Matty the moley moleLast month, I was unfortunate enough to lose my glasses.  Since I am a speccy four-eyes moley moleman, this has caused me some problems.

So rather than traipse down to an optician and be up-sold to hell
and back because obviously anything less than their £200 SuperHyperThin lenses
will be akin to milk bottle bottoms and will scratch within seconds, I
decided to buy a couple of new pairs of glasses online.

What I found was a combination of usability horror stories, really great ideas, some truly awful stock photography, an occasional understanding of the audience, and an amazing lack of realisation that I’m practically blind here.

This is by no means an exhaustive review of every online optician out there, but these are the sites I tried. (I know, they don’t just cut hair!)

And some others that were just so dull I can’t even be bothered typing in the URL.

For full disclosure, I ended up buying from SelectSpecs and Toni & Guy

So after going through this somewhat tortuous ordeal, I thought I would write what amounts to a Melissa Manifesto for online opticians.

1: Know your audience

Big fricking pictures

Let’s cover the basics here. Why am I purchasing glasses online? Because I need glasses! So why do so many websites offer a barely magnified “larger image” of the primary purpose for why I am on their stupid site in the first place? Argh.

Prescription examples

This is genius. No, correction, it is utter genius. On the Glasses, Frames and Lenses website, they show a series of prescription examples from high-street opticians, and how to interpret them. I was so impressed when I saw this, not for what it was, but because it showed me that someone had sat down and actually thought about Usage Scenarios for the site.

I was sitting there, in front of my computer, with a barely decipherable prescription in front of me, wondering how to translate it into the form presented to me. Again, Genius.

Aside: what high street opticians don’t want you to know!

There’s a secret, special magic number, called a Pupil Distance. I’ve never had this magic number
written on any prescription I’ve ever received, but apparently it’s
vital to receiving glasses you can actually see through.

Distance, as you can probably guess, is the distance between your
pupils. If you don’t know the distance between your pupils, then what’s
there to do?

SelectSpecs offers a little gizmo to buy, for the costly sum of
£0.01. Honestly? You can’t just offer a PDF formatted to A4 that I can
print off and cut out? I have to spend a penny, so to speak, and wait
for what is essentially a ruler to arrive in the post before placing my

2: Differentiate from offline

Why do people shop online for things in the first place? Why was I going online to purchase my glasses? Two reasons: One: Because online offers me a much wider choice, and Two: To save money.

Up-sell if you have to, but do it right.

After using endless optical websites, I think I understand the business model. The money isn’t made on the frames, the frames themselves are high-margin, but that margin goes to the manufacturers. No, the real money is made on the lenses, which is why every optician makes such a big song and dance about them. Remember however, I’m going online not to be up-sold to, so don’t make it a barrier.

Laws of simplicity

So, you have to up-sell your fancy lenses, but how do you go about it?

This goes back to my post about the Language of B2B. Lenses, I imagine, are complex things to craft, and you can tell that the majority of sites revel in this complexity as a way of encouraging up-sell. This is wrong. All I care about is:

  • How thick will the lenses be (remember, I am practically blind here).
  • How much my beautiful blue eyes will be distorted by them.

Taking a note from John Maeda’s wonderful Laws of Simplicity:

Simplicity is about subtracting the obvious and
adding the meaningful. Find a balance between how simple something can be, and how complex it has to be”

Here’s an example from Toni & Guy, which combines some good information with some nonsense numbers which mean nothing to me.

Some parts are good, some parts are bad

3: Remove the fear

spex4less is all about the fear

Oh my sweet Jesus. Who is Marc Bowden and why is he trying to petrify me with a giant warning message that appears when I visit his site?

Oh my god. Close the browser! Close the Browser now!

It’s just all wrong. You know what it reminds me of? Another certain site with an incredibly vociferous owner who I daren’t mention for fear of been hunted down by her millions! of! satisfied! customers! all armed with pitchforks.

