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What constitutes usability best practice for e-commerce? In fact, what makes something/anything 'best practice'?

I’m the first one to say that I regularly refer to ‘usability best practice’ and best practice is certainly a phrase used often enough by Econsultancy. I thought it would be worth starting a discussion on what you think when they hear this term, and what you feel justifies having the label ‘best practice’.

Or perhaps you feel it should just be banished from our industry!

How I have formed opinions on 'usability best practice'

In the world of usability and user experience, particularly within the e-commerce sector, my opinions and recommendations on best practice have been formed through a variety of ways:

  • By working within the e-commerce usability field for over 12 years.
  • By facilitating a range of user testing sessions, particularly on retail websites.
  • By evaluating the user experience of both market leading and up and coming e-commerce websites.
  • By benchmarking retailers.
  • By planning and observing split and multi-variate e-commerce testing projects.
  • By observing what segmented web analytics data is saying about a sites performance.
  • By learning from my industry peers.

Of course all of this doesn’t mean that what I use as best practice will be the same as others who have similar or different experiences to myself, and I’m interested to find out how you form opinions on 'what is best practice?'.

A few examples of e-commerce best practice

To get the ball rolling I thought I would provide a few examples of what I use as best practice tips and recommendations for retailers, along with providing a few links to relevant articles.

Navigation best practice

For retailers, particularly those that have large product sets, below are a few key best practice tips when it comes to product navigation:

  • Provide attribute filtering, or faceted navigation as we like to call it.
  • Provide a breadcrumb to clearer show where you are within a product catalogue.
  • Provide a prominent link back to the homepage.
  • Provide flyout navigation menus.

If you’re interested there is more information on attribute filtering for e-commerce, as well as insights from e-commerce user testing on what real users feel about large flyout navigation menus (see point two).

Shopping basket best practice

I have talked about this in quite a bit of detail on my post ‘Shopping basket best practice from ASOS’ and if you haven’t seen it I recommend you take a look. The comments provide additional insights, particularly from James Hart, e-commerce Director at ASOS.

Below is quick summary of some shopping basket best practice elements:

  • Only one prominent call to action, the proceed to checkout button.
  • Visibility and transparency of delivery options and standard costs.
  • Individual stock availability made clear.
  • Secure shopping emphasised.
  • Payment options available made clear.

Checkout best practice

The first time I wrote on here about checkout best practice was just over two years ago on a post titled ‘Are retailers following best practice to improve conversions?’ Over the last two years much more has been written and discussed when it comes to checkout best practice, not least with Econsultancy's comprehensive ‘Checkout optimization guide’.

You might also be interested in reading my post on best practice tips for handling new customer checkout.

I’ll save my keyboard by not repeating lots of what has been written already on this subject, but one thing remains true at the time of writing – there are many retailers, big and small, who would benefit from adopting more of what I and others recommend as checkout best practice.

When insights from lab based user testing support best practice usability tips

There are two recent articles for homeware retailer Lakeland which provide an example of how insights from user testing supports what is put forward as usability best practice. The user testing article '9 women x 9 hours = 9 usability insights' was followed soon after with this article: '10 best practices from the new Lakeland website'.

So what does ‘best practice’ mean to you?

The purpose of this post (which is pretty short compared to my usual efforts such as this one!) is to hopefully generate some debate & comments on the following questions:

  • What does usability best practice, in particular for retailers, means to you?
  • How do you form opinions on what constitutes best practice?
  • Do you agree or disagree with some of the best practice points I’ve put forward here?
  • How important is best practice in your particular field, irrespective of what this is?
  • Have I overdone the use of the phrase best practice in this post…?!
Paul Rouke

Published 27 April, 2011 by Paul Rouke

Paul Rouke is Founder & CEO at PRWD, author and a contributor to Econsultancy. You can follow him on Twitter or hook up with him on LinkedIn.

35 more posts from this author

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Matthew Curry

Matthew Curry, Head of Ecommerce at Lovehoney

I believe, generally, that best practise isn't a set of rules to be followed, but rather a best guess.

So, you would take what has been learnt to work for others as your opening gambit when designing your site. Whether those guesses are right for your site is something different altogether, and shouldn't be adhered to simply because everyone else does them.

