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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.

Scott Rummler

Published 20 December, 2011 by Scott Rummler

Scott Rummler is User Experience Principal at Laserthread.com and a contributor to Econsultancy. 

2 more posts from this author

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