Screw face shapes

Allegedly, there appears to be some type of science behind choosing the right frames to suit your face. Unfortunately, this science is trapped in the Eighties.

Choosing glasses for when you're about to star in an A-Ha video

This is a distraction. It adds fear that I’m not choosing the right frames for my self-judged “Face Shape” – Am I a Diamond or a Pear? No, let me choose the frames I think look nice, and then I’ll decide if they suit me, thankyouverymuch.

Virtual Mirrors

Glasses Direct recently won an Econsultancy Innovation Award for their virtual mirror. I couldn’t try it as I’m on a Mac, and it doesn’t seem to work under VMware Fusion, but that’s by the by, it’s a concept that has been widely copied, to varying levels of complexity.

I do however wonder if this is actually of any use. Has anyone done a study to see if conversion rate increases if someone uses Virtual Mirror technology? I can see how it would work in theory, however I think that the technology is still too far behind our needs.

Try at Home

Glasses Direct - Try at Home

A number of sites, including Glasses Direct, now offer a “try at home” system, where you can borrow a number of frames for a few days to see if you think they suit you.

This, if you aren’t quite as moley and dependant on needing glasses as I am, seems like quite a good idea. I asked on Twitter who had tried this, and had a reply from Amrit Gill

It’s a pretty straight forward process, basically select up to four frames you dig and enter in your details, including bank details. You have 10 days to return the glasses else they’ll charge you for them!

The glasses all come in a box, with a leaflet explaining how long you have, and instructions for you to send them back. The thing i did like about this, is that i had them sent to my office, normally when i go get specs its normally down to my own judgment if they look okay, but because i’ve got them in the office, i can ask everyone’s opinion.

Sending the glasses back was simple, and they even send you an email confirming they’ve received the package.  They also send you a nice reminder during the trial “How you getting along with the glasses?”.

Actual glasses on actual people

This, I know will be difficult, but it makes so much of a difference. Iris Optical, without this, wouldn’t generally be worth mentioning, but they’ve made a massive effort. By photographing each pair of spectacles on a model, I can not only have a better idea of their fit, I also understand the colours of the frames so much better. Remember, if the frames are made of a light reflective metal then always having them photographed on a white background makes it hard to realise this.

I can be a sexy librarian too

4: Commoditise and Die

This is a biggie. And gives you a good idea of how people’s brains work. So I was on Iris Spectacles looking at these really nice Marc Jacobs glasses and I noticed something in the title – MJ 227. It seems odd, but most online opticians sell their glasses as if they were electrical goods.

Model Numbers

Are they buying a pair of glasses, something that they will wear for most of the day, every day from you, or are they buying Qty 1 of  MJ 227? Urgh. Unless you are the cheapest online optician in all the land, then you really don’t want to do this.

By actively promoting the model number on your site you are just asking for your visitor to search elsewhere for the same pair but cheaper. And of course, you’re not even making any money on these frames!  Of course, have the Model Number discreetly put at the end of the title of in the meta, so that you can be found when people search for it, but don’t stick it in big letters.


I think I get how this works. All online opticians (well, maybe not Glasses Direct) are essentially white labels for the same manufacturers – I assume in Hong Kong or somewhere. Sometimes you even say “your glasses will be shipped from Hong Kong” (Oh come on, really? Why would you say this?).

These manufactures send you what is essentially stock photography of the frames that you resell for them. This is why every pair of glasses is shot against a white background at a jaunty 30 degree angle.

This again, brings me to the Iris Opticals example. By putting in the effort of re-shooting each pair that they sell, not only have they given me an escalated user experience, they’ve also un-commoditised themselves. Now if only they’ve remove that pesky model number…

Is that all?

Well hey, look I have my glasses now! Aren’t they nice?

I have glasses!

Well yes they are, but this is only half the story. Once I’ve decided the glasses I’m going to buy, and the site I’m going to buy them from, and navigated the perilous realm of entering prescriptions and being upsold lense types, I place the order.

What comes next is a whole different experience, but that’s for another post….