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When the news about Marks and Spencer’s sales results broke a couple of weeks ago it immediately got my attention.

The Chief Executive and other senior figureheads clearly laid the blame of the 8.1% drop in sales and resulting share price dip on the launch of its new website.

The new site comprised a smart redesign coupled with a platform shift from Amazon’s services to its own.

There have been many documented cases of website usability causing a huge impact to revenue (the $300m button being the most famous) so I wondered whether this too was one such example or whether more cynically perhaps, the City had been handed an unfortunate scapegoat. 

The answer became all too clear after running tests using whatusersdo. We asked six users to perform some typical tasks on the site, finding two items of clothing, adding them to their basket and going part way through the purchase process. Half the users completed the test on a tablet and half used a desktop.

The tests soon revealed several usability and performance issues that ranged from those causing frustration and requiring a workaround to those of a critical nature that would either have been unrecoverable outside of a test scenario or cause the user to have left the site.

Critical performance issues

In terms of providing a good user experience in online retail and helping customers towards a purchase, preventing a user from getting to the checkout page has to be the most fundamental error.

Allowing them to get to the checkout but not to complete the selection of a delivery option is just as bad. Allowing items disappear from a customers shopping basket is just plain cruel.

Amazingly these tests uncovered all these scenarios, seemingly not a result of poor design but rather because of technical or performance problems.

The following clip shows a user who is unable to progress through the purchase process after having added two items to her bag.

She clicks on the checkout button several times but it simply reloads the shopping bag page. This user does eventually succeed after trying again via the home page but in the real world many others may not. 

 

In this test, the user has opted to have her items delivered to her local store. She enters the town name in the search box (Bristol, so not a minor village) but no results display.

She even changes the name of the town to no avail.

This clip shows the user rightly become very confused that the dress she added to the basket earlier is no longer displaying in the basket. I could not work out any plausible reason for this.

If the item had become out of stock while she was completing the purchase then surely an error message could have been displayed.

 

Platform migration constraints

We know users do not take kindly to having to register and create an account and many retailers cater for this now by allowing people to checkout as a guest user.

In changing retail platforms, evidently M&S could not port across users’ account details and opted to require them to change their passwords. 

As someone who forgets passwords on a shamefully regular basis, I did not even notice this request when it was made to me. However, the more attentive among the M&S customer base evidently did and were not impressed, as shown in the clip below in which the user has trouble receiving the password reset email which takes an overly long time.

She states she would have left the site had this not been a test situation and no doubt many others along with her.

Usability issues with filters

There was one particular filter category that M&S provide to narrow product selection that seems distinctly more trouble than it’s worth – the ‘Size’ category.

On selecting this either with or without another filter, users reasonably expect the items before them to be narrowed down to those available in the selected size. Instead of this though, the site still shows all the items but simply shows a small text indication, which most users miss, on the product page.

So, because the user is focusing on the product image and working out whether they like it or not, they click into the product details page only to find that it is out of stock.

Invariably this causes much frustration and confusion.  This is not the only site that behaves this way and I’m at a loss to understand why. The behaviour of this filter is completely inconsistent with others.

For example if I choose colour blue, I’m only shown items in blue and all the pink ones are removed from my view. Why can't the size filter behave this way?

If the intention is to try and display as much stock as possible in the hope that the user will select perhaps a different colour of the out of stock item in their size then the indication must be made much clearer than it currently is.

There are other usability issues with the filters too, particular on a tablet. The filters seem to behave unpredictably, closing themselves just as you’re browsing through one of them. Also the text used for the category headings is very small (as is some of the other text on the site) on a tablet's default view.

Users found the interaction between the product ‘Quick View’ feature and the selected filters to be unintuitive. When they clicked the browser back button they found that their selected filters had all cleared. This could be very frustrating having spent the time narrowing down a large selection. 

Product information

Users noticed a lack of detailed product information which they were looking for to support their buying decision. This may have prevented them from committing to the purchase.

Some users looked for more detailed information to explain what certain size categories meant, such as how long a regular dress would be. There was no explanation of this in the size guide.

Other sites also provide the model’s height to help gauge the fit of an item which would have been helpful here. Also some filter categories just seem plain wrong and a bug or two have clearly been missed. Is there really a difference between ‘Regular’ and ‘Standard’? Also ‘Petit’ and ‘Petite’, anyone?

