Boost Your Mobile E-Commerce Sales With Mobile Design Patterns

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Will Hacker is the author of Mobile Prototyping With Axure 7. He’s used Axure for several years as part of his iterative design and prototyping process. Will … More about Will ↬

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In this article, which focuses on smartphones, not tablets, we’ll look at design patterns and approaches used for mobile e-commerce functionality, including home pages, photo galleries, and more. All the examples are drawn from mobile websites that run in smartphone browsers.

People are increasingly using their smartphones as a replacement for desktop computers, even for activities such as shopping and purchasing. And as more people move away from the desktop and onto mobile-optimized websites to shop for products and services, website creators can use established design patterns to help kickstart a mobile e-commerce project.

Having a good mobile e-commerce experience matters a lot. In fact, recent research has found that people are 67% more likely to make a purchase if a website they’ve reached on their phone is smartphone-friendly.

The power of design patterns is that they show you how other designers have solved similar problems so that you are not always reinventing the wheel. They also enable you to design your website in a way that meets the expectations that people develop from the other websites they’ve used, and they encourage you to consider design approaches that you would not have thought of on your own.

In this article, which focuses on smartphones, not tablets, we’ll look at design patterns and approaches used for mobile e-commerce functionality, including the following:

  • Home pages,
  • Site-wide navigation,
  • Suggested search,
  • Search results,
  • Search filtering and sorting,
  • Product pages,
  • Photo galleries,
  • Shopping carts,
  • Checking out with an account or as a guest,
  • Forms.

All the examples in this article are drawn from mobile websites that run in smartphone browsers. Most are taken from large multi-department retailers because they have large product catalogs that require a thoughtful approach to features such as search and filtering and sorting of search results. There are also countless native apps for e-commerce, and many of these patterns can be applied to them as well.

Home Pages

When visited on mobile devices, home pages are often less about content and more about helping users find what they are looking for. Common patterns are simple single-column layouts for promotions and single-column lists of links to featured website areas or product categories. Keyword search is commonly included on home pages, as are links to store locators and registration forms for promotional emails and loyalty programs.

Amazon and Macy’s home pages
Amazon and Macy’s both use a mix of promotional elements and list menus.

Target and Threadless home pages
Target’s promotional content takes up more screen space than a simple list but makes a stronger visual impact. Threadless uses a dashboard pattern, which is more common in native apps than on e-commerce websites on mobile.

If shoppers are coming to your website to compare prices quickly, then a simple list pattern and search function are probably more desirable. If they are coming to explore promotions and sales, then the approach taken by Target may be more appropriate. To answer these questions, you’ll need to mine your analytics to get an idea of what consumers are doing on your website.

Site-Wide Navigation

Beyond using the home page as the main navigational hub, many websites also have navigation menus on most of their pages, usually in the header. This enables shoppers to easily get from one part of the website to another without having to return to the home page.

Lowe's and Best Buy website menus
Lowe’s site-wide menu has icons for each option. Best Buy’s menu has a two-column layout for navigation and has buttons instead of list items. Lowe’s menu covers the page when it appears, while Best Buy’s pushes the page’s content down the screen.

Macy’s has a site-wide menu that contains submenu options. CVS has a two-column menu with an icon for each option. In both cases, the menu is displayed at the top of the page.

As you can see from the screenshots above, there are several ways to design a site-wide menu. Lowe’s design is simple, and the icons add a nice bit of visual polish. The fact that the rest of the page fades into the background when the user chooses to use the navigation helps users focus on their current tasks. CVS seems cluttered in comparison, with two columns of options, each item accompanied by an icon. CVS’ menu also places a lot of tap targets close to each other, which can present usability problems on touchscreens.

It’s interesting that large e-commerce websites usually don’t have many navigation options displayed at once. They try to balance the visual design of the navigation with the information architecture of your website, carefully considering the number of items that should be in the global navigation. Use website analytics to see which menu options shoppers click to help you determine what should be in the menu. Conducting A/B testing and usability tests of different designs to see whether one has too many options and overwhelms people is not just recommended but necessary to find the optimal solution — for your business and for your users.

