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User Experience Takeaways From Online Car Shopping

Emergency car shopping is no fun. This past month was the second time I had to shop for a car in a short timeframe without advance warning. Like most informed shoppers, I went online to get a feel for my options, armed with knowledge of what I was looking for: apart from safety, gas mileage and reliability, it had to comfortably seat six and not require me to take out a second mortgage.

I felt like a persona out of a scenario that I had role-played a few years ago when our UX team at Capgemini conducted a global UX benchmarking project for General Motors. That year, a JD Power consumer satisfaction study revealed that 68% of GM’s US websites were below the industry average, with two in the bottom 10%. Heuristic evaluations were one method we used to identify the causes of dissatisfaction while evaluating over 50 of GM’s B2C websites, along with 75 competitor websites, across various countries and brands.

Further Reading on SmashingMag: Link

Each website evaluation captured over 600 points of data across 16 automobile website features that affect the online car research and shopping user experience, including vehicle information, comparison and configuration. This time, though, the experience was personal and made me think about the lessons to be learned from the experience of shopping for a car online that could be applied to any website.

The Online Car Shopping User Experience Journey Map5
“Online Car Shopping UX Journey” (Large version6)

Awareness Link

Without a preferred vehicle or brand, I started my search on independent websites such as Kelley Blue Book7 (KBB) and Edmunds8. KBB greeted me with a featured article that hit the spot, showcasing “10 Best 3-Row Vehicles Under $30,000,” while Edmunds’ “Car Finder” tool offered common filters to narrow my search and compare shortlisted results. Some of the links in the research process deep-linked to pages on car manufacturers’ websites that were no longer available.

Kelly Blue Book9


Takeaways Link

Don’t expect users to always start on your home page; deep links from search engines and third-party websites can drop them many levels deep onto your website. Design for these out-of-your-control scenarios with the following:

  • Clear navigation, breadcrumbs and search to help them get their bearings,
  • Useful 404 pages to guide them to the main areas of the website,
  • Standard and intuitive ways to go to the home page.

Consideration Link

Back to car shopping. With the search narrowed down to a handful of vehicles, it was time to visit the brand websites of the shortlisted vehicles for additional research and planning the next steps.

While broadband speeds have increased, car website home pages have also bloated, many taking over 10 seconds to crawl from zero to done. Websites such as the one for Kia made the wait seem longer with static screens and slow transitions. Downloading times for most websites on personal computers average about 6 seconds worldwide and about 3.5 seconds on average in the US11. While car manufacturers are selling a lifestyle decision and are expected to market their brand and their cars, a few broke a golden rule by auto-playing video and animation with sound.

Kia home12
Kia2113 greets the users with several animations right away.

Most car websites showcase their models by body style (sedan, SUV, crossover), but that can be confusing because one brand’s SUV can be another’s crossover. Mazda guides users to the appropriate shopping tools depending on where they are in the process; for example, if you are trying to find the right model, Mazda has a model selector with feature-based filters.

Mazda USA’s15 model selector has feature-based filters to help users find the right model.

Takeaways Link

  • Make it easy for customers to find your website, using a combination of online and offline marketing techniques. Search engine optimization (SEO) becomes more important when you don’t own the domain name that users would expect to find you at (as is the case with Nissan.com16).
  • Load the home page quickly.17
  • Give users control of the user experience, especially if they have not explicitly asked for multimedia. Do not auto-play video, and give users the option to turn audio on and off.
  • Provide users with the tools to find the right product, especially when dealing with a large product catalog or products with multiple variations. These tools include search, filters and wizards.
  • Search results should offer an appropriate summary of key product information. Apart from the name, thumbnail image and price, briefly summarize a couple of distinguishing features (No, “far-reaching fun” for a car does not count).

Preference Link

All car websites presented detailed model information, including features, specifications, pricing and incentives. However, jargon and marketing terminology were not always clarified (what exactly is included in “anti-theft features”?), which could drive users away from the website in search of an explanation.

Comparing trims within a model and against competitors was not always apparent (why should I spend more on a grand trim instead of a sports trim?). Dodge’s comparison seemed a nonstarter, not intuitive and without clear next steps.