I can think of 2 examples from my own work history where the site performs better when flouting best practise.

1) It's considered that a single page, enclosed checkout is the way to go nowadays. There's a great post on Get Elastic about it http://www.getelastic.com/single-page-checkout/

However - and as I commented on that article - in usability testing for a niche I was working in, the single page performed less well than the multipage. Anecdotal evidence pointed out that users preferred to have "save points" throughout the process, and were afraid to press the Big Button at the end in case they had done something wrong and had to start again.

2) UCG, especially reviews, are great for reinforcing the buying mentality of visitors, says Best Practise. However in a recent usability test, we found that product reviews put "newbie" visitors off. The level of detail and frankness (remember what I'm selling here) was alarming. A key quote was "Who would write this sort of thing?!"

So, I would say, follow best practise up to a point. It will certainly get you part of the way there to a well performing site. However this HAS to be followed by specific and regular user testing and multivariate testing to find out what is best practise for your particular ecommerce segment.

about 5 years ago

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Nick Watson

Aside from the obvious "general best practices" which mainly require you to use your common sense, I think the real best practice that applies to all businesses is to use split testing, research and find out what works best for your customers.

E-commerce is so diverse that what works for one industry may not necessarily work for another.

It is all so varied that not every best practice listed out there necessarily fits the business model.

about 5 years ago

Tim Watson

Tim Watson, Email Marketing Consultant at Zettasphere

I have to agree I get a little exasperated by the banding around of the best practice term.
Very often the best practice advice needs to go with a bucket load of assumptions and caveats under which its applicable best practice. Much best practice tends to suggest you can do marketing with a painting by numbers approach. This isn’t the case. I wrote about this in context of email marketing here http://dmaemailblog.com/2010/08/12/email-best-practice-is-dead-long-live-best-practice/

I see best practice should be broken into
- Legal compliance
- Must do rules
- Guidelines and principles
Legal compliance is obvious as not only best practice but something you have to do.

Must do rules are things like ensure HTML is correctly encoded and validated, check your pages in major browsers, allow for javascript being disabled.

Guidelines and principles is the rest, such as use flyout navigation menus. These are things generally found to be good but this best practice can be ignored with positive results.

about 5 years ago

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Darrin J. Searancke

I think this articles makes very relevant usability points. Often a bad example helps illustrate these for the end user - I have been frustrated and read many frustrated comments about the (sorry to say) GoDaddy site. Navigation and purchasing from this site has been described as both frustrating and counter-intuitive. I would agree that this an example of NOT applying ‘usability best practice’ for the end user.

about 5 years ago

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Depesh Mandalia, Head of Digital Marketing at Lost My Name

There are some well defined best practices followed in usability that span everyday life. Take the humble washing machine. Best practice washing machine design dictates amongst other attributes, a certain width (to fit most kitchen units), a door (without which you can't get clothes in), a recommended drum size (to fit most wash baskets) and some controls (with which to operate it) - beyond that is what defines each brand.

In the same way, online/e-commerce usability is just that, a few core items that you must get right and the rest is what defines your website, brand and customer experience.

about 5 years ago

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Joshua Barnes

One point that doesn't really get emphasized too much in the realm of 'best-practices' is just that the best practices are kind of what Tim is saying.

The way I think about a best practice is, this is the best possible method, assuming perfect conditions. Now, apply it to my situation, which is not perfect. No ones is. Yet, the value of the guideline is something to work from in order to feel like you're not guessing and that you can systematically track what you're doing, and now you know why.

This makes tuning and adjustment easier. The biggest mistake people can make is taking their environment from a non-best-practices conformed environment and switching it over to a wholly best-practices conformed environment without thinking about how their situation might be unique and thinking through mitigating circumstances. Which, unfortunately tends to be the practice of the under-informed.

about 5 years ago

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Will Smith

Great article. It is sometimes all too easy to get caught up with the look and feel of a site and forget about the user experience.

I always find that a heavily planned and commented wireframe ensures that key areas of engagement are not missed.

