is also meshing pretty seamlessly with social media (especially with the new Panda, Facebook Ads, etc.). They’re beginning to rely on each other more and more so as to create an entire, cohesive online experience for the customer. Prior to working in the eCommerce sector (just a few months ago) I saw the giants, e.g., Amazon, eBay, etc. participating and being the leaders as far as those three concepts go and, I guess, assumed others followed suit. Now that I do work with eCommerce businesses, more and more I’m seeing that several of them are behind (maybe this is just my experience with the B2B sector?).

    Anyway, I know this doesn’t have to do with a ton more than your first heading, but just some thoughts.

    Nice article, thank you.


  10. 12

    Natalie Carpenter

    September 16, 2011 9:05 am

    Thank you for this concise article that covers so many valid points that business owners should be aware of when creating or maintaining their online presence. Many of the topics you address seem so basic, but are often overlooked. I’m looking forward to your part 2!

  11. 13

    Lyndon, thank you for the article. Personally I didn’t discover anything new, but as TimMH stated, this could be used a general checklist for any e-retailer.

    From my own experience, I agree that building a strong social media profile is a must for any business these days. People spend hours in social networks, especially on Facebook, so having your product catalog there may be quite effective. However, I’d suggest to keep the check-out process within your main webiste, and here is why. It toook years for ecommerce to evolve and provide enough proof for the consumer to buy online, which f-commerce has yet to achieve. Considering a full-fledged Facebook store, ask yourself if your e-commerce website delivers easy and comfortable shopping experience to your customers. If the answer is yes, why would you need to start everything from scratch on Facebook, instead of leading the visitors from FB to the already comfortable and easy to shop website? If the answer is no, you’d better work to fix it and not dissipate your effort on Facebook or anything else.

    I am looking forward to Part 2, I’d like to learn more about cart abandonment reducing techniques.

  12. 14

    I find this comment interesting…
    ‘I agree that building a strong social media profile is a must for any business these days’
    Any business? Some business? I feel it depends on what you are selling. Selling sneakers, sure… Selling nuclear reactors? I can’t see executives talking up your system on their FaceBook page. As I often hear from my boss, ‘We are selling products, not friends.’ lol

    • 15

      Sorry if I made my comment a bit confusing skipping from social media profiles to Facebook storefronts. I was referrening mainly to e-commerce businesses since this is the subject of this article.
      However, my statement about the importance of having a social media profile applies to all businesses. Personally, I see nothing wrong with nuclear power industry executives having public profiles on Facebook or Twitter. I would consider this a display of social responsibility and transparent business (or at least semblance of it).

  13. 16

    Thanks for the article.

    Would serve as a great checklist for the must-dos when building an e-commerce site.

  14. 17

    Thank you, its a good guidelines to follow for e commerce social site, will surely follow this to spread the e commerce site..

  15. 18

    Do you think these principle follow in any other countries?
    NOT including literal restrictions like letters.

  16. 19

    I don’t think Social Media helps that much, I think it’s an awesome way to get feedback… AFTER they found you somewhere else. It matters only how many fans or followers you have. Facebook ads had a really poor turnout in my experience so far, but I still suggest to clients.

  17. 20

    re mega menus – I really don’t see these as anything more than on page SEO. Having 500 options up front for customers does not make sense from a usability stand point. However for google these are gold mines.

    • 21

      Josh, mega menus are not intended to replace the upfront work of creating an information architecture and validating it with users. They are a tool for exposing a good information architecture to users at a glance.

  18. 22

    I think the content of this article is superb, well written and excellently presented. Unfortunately I feel that the order should be completely reversed. If you start by increasing the promotion of your site and finish with checkout optimisation you could have wasted a lot of money pushing potential customers through a really bad checkout experience.

    So I’d advise reversing the order and then I think you would be approaching online shopping improvement the right way.

    • 23

      Steven Baskett

      May 23, 2013 3:22 am

      Simon, you hit the nail on the head with your comment.
      Rustling up all your cattle before you have fixed that broken and bottle necked holding area is not the way I would go.
      I’m not calling existing and potential customers animals, it’s just an analogy.
      That said, this article was of immense interest to me.

  19. 24

    Nice article. Looking forward for part-2 :)

  20. 25

    Nice article

  21. 26

    Santosh Kottamasu

    September 27, 2011 6:21 pm

    Great article Lyndon! Good job! Easy to read and understand, covers several important aspects to be considered while designing an online store. Looking forward to Part 2

  22. 27

    Thanks for the article :) It’s really helpfull :)

  23. 28

    A very great article indeed, but it seems a little bit of ads for amazon. Besides, it’s something like this ” Reasons Why Consumers Will Leave Your eCommerce Site ”
    But Thanks for the great info, I like part 2 better

  24. 29

    Again a great article. It’s one of the favorite websites where I can learn lots of interesting things. Thanks guys for writing in such a beautiful and simple language and publishing them here. :)

  25. 30

    i am looking forward for part-2…!!!
    Also i want ways of how to publicise a shopping portal….please send.
    Thank You.


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