Dodge’s vehicle comparison18
Dodge’s2519 vehicle comparison lacked prominent next steps and call to actions.

Kia compare20
Kia2113 was one of the few websites to highlight its competitive advantages

Takeaways Link

  • Support users’ tasks and goals on your website, including product research. Provide appropriately detailed information for the product category. While not required for commodities such as paper and books, 360-degree views and video are appropriate for cars.
  • Products that are complex, expensive, configurable or high-touch in nature should be accompanied by additional guidance to help users select the right product, ranging from educational guides (e.g. what to look for in a diamond) to recommendation engines.
  • Comparisons between competitors are best offered with a preconfigured set of comparison options (with the ability to change them), supported by content from a neutral and independent third party. A related best practice is to highlight the differences and benefits of the primary product.

Purchase Link

A few years ago, vehicle configurators were not common or sophisticated, but that has changed. Websites now have wizards guiding users through the steps of customizing a vehicle, followed by concrete steps such as finding nearby inventory, scheduling a test drive and requesting a quote. Some websites did better than others (for example, offering one click to get quotes from multiple dealers), while some websites, like the one for Dodge, were a letdown after building expectations (seven matches within a 10-mile radius turned into no exact match but 112 low matches within a 25-mile radius). Dealer websites themselves were less sophisticated than manufacturer websites and were often difficult to navigate and lacked crucial inventory information such as what trims were in stock.

Dodge inventory22
Dodge23 did not return the promised results in its inventory search.

Most websites offered collateral with clear labeling for downloading or delivery by mail. Interactive online brochures like Kia’s were the exception, but most downloadable brochures were PDF files.

Takeaways Link

  • Make call-to-action options prominent and clear. For most online shopping websites, this means an “Add to cart” button, but in other cases it could mean bringing the user to another channel such as a store or showroom or getting them to fill out a form for more information.
  • Don’t overpromise and underdeliver. As seen with Dodge’s dealer inventory tool above, some websites allow users to add a product to their shopping cart, only to inform them during checkout that it is not available.

Loyalty Link

Special sections on websites for car owners are now commonplace, unlike a few years ago, but websites could do a better job of giving users a taste of the features in store, as well as the benefits of registering after buying a vehicle.

Dodge details24
The benefits of Dodge’s2519 website for owners are hidden below the fold, and the FAQs linked to above the fold are not relevant.

Takeaways Link

  • Sustain an ongoing relationship with your users. For retail websites, this could include features such as order status, tracking information and easy reordering.
  • Support buyers with tools and features to manage their purchase while building loyalty. These could include product updates, alerts, reminders, guides and manuals.

Then And Now: Business To Personal Link

Our heuristic analysis from the study a few years ago drove improvements to the user experience on GM’s websites. This significantly increased customer satisfaction and was reflected in JD Power’s subsequent ranking: GM was number one in customer satisfaction, all of its US websites ranked above the industry average, and three of the top five spots belonged to GM brands.

The overall online car-shopping experience is much better now than it was a few years ago, but there is still room for improvement, as shown here. This time around, the websites helped lower the stress of shopping for a car, and I am enjoying my new car smell as I write this. Now for the final user experience test: seeing how easy it is to get off the phone, email and mailing lists of the dozen or so persistent dealers who think I am still in the market for a vehicle.


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

    Cheers, Lyndon! I found this article incredibly accessible, with the car-shopping journey balancing with lessons learned from every step of the way. Thanks for highlighting how the “distinguished features” a keyword search result does not necessitate ‘marketese’- promotional language that doesn’t actually work to describe the product. It’s all about knowing what the user will find beneficial to them in the product, and showcasing those aspects on the description.

    Sarah Bauer
    Navigator Multimedia

  2. 2

    Barry Krein

    June 14, 2012 4:31 am

    Fun fact:

    Sitemaps nowadays are mostly only done for google :]
    Don’t forget there are people using this tool too!

  3. 3

    A bit old now, and the Saab Brand don´t exist in the same way. But it is general for car brands and relates to the article above:

    And Volvo

  4. 4

    Damon Cleckler

    June 26, 2012 6:02 pm

    Hi Lyndon

    Very interesting article. Having spent some years working within the research and consideration end of the automotive spectrum, I agree that the online experience has much improved. I think your points are well made, but the automotive experience is always so much more complex than people would like to believe. I am not trying to justify a lousy experience, but rather would like to frame the conversation about this particular vertical with some understanding of the complexity underlying such a poor experience after all of these years.