As mentioned in a previous comment cross browser functionality is vital but we must progress at the same time.

about 5 years ago

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Graeme Rochester, Lead Front End Developer, AWA

The implication with the phrase 'best practice' is that it is interpreted as 'guaranteed results generator', i.e. If you do ABC you will reap the rewards.

It's not a term that I like as it is all too often used as a discussion-ender, "We're doing it this way because it's best practice" can kill debate and exploration before it has even started and kill off the chance of a better idea coming through.

Best practice is a constantly evolving and moving target. Being overly dramatic, if it didn't evolve we'd all still be building the sites we did ten years ago and the web would be a very stagnant place.

For me it's about keeping an eye on what people respond to, what supports, reassures and enhances a customer's visit. Then it's about understanding where your own site and its audience fits and making a call on what you are going to try and how it needs to be implemented.

For example, if you have had reviews on the site for years and they haven't really taken off, is it pertinent to keep including the feature and pushing it in listings just because others deem it be 'best practice'.

If your site is broad but not very deep, is it worth putting in a breadcrumb because of all the articles saying it's 'best practice'.

There are lots of things that you should do under any circumstance - clear signposting, obvious calls to action - but that's just 'common sense' isn't it? The rest is always up for grabs and should always be revisited with an eye to improvement.

Discovering what might be the next 'best practice' is the interesting part. It's about people rocking the boat of existing preconceptions and having the brave new ideas, not being afraid to try them out, not being afraid for something to be 'wrong' or underperform, and - perhaps most importantly - having clients that trust the process enough that they are willing to potentially sacrifice some revenue, sales, conversions in order to do so.

about 5 years ago

Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton, Editor in Chief at ClickZ Global

Some excellent points here. Matthew Curry's examples show that best practice shouldn't be blindly followed, testing and experimentation is the key.

As Paul points out in the article, we use the term a lot on this blog, but it does come with the 'bucketload of assumptions and caveats' that Tim refers to.

about 5 years ago

Paul Rouke

Paul Rouke, Founder & Director of Optimisation at PRWDSmall Business Multi-user

First off thanks to everyone who has commented so far, your thoughts, observations and personal insights are very much appreciated and just the kind of stuff I was hoping to see.

Special mention must go to Matthew Curry for commenting comprehensively within 11 minutes of the post going live!

@Matthew - thanks for the 2 interesting examples. I must say that 'best practice' being relabeled as 'best guess' seems a bit too 'finger in the air' to me!

As you rightly say user testing & customer research coupled with on-going testing and optimisation, along with 'best practice', will ensure that retailers are best catering for their own, however mainstream or niche, audience.

There are however best practices, or common sense elements as they may be seen by industry folk, which apply for all retailers, and therefore following/implementing these shouldn't be seen simply as a guess. For sceptical retailers they can of course still split test the changes just to make sure they will have a positive impact on their site performance.

@Nick - yep agree, research and testing is the way forward and I fully expect more and more retailers will be embracing this approach over the next 1-2 years.

@Tim - thanks for your comments and link. Out of interest could you expand on what you would see fitting in to the 'must do rules' category, or in what sense you are meaning?

about 5 years ago

Paul Rouke

Paul Rouke, Founder & Director of Optimisation at PRWDSmall Business Multi-user

@Darrin - thanks for your comments and site reference.

@Depesh - I appreciate your comments and the reference to usability in everyday life. I'm not sure how sizeable you see the list of 'a few core items that you must get right'? In my experience, when you start to look at individual pages of the buying journey on e-commerce sites you can soon build up a decent size list of best practice items on which to move forward and, if necessary, test with.

On the customer research and testing & optimisation front I take it these are key elements of how the Tesco online experience is delivered & improved?

@Joshua - thanks for your considered and insightful comments. Your example of a retailer jumping from one end of the spectrum to the other is very interesting. Your comment 'systematically track what you're doing' is spot on too.

@Will - I appreciate your comments and wireframe learnings.

@Graeme - thanks for your very comprehensive comments. I particularly like your reference to whether best practice is merely common sense! I've got to say I can't see Econsultancy updating their guides anytime soon to replace the term 'xxx Best Practice Guide' with 'xxx Common Sense Guide'.