Navigation

Again tablet users experienced a poorer experience when it came to navigation.

Having chosen the ‘Women’ section from the main menu, they wondered what the difference was between the 'explore womenswear' and 'clothing' options.  ‘Explore Womenswear’ actually displays more options for browsing by brand or style but I wonder if this heading is too subtle. 

Positive elements

Users did comment on some positive aspects of the site, such as the slick look and feel and certain new features. The filters feature some interesting categories such as ‘Dresses under £40’ which is a handy shortcut as well as the usual occasion or style headings.

Also users can make use of a ‘Style Advisor’ feature. This wizard-like feature asks users to select various size, colouring and style criteria and in return it displays recommended items of clothing, saving these details for future visits and email updates.

Although it is a bit too longwinded, this could be an attractive feature to anyone who is blinded by the range of choice in most retailers.

However, it is a shame that this feature is powered by a third party (Dressipi) and not by Marks and Spencer themselves since account details are not linked up and it is necessary to enter email and name details separately.

Conclusion 

I would like to know more about the issues above like whether rigorous usability testing was done well in advance of the launch, though it’s really not my place to pry.

What I can clearly see however is that this handful of users exposed many serious concerns which would have hindered purchasing. Multiply that by the customer base and there, perhaps, is your 8.1%. 

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Published 25 August, 2014 by Kathryn McDonnell

Kathryn McDonell is a User Experience Consultant at WhatUsersDo.com and a contributor to Econsultancy.

12 more posts from this author

Comments (33)

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John Brown

"I would like to know more about the issues above like whether rigorous usability testing was done well in advance of the launch" - a reasonable question and I suspect we all know the answer! Apparently the person in charge of the redesign has now been promoted, no less than they deserve after such a lacklustre effort with the website!

almost 2 years ago

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Richard Bishop

This is an great article Kathryn. I recently wrote a blog article describing the poor performance of the M&S site from a "web application performance" perspective, but it's interesting to see that M&S failed to get the UX right as well.

I suspect that a tight delivery schedule meant that UX as well as performance testing was left too late, sadly this is all too common in our industry.

The bad user experience that you describe coupled with the performance problems may well account for the 8.1% fall that we each described in our articles.

almost 2 years ago

Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton, Editor in Chief at ClickZ Global

I'd guess that the biggest contributing factor was the decision to make every single customer register again. I'm not sure if moving away from Amazon's platform made this necessary, but if not it was a very odd decision.

almost 2 years ago

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Lionel Matecha

If any type of site should have exhaustive usability testing it is ecommerce - especially when the stakes are high. Jumping to a new platform is a tough challenge and needs an extra dose of planning. Tough situation.

almost 2 years ago

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Gerard

Looking at the comments on the earlier article the drop in sales would seem to have only come as a surprise to M&S.

It seems the whole exercise was "design" led, and UX and technical performance was compromised by it.

However it is probably indicative of a general malaise in M&S as they are making a lot of basic mistakes in their retail side too

almost 2 years ago

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Deri Jones, CEO at SciVisum.co.uk

> because of technical or performance problems ...she clicks on the checkout button several times but it simply reloads the shopping bag page.

This is a familiar story - especially after a site refresh.
No retail site is ever 100% free, all of the time.

<sales mode on>
Those kind of problems online are what we help our retail clients to find (and fix) every day.

Sometimes they are obvious (like M&S ).
Sometimes they are more subtle and can impact a percent of shoppers for weeks, un-noticed: eg:
* add-to-basket button fails, but only if a dress is in the basket
* the add-to-basket button is not shown - but only to iPad users doing 'click and collect'

<sales mode off>

almost 2 years ago

Mark Selwyn

Mark Selwyn, eCommerce and Multi-Channel Retail Consultant

"the ‘Size’ category. On selecting this either with or without another filter, users reasonably expect the items before them to be narrowed down to those available in the selected size"

I was told the other day that giving the customer the ability to add an out of stock product to the basket, and then the add to basket message says "Sorry out of stock", was OK.

Huh, hows that then?

almost 2 years ago

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Deri Jones, CEO at SciVisum.co.uk

> I was told the other day that ...