    Perhaps the most obvious contributing factor is that the heterogeneous vehicle data that is required to power this multi-billion dollar online industry has yet to be standardized into a digestible format allowing for better research and comparison tools. There are a few companies that provide a “normalized” version of manufacturer information, but each new model year may introduce some chink in the logic or structure that breaks what was formerly clean and manageable. Add to that, assets such as pictures, videos and 360 degree spins are quite expensive to produce (Do you record or shoot each trim line of a model? Do you show each specific feature that will be of interest to the researcher? Do you actually have access to the vehicles to produce the content?). Only a couple of providers have tackled this problem with any sense of consistency, but theirs is not to provide better information for buyers. Rather, it’s simply content – a device that creates opportunity for ad impressions.

    Which leads one to the great conundrum…

    When the advertising beast rears its head in the face of helping the consumer decide, which way are you going to steer your user experience?

    The consumer rarely wins.

    I think there is great earnestness in sites that strive to simplify the data, but it’s with this looming pressure of banners and boxes and towers and takeovers that must meet the projected delivery of ad inventory that ultimately always sells the experience up the river. There are many folks in this business continually trying to crack the nut of a better car-buying-research-fuzzy-logic-tactile experience, but when the paycheck is driven by the ages old “upfronts” in Detroit (selling next year’s advertising impressions nearly a year in advance), resistance is futile. It is literally low hanging fruit to go for the ad revenue.

    As for the manufacturer websites, there is much more evolution taking place here, but it’s usually short lived. The sites are all designed and managed by agencies (or product executives) who frequently change out from year to year. The advertising pressure of course is not here (the whole site is the ad), so much more liberal experimentation with user experience can occur. Unrivaled access to vehicular data and actual vehicles for unique, copyright-protected asset creation is a major advantage the agency-driven sites have. There is no pressure to compare to other brands, so data normalization is not a problem. It’s a much more exciting playground for designers. However, because of the turnover and constant desire to re-brand, re-invent, re-message, re-think, re-boot the product, the experience too gets re-done year over year. Thus, depth of content is not really established in a way that learns from prior design successes and failures. One year you’ll see some great execution, and then a total failure the next.

    I do think it’s getting better for sure, but we’re still a long way away from it really being what we all believe it should be. And believe me, there have been a lot of people with some pretty great visions of what it should be. Which unashamedly brings me to the missing piece of your article, and that is regarding two companies that are doing something very different from the Edmunds and KBB trajectories. Both TrueCar (my company) and CarWoo are sites that you did not mention, but may be very relevant to you before you make your purchase. (Or, now if perhaps you’ve already made your purchase, you’ll have a different opinion.) Neither site focuses much on traditional research, but rather on the pricing and actual purchase aspect of the game. Admittedly both sites have lots of work to do to improve the experience, but since it’s a different game I though it may be worth your consideration. Love to know your thoughts…




    • 5

      Lyndon Cerejo

      July 2, 2012 7:15 pm


      Thanks for your insights from the inside – as you correctly pointed out, what’s best for the customer does not always win when compared to other competing priorities.

      I did use truecar and carwoo (generically referred to as the “employer pricing site” in the UX shopping journey map at the start of the article). They do make the pricing more transparent for users, and take the “am I getting taken for a ride” question out of the shoppers mind, with the price ranges and offers from multiple dealers. Dealing with car salesmen can be very stressful and these sites minimize that, improving the car buying experience.

      – Lyndon

  5. 6

    That is exactly the reason we built our site. As a shopper I got frustrated with the overwhelming amount of information and how it was presented. The sites were slow loading and all were trying to force feed results through featured listings and banner ads. I started to create a site designed not around advertisements but focused on helping shoppers find what they want without all the distractions. Simple concept right? It seems like all sites these days are built on the model of advertising and design around where to put banners and advertisements instead of providing the best user experience possible. Do we have the perfect UX for car shoppers? No. But we’re working on it.


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