Why eCommerce needs UX.

Having worked, pitched, analyzed, and evaluated the impacts of UX on an eCommerce business, I still hear an unfortunately familiar refrain from prospects and fellow practitioners: Companies don’t get UX, don’t follow the practices and at best pay lip-service to User Experience. Starting a project with visual design or failing to validate design choices with actual users still happens with regularity, despite over a decade of evangelizing by UX professionals.

Most medium to large-sized eCommerce businesses have years of experience and effective practices for branding, merchandising and technical execution. These are known quantities with clear activities and metrics available to measure progress. But to many organizations, UX is a poorly defined set of practices with no way to measure the ROI of expenditures. If UX practice is included, it’s frequently dragged along, whipsawed behind Agile Development, marketing initiatives and other higher profile activities.

But UX really can and should be a peer of these more established areas. In fact, in order for any of these practices to be effective requires an effective UX group. What types of measurable results is UX intended to produce? Here are a few:

Reduced Rework: Good UX practices can prevent expensive re-work during the development phase of a project. Using wireframes and prototypes, UX professionals can get more engagement from stakeholders on the underlying functionality of an eCommerce site before development takes place. Prototypes can also be user tested to get third-party validation of design choices. No matter how engaged, stakeholders are almost always too close to a project to see subtle usability issues. Much of usability relates to discovery of features and capabilities, and stakeholders who know the intended functionality assume it will be easy to discover.

Improved User Engagement: As pointed out by Nielsen/Norman Group, users generally only stay on a web page for 10-20 seconds, and read little more than 1/4 of the text. User experience professionals can refer to best practices, user studies and user testing to craft an experience that takes full advantage of the limited attention of users. Without UX to moderate, I’ve seen too often that pages become battlefields between different stakeholders, and end up trying to meet everyone’s needs. The end result is a cluttered, unfocused page that drives customers away.

Improved Conversion Rates: We all know conversion is critical, and seemingly small changes can result in outsized effects. Adding too many distractions including banners and promotions can lead people away from the checkout process never to return, and so can forgetting to add crucial information about shipping, return policies and other ‘blocking’ questions that make users feel good about continuing the checkout process. By combining known best practices with user testing and research, User experience can identify and fix issues suppressing your conversion rate.

Repeat purchasers: Getting the first sale with a new customer is difficult and expensive. If you’re not doing everything you can to turn them into a repeat customer, you’re wasting money. Thinking through the user journey, tracking metrics and engagement, applying best practices and (again) user testing not only helps you do a better job with this, it also helps to leverage your marketing and merchandising resources. Crafting the best advertisement or promotion doesn’t matter if you aren’t reaching your customer at the time when they can be influenced, or if they’re unhappy about the service they received with their last purchase.

So how do you get these benefits from User Experience? First, engage your UX team early in the process. During discovery, planning and requirements definition, use prototyping, visualization and user testing to get things right. Don’t jump to design until you’ve figured out how you want your site to behave. Start user testing early, and bake it into your process. I’ve seen some amazing results by teams that do user tests of 3-5 users every week. When you get busy, it’s easy to skip user testing if getting it set up is time consuming. By making it part of your cadence, that feedback is built into the process.

Second, UX is not a phase of eCommerce that ends when development begins. No site is perfect, and user expectations grow and evolve. By keeping UX involved you can meet and anticipate your users needs. Performing UX Audits, ongoing user tests, watching analytics and A/B testing, your User Experience team is critical to the ongoing growth of your online sales. User Experience is still growing and maturing, but current tools and practices are well established and effective. If you want your eCommerce project to succeed, you need UX on your team.

Andrew Mottaz

Andrew is the Sr. Director of Interactive Strategy at Astound. He heads up our User Experience practice and has been helping improve eCommerce UX for over 15 years.