No that is not ideal UI.
You want to reduce uncertainty n the mid of your user - if just obce they click and are told' put of stock': thereafter on every page they wonder: 'Is it even worth me considering this product, when my size may be out of stock.... should I click 'add to basket' on every page, to find out the stoc situation, before I think too long about whether I like the product.

This is something that Boden led the way in the UK: they have have for many years presented the user with a nice matrix of size + colours, showing which in, out or low or stock.

almost 2 years ago

Mark Selwyn

Mark Selwyn, eCommerce and Multi-Channel Retail Consultant

Yup Boden and Boux Avenue do it well.

BTW I did tell them that they were mad.........unfortunately some people prefer using their mouths to their ears......which is fine if its a nice bottle of Shiraz.......rambling a bit now..... :D

almost 2 years ago

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Ian

One problem that the new M&S website has found itself embroiled in was the fascination with the buzzword content marketing which has been shouted from the rooftops on sites such as econsultancy as the way forward for SEO etc.

And in some sectors content marketing is correct after all its the lifeblood for sites like Trip Advisor, Conde Nast etc.

However when an ecommerce site such as M&S moves it focus away from what its there to do 'selling items' and has their new website pushing more editorial content then they are in big trouble and that has what has happened.

almost 2 years ago

Mark Selwyn

Mark Selwyn, eCommerce and Multi-Channel Retail Consultant

>>>>> fascination with the buzzword content marketing which has been shouted from the rooftops on sites such as econsultancy

Agree.

almost 2 years ago

Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton, Editor in Chief at ClickZ Global

@ian @Mark I don't see what content marketing has to do with the UX problems outlined in this article. Either a site works as an ecommerce site and is easy to use or not. Content marketing has no effect on that.

We have talked about content marketing on this blog because it's a strategy that can work very well for brands. It's worked for us, and it has worked for fashion retailers like Net A Porter too.

We certainly haven't advised ecommerce sites to ignore UX and testing and just concentrate on content...

almost 2 years ago

Mark Selwyn

Mark Selwyn, eCommerce and Multi-Channel Retail Consultant

Hi Graham - FWIW my own personal perception of econsultancy is that a few years ago, it was the go-to place for "ecommerce consultancy" - articles, papers, training etc. ecommerce (read selling) at econsultancy now seems somewhat marginalised in favour of digital marketing (read content). Possibly you are just responding to "where the money is".......bums on training seats. And the number of digital marketing bums at M&S outnumbered the number of ecommerce bums at M&S, ending up with a "magazine/content site".......who knows.

Maybe it was always thus and its just my perception. Im sure you have stats to refute my perception.

Anyways, gotta go and upload a photo of me replying to your post. Please like it.....

almost 2 years ago

Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton, Editor in Chief at ClickZ Global

@Mark I'd like to think we have a balance between the two, and both are important. We do take note of what our audience responds to, and there is interest in both. Certainly, my focus has been more on ecommerce than anything else.

You'll find that most of my recent articles are ecommerce related: https://econsultancy.com/blog/authors/graham-charlton

I think digital marketing is broader than just content, but is M&S has allowed a focus on content marketing to blind it to ecommerce and UX basics, then it has made a mistake.

I think content and ecommerce can work together well, and there are sites that do this well. That said, the commerce should come first and the content should complement it, I think we'd agree on that.

almost 2 years ago

Mark Selwyn

Mark Selwyn, eCommerce and Multi-Channel Retail Consultant

>>>>>> the commerce should come first and the content should complement it, I think we'd agree on that.

100% agree Graham.

>>>>>> is M&S has allowed a focus on content marketing to blind it to ecommerce and UX basics, then it has made a mistake.

Another 100% agreement.

>>>>>>I'd like to think we have a balance between the two

I understand your commercial need to go where the money is (I have an apparition of Jindal Past in front of me saying almost the exact same phrase!!!).

However one thing M&S have uniquely managed to do is measure the value of all the fluffy stuff.......lets call it a round minus 8%!!!

almost 2 years ago

Ashley Friedlein

Ashley Friedlein, Founder, Econsultancy & President, Centaur Marketing at Econsultancy, Centaur MarketingStaff

@Mark interesting to read your perceptions of Econsultancy. We've always straddled both 'commerce' and 'marketing'. And we've always seen digital in the context of multichannel.