I like your idealist approach to discovering the next 'best practice' too - do you find many of your retail clients are genuinely comfortable with it, especially when it comes to potential revenue/conversion sacrifices?

about 5 years ago

Nicolas Bürki

Nicolas Bürki, Web Practice Leader & Founder at effbis

One way to look at this discussion is also to investigate the value of best practices, or when to use it:

Web design best practices serve primarily as a decision tool to reduce time for agreement on the new site design. Best practices allow the Web steering committee to explore proven and successful design options. At this discovery stage, the value of best practices is to sensibilize the Web team about successful design practices. The sensibilization phase targets to eliminate the individual team member’s visions, which deviate too radically from proven design implementations (for example: usage of animations on the home page or providing mainly information on the home page instead of linking to the information, see PracticeByte, “Common Mistakes: Home Page Design”, available on www.effinfo.com”).

Once the majority of the team member – ideally everyone – buys into the acceptance of leveraging best practices for the new Web site, the next and final step consists of negotiating and agreeing on the various design options. During the negotiation phase, the Web team needs in many cases to compromise best practices. Rejecting best practices is not critical as long as the Web team understands the associated risk and is willing to accept it. Compromises dramatically reduce time to find agreement on site design. Especially, if an external and neutral facilitator assists the Web team to find compromises, several months lasting discussions can be successfully concluded within less than one session. Further, for new site development, a best practice workshop can even avoid to start such long internal debates.

about 5 years ago

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Ed Longley

I am a fan of the phrase "usability best practice".

It's a convenient way of saying (for me at least) in meetings:

"The application of user centred design to the human computer interface that takes into account the specific and differing needs of users based on the context, product, industry, location, device and user location. It is designed to ensure the optimal website effectiveness for users delivering commercial value."

It also neatly allows HIPPO conversations to be moved nicely along.

I don't take my car for a Ministry of Transport test. I take it for an MOT. Same thing. Life is too short for spelling things out in long hand.

Just my two cents.

about 5 years ago

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tracy godding, Lead User Experience Consultant at Madgex

I'm a fan too - I think Usability best practice is about recommending ways of doing things that have been proven to work well for users, validated by a mixture of your own experience and research and others research. Most of the time this will produce good results but not always - a good usability practitioner will be flexible as best practice is not set in stone but constantly changing with people, culture and technology.

about 5 years ago

Tim Watson

Tim Watson, Email Marketing Consultant at Zettasphere

@Paul Re 'must do rules'.

Must do rules are the things that are unequivocally the right thing to do.

Could there ever be a case when usability testing is not appropriate? How about:

- Test that the website works as intended.
- Test in different browsers and devices used by customers.
- Ensure usability under highest traffic load expected.
- Make pages and functions respond to the customer quickly.
- Ensure there is sufficient size and contrast for legibility.
- Split test and optimise for usability.

How about bigger picture thoughts:
- Do design for usability (ever seen a site that didn't?)
- Make it fast for a customer to achieve their objective
- Make it obvious what a customer should do next
- Don't have clutter that distracts from your objective or your customers

This is without doubt a great summary of key items:

* Only one prominent call to action, the proceed to checkout button.
* Visibility and transparency of delivery options and standard costs.
* Individual stock availability made clear.
* Secure shopping emphasised.
* Payment options available made clear.

Whilst I've never seen anyone suggest you shouldn't always do these things, I have seen many curious and counter expected results in marketing, so I'd be prepared to believe they aren't always all critical. Hence are these guidelines and principles. That is do them unless you know why you aren't doing them.

Considering stock availability; is a customer interested in stock level, or are they actually interested in how quickly they can have the item in their hands? Stock level is used as a proxy for being able to have the item quickly.

