A good design can make a world of difference for an e-commerce site; the right design will sell more goods and also improve the company’s image.

There are lots of e-commerce guidelines, but many are too high-level (‘know your customer’) or too low-level (‘always use a big checkout button’) to be useful.

In this post I’ll try to fill in the gap by providing some mid-level guidelines, or rules of thumb, that you can use to coordinate your e-commerce development efforts.

Approach

By comparing and contrasting various approaches to the design of websites and applications that are geared for e-commerce with experience and testing, there are a few clear best practices. None of them are shocking in their own right – but the trick is to
determine which ones really work for each step in the selling process.

Key steps

While e-commerce transactions vary depending on the type of product and
how it is sold, the key steps usually cover product introduction, presentation of
product information, and getting to closure.

1. Product introduction: The initial state is usually one where
the customer does not see exactly what they want. Typically this is a
landing or interstitial page, from which the customer needs to be given a
reason to trust the company and find out more about the product. At
this stage, the customer wants to confirm that they have a need that can
be met by your company.

2. Product selection: This step includes product catalogues, search
results pages, and product detail pages. Most goals at this stage
involve compare and contrast activities. Often search itself is the only
tool used to narrow down the available choices.

3. Closure: This is where the customer decides to make the
purchase. Getting to yes often involves
filling out forms, viewing disclaimers, and pressing submit buttons.
There are various subjective viewpoints and psychological dynamics at
play here which are not generally well understood.

The best practices

So what are the best practices? Obviously it’s difficult to come up with a perfect formula that applies to every situation. However, there are a few key practices have emerged with something approaching crystal clarity.

1. Product introduction should be shown via persuasive, achievement-oriented processes.
The user should go through a series of steps, which may either be
brand-conceptual or literal clicks, building confidence that they are on
the right track. The Apple website often contains key selling points in
extra-large text along with branding that strongly persuades the user
that they are in the right place.  I can almost hear customers asking questions and thinking aloud, “Check. Check. Check.”

2. Product selection should be intuitive. The right product
should leap out as an obvious choice. The latest American Express
product finder does an excellent job of cutting to the chase by
allowing customers to check off their needs and immediately see targeted
solutions. Compare this approach to the labyrinth of text links
utilised by most financial product guides.

3. Product closure depends on relationship building. Brick and
mortar stores allow the user to pay, grab the product, and run. But
online purchasing is a leap of faith as much as a sale, because
customers will have to wait and see how things work out. An integrated,
personalised purchasing environment can go a long way toward building
trust.  A fast, supportive, non-generic checkout shows you care. So does
allying potential concerns by showing a physical address, TRUSTe,
Better Business Bureau certification, etc.

Results

This post shows a basic framework for designing an e-commerce site, and a lot of sites
do a hodgepodge of some of these elements to varying degrees of success. However, the precise execution of these principles can simply be implemented using a good user experience design process.