Ultimately this is because I think it is really about customer focus and ensuring the customer journey and customer experience are as good as they can be. That is not about 'channnels', nor is it about 'marketing' vs 'commerce/sales'.

Out of interest who do you see should be running 'ecommerce' in a business? My view is that it should sit under a C-level executive who is in charge of the customer experience across ALL channels. And rather than call that something new like Chief Customer Officer, I'd stick with CMO but recognise that what people have sometime understand as 'marketing' is outdated. That's why I wrote the modern marketing manifesto (https://econsultancy.com/blog/62668-our-modern-marketing-manifesto-will-you-sign). And I think that CMO role should be the one that is understood to be the stepping stone to becoming CEO. Not finance, not 'sales', not operations, not logistics etc.

So I see ecommerce as part of marketing ultimately. But a kind of marketing that is, really, the business itself.

almost 2 years ago

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aidan

Only slightly ironic that the website link to whatusersdo.com throws a 404.

almost 2 years ago

Mark Selwyn

Mark Selwyn, eCommerce and Multi-Channel Retail Consultant

>>>>>>> Out of interest who do you see should be running 'ecommerce' in a business?

I actually think (despite the rest of this article, and ignoring titles) M&S got the structure right.........

>>>>>> ‘To ensure one view of the customer Laura Wade-Gery, executive director, multi-channel, assumes responsibility for UK Retail, in addition to her current M&S.com remit.’

.....and.....

>>>>>> Marks & Spencer boss Marc Bolland has promoted online guru Laura Wade-Gery to heir apparent in a boardroom reshuffle. http://www.thisismoney.co.uk/money/markets/article-2675407/M-S-boss-Marc-Bolland-promotes-Laura-Wade-Gery-heir-apparent.html#ixzz3BUH71SWV

I don't know where "multi-channel marketing" sits in the M&S structure, but my view FWIW is that it is a supporting function to that sales role.

>>>>>> So I see ecommerce as part of marketing ultimately. But a kind of marketing that is, really, the business itself.

Not sure if we are agreeing or not!!!

PS Be great if you could enable <b> type tags to help readability.

almost 2 years ago

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Jack Jarvis, Owner at The Website Review Company

@Mark Selwyn - In the original post when the site was launched, you shared an example of a poor experience when sharing a mobile URL and viewing on a desktop...its still just as bad.

So not only was the site lunched with issues, half a year later they have not addressed them.

M&S really need to run a full site audit with usability testing and get things fixed before Christmas, otherwise they could be in for a painful festive season.

almost 2 years ago

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Hazel

Hi Kathryn,

I'm really surprised that you seem to have made no effort to contact the UX team at M&S before criticising various aspects of the site.

It seems a shame that there's apparently been no opportunity for them to comment before this article was published.

Have you sent your findings over to them since?

almost 2 years ago

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LE Borgne

I personally have mixed feelings about this article. I do not wish to comment on the “marketing content” Vs “e-commerce” dicussion because it is clearly today a full time topic within most e-commerce team.

On one hand, clearly there are some technical related issues that should never have been overlooked by M&S and somehow should have been addressed prior launch.

On another hand, if releasing 3 or 4 User test video clips (involving a total of 6 people...) allows to draw performance conclusion (somehow related to M&S global financial results as a joke of course..), I am pretty confident that not many websites (regardless their size and field of business) will get a “clean bill of health” in this context.

When performance is at stake, I wonder if size (sample) and relevancy do not somehow matter...

almost 2 years ago

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Jack Jarvis, Owner at The Website Review Company

@Hazel - This is not an official report, its just an observational report. Should the author have got them to fix all the issues, test and then write a report stating that M&S have done an exceptional job?

Testing is an internal operation and if M&S are not aware of the issues then they are not doing a good enough job to ensure their website meets customers expectations.

A company of their size should be running regular audits to ensure their site runs smoothly.

There was an article published when they launched and people highlighted a number of issues which have not been fixed. If they do not want to take any notice of a basic free report then that is their issue.

almost 2 years ago

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Hazel

Hi Jack,

I do recognise that there are a number of issues with the site, but given the readership and influence of this blog, I would have thought that more effort would have been made to get the other side of the story and at the very least, notify M&S of the article.

