Designing an Effective eCommerce Experience: Part 1

Part 1 – The Art of Filtering

If you are responsible for running an ecommerce website then you will agree with me when I say making customers buy products from your website is far more difficult than making them land on your homepage. To some extent, you can solve the latter by throwing money at it. But increasing your conversions takes a lot more than just money. Conversions are all about making your customers feel confident about their purchase decisions and ensuring that the products that get added to the carts also get checked out.

If you look at the purchase process after the need for a product has been established, it flows something like this:

  1. Find all candidate products
  2. Pick the right product:
    1. Narrow down the candidate product list.
    2. Understand the relative strengths & weaknesses of each products
    3. Relate to expert advice and other customer’s experiences.
  3. Make the purchase

Finding Candidate Products

If you have a catalogue of more than a thousand products then one of the primary ways for your customers to get to the product of their choice is through keyword search. This usually works great if the customer exactly knows the product that he intends to buy, for instance ‘Nikon D750’ or ‘Nike Lunarglide 6’. If the store carries that product then in most cases it will show up as the first item in the search results.

However, if the customer knows what he needs the product for but is not sure about the exact make and model then the keyword search does not help much. The search engine ends up throwing a long list of candidate products that may or may not be right for the customer’s needs. So if he searches for ‘cameras for low light shooting conditions’ or ‘shoes with good arch support’ then the search may throw a few hundred products back at him and leave him to figure out which is the right product for you.

Make Up Your Mind

This is where the plot begins to thicken. The customer has now been shown a few hundred products and needs to figure out which one to consider. This again is a three step process. Lets look at the first step:

Picking The Right Product – Narrow Down Candidate Product List

The tools that come to the customer’s aid at this point are the filters and facets available along with the search results. They usually let you filter down the products by Brand, Product Category/Department, Price Range, Color, Customer Rating and a couple of other things. While they offer a good start, these filters really do not help a customer make a purchase decision. People who have tried to filter down a list of 3,500 products based on these filters know what I am talking about.

Interestingly, for most eCommerce retailers these filters do not change with different product category. Irrespective of what the customers are trying to buy, the ecommerce stores expect them to narrow down their search for the right product with these universal filters. Here is an example of search filters from some of the popular eCommerce websites:

You will notice that even though they are selling different products, all the search filters look conspicuously similar.

There is one fundamental problem with these filters – they lack the human/emotional aspect and do not understand how the customer is going to use these products. Let me explain – Imagine a customer walking into a shoe section of a retail store. She walks up to the sales assistant and tells her that she wants to see Adidas shoes which are blue in color and are under $50. Or someone walking into a camera store and asking the sales person to show him a Nikon camera under $500. Sounds a little absurd, doesn’t it?

This is quite non-typical and does not depict how customers talk about or relate to products. A more realistic conversation would be, “I want to buy a camera for my 18 year old daughter who is into wildlife photography” or “In my work, I need to stand for a long period of time every day. Which shoes would you recommend for me?” See, if your customers do not know the exact product they want to buy then they will need a more human conversation about the product. Product specification based filters are unlikely to help them make up their mind.

People relate to products in terms of how they are going to use it, what the products are really good for and then apply price range/brand filter to make the final choice. A good, engaging search and browse experience should flow from customer’s need to the product and not from product features to customer.

In my next post, I will talk about the second step of the decision making cycle – understanding strengths and weaknesses of each product.

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