Suggested search, also known as type-ahead or autocomplete, displays potential results as soon as a shopper has typed in a few characters. For commonly searched terms, this can be a real convenience to shoppers, especially if the search term is long. One limitation of suggested search is that tapping a wrong character on a virtual keyboard is easy, which would change the suggested results. Showing common “correct” results instead might be useful. Also, consider using an improved Auto-Suggest pattern to reduce the amount of typing needed to enter queries, and utilizes slower mobile bandwidth in the most efficient manner.

Office Depot suggested search
Typing “d-r-a-f” into the search box on Office Depot’s website brings several possible results. And mistyping “d-r-a-g” instead of “d-r-a-f” leads to unexpected results for someone who is trying to find drafting supplies. Tapping a letter adjacent to the intended one is a common problem on virtual keyboards.

While designers can’t do anything about people mistyping queries, they can ensure there are other ways to get to product pages from mistyped results, such as drill-down lists for product categories or a site-wide menu of top-level categories. Website managers can also fine-tune their search functionality by suggesting results for “draft” from queries typed as “dragt.” Your ability to do this will depend on the search engine technology you are using.

Search Results

Two primary patterns are used for search results on mobile e-commerce websites: table display and grid display. Tables show a thumbnail photo and some basic information such as product name and price in a compact row. Grids show larger images with less descriptive information. Some websites allow shoppers to switch between the two views.

Zappos and Walgreens search results
Zappos shows its search results in a grid to allow for larger photos of its products, a sensible choice in a market like shoe sales. Walgreens has a table that includes buttons for finding item in stores and adding items to a shopping cart.

OfficeMax search results
OfficeMax asks shoppers to select a subcategory for broad search terms like “Paper.” Once a subcategory has been selected, results are displayed as a table. Searches for terms like “Scissors,” which have fewer subcategories, takes shoppers directly to the table view of the results.

Having shoppers select a subcategory can be problematic if it’s not clear where a product fits in a complicated hierarchy. In the OfficeMax example above, someone looking for 8.5 × 11-inch paper for their home printer might not know whether to look in “Copy & multipurpose paper” or “Laser paper.” A better approach might be to list subcategories under search filters, where they can be presented in context with other filters, like “color” and “size.” Regular testing (every 4–6 weeks) with representative users and commonly searched-for terms and top-selling products could give you insight into which approach is better. A/B testing could also reveal whether one approach gets more people to a product page and leads to a higher conversion rate.

Gap search results
Visitors to Gap’s website see a table display by default, with the option to see a grid display. Notice that Gap also retains the search term in the keyword field.

Gap lets shoppers choose how to view search results, allowing them to switch from an easy-to-scan list to a view with larger photos. Gap could have retained some product information though — e.g. prices — in its grid display (as Zappo’s does). Details such as price and color make it easier for a shopper to determine which product they want to learn more about.

Retaining the term in the field also reminds shoppers what they searched for and lets them easily narrow the results by adding another word (like “red”) to the search term.

Searching Gap for “men’s tshirts” takes shoppers to a page with no results (not shown), and without linking to search results for “men’s t-shirts.” Gap could improve its search by adding a “Did you mean?”-type question to the results page. Google handles this scenario by listing “mens t shirts” as a suggested query and then presenting results for “men’s t-shirts” if that suggestion is ignored.

Sorting Results

Sorting results helps shoppers organize a large set of results along a continuum of values, usually numerical ones such as price and consumer rating. Common interface patterns for sorting are buttons and menu that is slightly customized in style, while Eddie Bauer uses the browser’s default menus (in these examples, the iPhone picker).

The size and generous spacing between Walmart’s buttons make for better tap targets; although, to be fair, Walmart has only three options, while Sears has four. Sears’ inclusion of an “All” button allows shoppers to get back to the original results page if they don’t find what they want after having sorted. Using a menus, drop-down lists and accordion displays. Filtering can be applied when one or more values are selected from within a facet. While allowing a single search to include values from more than one facet is technically possible, it comes with a higher interaction cost and could lead to no results (for example, cross-training athletic shoes that cost less than $75).

CVS and jcpenney search filtering
CVS uses