Kathryn is not just putting on a usability hat here - this is journalism. I believe that in the interest of good journalism, one should try to get more than one angle.

Also - what's the difference between an official report and an observational report?

almost 2 years ago

Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton, Editor in Chief at ClickZ Global

@LE The tests are what they are. They suggest that the site has some issues, and the results of the tests are clearer than other sites we've looked at in this way. See a recent post on Morrisons for instance: https://econsultancy.com/blog/64396-what-user-tests-tell-us-about-morrisons-grocery-site

We would of course recommend that M&S look into these issues further, with a larger sample size as well as other methods, before making any drastic changes. However, they do at least indicate that there are potential issues to be investigated.

@Hazel I have actually emailed this article across to M&S, but we're under no obligation to wait for comment from M&S or any other brand before publishing an article, though many do contact us after reading such articles (and most welcome constructive criticism).

We would also allow M&S a right of reply if they wanted one.

almost 2 years ago

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Hazel

Thanks for the reply Graham.

I think it would have been interesting to know what their testing set up was and how thoroughly they did go through the UX before launch.

almost 2 years ago

Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton, Editor in Chief at ClickZ Global

@Hazel My colleague Ben Davis spoke to M&S around the time of the launch, and they did talk of extensive testing. More here: https://econsultancy.com/blog/64362-m-s-launches-new-website-focuses-on-curation-clustering-and-content

As and when M&S makes any further changes, we'll revisit this article and perhaps re-run the same tests.

almost 2 years ago

Mark Selwyn

Mark Selwyn, eCommerce and Multi-Channel Retail Consultant

Im sure we've all been on projects where the testing happens too late for any meaningful changes to be made within the planned timescales.....I cant believe this site sailed through the testing, so maybe they decided to launch and fix it later (although no sight of fixes yet).

almost 2 years ago

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Anna

I had items vanish from cart repetedly - when I spoke to them on the phone they were very skeptical. Additionally, stocking levels are not live, so if when I 30 mins shopping, when I came to pay, 60/70% of items where not in stock.

almost 2 years ago

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NC Sokolic

Very interesting, but more interesting would be a comparison to other retailers. Surely the others have problems in these areas as well, or did M&S really get it that wrong?

over 1 year ago

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Ulf

Hi,

What I would like to know are did they deliver on time and on budget?
There would be a lot of big companies where this is the target for the ones responsibly for the deliveries.
And it does to me look like they did not have a test driven development, the basket might have worked at one point but then some other stuff made it fail later.

Further the get new image to post here took me away from this.

over 1 year ago

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Ian

Mark, Graham et al this is the first chance I have had to look over the responses and discussions to my previous comments.

@Mark Agree with everything you say, its a shame that the M&S website has gone backwards which no doubt has effected sales via its ecommerce channel.

M&S need to take a look at Amazon - their website has changed via little over the years and the changes have been very subtle and simple and for good reason their website is effective and offers great UX, and there is no focus of content marketing in their site.

@Graham The reason why content marketing has effected the UX is because their new website tends to push its focus on integrating as much editorial copy into the site thus affecting the performance of its ecommerce platform.

With regard to content and ecommerce again I would point to Amazon, the only real content that many ecommerce users want to see when shopping on the website is reviews (customer and professional reviews) which is what Amazon deliver well.

You mention net a porter but M&S is a totally different beast from net a porter with a different demographic

Another mistake I feel M&S are making online is that its neglecting one of its prize assets its food which generally outperforms clothing sales. Why hasn't M&S launched an online grocery delivery service to compete with other high end grocery retailers such as Waitrose.

It's taken long enough for Morrisons to realise that they need an online grocery service and I wonder when M&S will realise the same to drive sales forward online.

over 1 year ago

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Hazel - lost customer

I'm not interested in the technicalities that make a site useable and excuses for problems - only whether the site works for me as a customer! The new M&S site doesn't.
I use my iPad and pages on this new site are slow to load, the navigation is laborious and page scrolling is jerky.
Since this new site was launched I have not purchased a single item of clothing online -previously I was a regular purchaser. Other retailers' sites work very well and I use them instead now.
I responded to an M&S feedback enquiry soon after their website launch and received a "we are sorry you are experiencing some problems with our new site....." email. But I haven't noticed any improvement in site usability since.

over 1 year ago

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