To be clear, my main experience lies in email and marketing 'best practice' rather than eCommerce usability best practice. I found your post interesting in some parallels to use of 'best practice' phrase in email marketing and the Zen like quality sometimes attached to something best practice. Its declared best practice and it must be so. I'm not looking to challenge your eCommerce wisdom.

about 5 years ago

Sarah Alder

Sarah Alder, Managing Director at Cranmore Digital Consulting Ltd

I agree with Ed Longley about it being a useful way of smoothing over crazy ideas from the CEO or others who swoop in at the final stages of a project and want to make changes without understanding the thinking. However, reading these other comments I wonder if perhaps we do all just use it as a pompous way of saying "In my experience, what you are suggesting is a crazy idea and won't work because [insert sensible, verifiable, politely worded reasons]". And isn't that what people pay us to know and to say? Are we just being lazy or cowardly? Oh dear, I think I am going to have to work harder. Thanks for that Paul.

about 5 years ago

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Andrew Edwards

Of course the notion of best practices implies thorough testing; during which test the best practice emerges via a process of elimination based on success rate.

For anything web/mobile-content related, "usability" is only guesswork at best unless supported by robust web analytics metrics about what users actually did.

Based on a careful study of successful visits (per your KPI definitions), plus a healthy use of A/B or multivariate testing, a semblance of usability "best practice" can be determined.

Without those critical numbers? Not so much.

about 5 years ago

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brett bennett, Head of E-Commerce at AXA Insurance Direct / Swiftcover.com

It’s a great question Paul.

Isn’t best practice something that we can’t improve on? Like having a door handle, roughly half way up the door within reach of the average person (thank you Le Corbusier). After all, if it was at the bottom, we’d all have bad backs, right?

I still have to think twice about opening our office door as the button you have to press to unlock it, is right next to the fire alarm…

The fact is, online, designers are still putting the door handles in all sorts of places. Indeed, some don’t even look like door handles.

We've got a long way to go before we can say there’s nothing to improve on our websites, so ‘best practice’ has to evolve from what we know today, to what we’ll discover tomorrow.

We need to respect what we agree is best practice today, but constantly test and challenge current thinking in order to innovate.

This is what keeps this field interesting, but eventually, all our handles will be in the same place. I’m hoping that by that time, someone will invent open plan living and we won’t need doors at all…

about 5 years ago

Lawrence Ladomery

Lawrence Ladomery, Founder at automatico

At times second best practice is good enough. It's cheaper, quicker and gets good enough results.

about 5 years ago

Paul Rouke

Paul Rouke, Founder & Director of Optimisation at PRWDSmall Business Multi-user

@Nicolas - thanks for your detailed views on when you feel best practices should be used and how as part of a redesign project. You make some great points on how time can be saved during the early part of a redesign project by referencing and applying certain best practices. In the last few months I have been involved in an e-commerce redevelopment project where I was brought in to bring to the table key best practice principles which were used to progress the early design phase quicker than it may have been.

Of course customer insights through user testing are still very much apart of what I would always recommend is a user-centred design project.

@Ed - I really like how you've packaged that up, and thanks very much for your two cents!

@Tracy - thanks for your input, it appears that your views of best practice are fairly similar to my own as described in the post.

about 5 years ago

Paul Rouke

Paul Rouke, Founder & Director of Optimisation at PRWDSmall Business Multi-user

@Tim - thanks very much for your very comprehensive comments following by question on must do rules. Your comments serves as an excellent addition to the top level information I provided in my post, and I wasn't for a minute suggesting you were questioning me in any way!

@Sarah - my pleasure!

@Andrew - thanks for your comments. I suppose what is coming to the surface with the post and comments is how 'best practice' applies (or not) both during the design/build process and once the website/app has launched.

I think the reality is that when businesses choose to consider/apply what are being proposed as best practices, it isn't always possible (for resource, budget and time reasons) to support this with concrete analytics and testing for the website in question - although of course this would be a great environment to work in!

@Brett - great to hear from you, I hope the transition from Debenhams to AXA has been kind to you? I really like this 'We've got a long way to go before we can say there’s nothing to improve on our websites, so ‘best practice’ has to evolve from what we know today, to what we’ll discover tomorrow.'

Your thoughts on constantly testing and challenging current thinking is also going down the same path as what many of the people commenting on here are saying.

Here's to many more years of door handles that can be improved, although I look forward to your vision of open plan living in the years to come!

about 5 years ago

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Christian Ullmark, E-Commerce Manager Europe at BabyBjörn

Since we track everything in %,call it best % rate instead of best practice, ie doing X will have the best % thus best action (practice).

about 5 years ago

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