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GUEST COMMENT More than a feeling: UX as the foremost e-commerce priority

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The pace of change in digital commerce is accelerating, with new intelligence gained and new technologies developed on an almost daily basis. Equally, more dynamic market factors such as competitor activity, supplier relationships and consumer behaviour can have an effect on business. This environment demands a new approach to digital commerce. UX is the foremost ecommerce priority today, and retailers should be carrying out more regular user experience (UX) reviews of their websites to capitalise on new revenue opportunities in an industry constantly in flux.

In a retail context, user experience (UX) comes down to how a retailer is able to take a shopper on a journey, evoke emotion and prompt action or reaction. It’s surprising then to see so many brands focusing just on the ‘practical’ aspects of websites – checkout, site navigation and layout – but neglect the rest. UX encompasses much more than the nuts and bolts of an ecommerce platform. Site speed, intuitive interface, branding, typography, security, copywriting, messaging, colour and photography all play an important role.

Even subtle, often unnoticed factors, such as how it feels to click a button can have a significant influence on the shopper. It’s the little things that can have the biggest impact on how the shopper perceives a website as they navigate its pages.

The pitfalls of a bad UX

Online shopping is a lonely environment. It doesn’t magic up the same ambiance as a trip to a physical store, where senses are on overdrive and retail is about theatre. This is why UX is potentially the most important aspect of online business today, acting as a middle man between brand and consumer. The product is the product and if there is demand, there will always be supply. But what nudges a consumer to click away from a brand, or drop that expensive handbag into the basket? The experiential, the affective, the meaningful and everything else in between.

A bad UX is much easier to spot than a good UX. A good UX just works; it’s welcoming, seamless and natural. It facilitates interaction with a brand. Poor UX, which includes things like spelling mistakes, buttons that don’t work or sluggish page load times, is akin to having a physical shop with the door permanently closed or hard to open. Consumers today expect attention to detail, attentiveness and reliability. If a shopper can’t get from point A to point B quickly and easily, then it’s no surprise they might become frustrated and turn to a competitor.

The UX challenge

It’s easier for a retailer to fix something that is known to be broken. Customer feedback prompts immediate changes, so unless a brand is alerted to specific issues, UX is generally only reviewed by retailers every 12 months. When it comes to making changes, most attention is placed on prototypes, wireframes and layout, sometimes to the detriment of subtle nuances that could significantly boost brand perception, customer loyalty and, ultimately, profitability. Some retailers spend obscene amounts of money on marketing in a bid to acquire new customers. Yet the UX of their existing website could be sub-optimal to the point that customers aren’t converting, because once they land on the site, it’s too difficult to navigate. This is a counterintuitive approach to managing a digital commerce brand today.

Think of professional athletes. They know their limits and they know what they are capable of achieving – how fast they can run or how much weight they can lift. They might have even just won a gold medal. Yet you can guarantee, despite being at the top of their game, that they are constantly delving into performance data to see where they can make even the slightest of improvements. This is the approach retailers need to take – rather than waiting for ‘injury’ to occur, brands need to push forward to become more profitable and attractive to shoppers. But where do retailers start when it comes to the quest for the best UX?

Unfortunately, there are no official rules. There are laws that offer guidance on accessibility. Otherwise UX is open to interpretation. According to Neilson Norman Group, there are over 800 best practices for e-commerce usability. Unless you have unlimited budget and a team willing to sift through all of this information, there’s no way to implement or trial every possible tactic. Therefore retailers often use industry best practice in the form of tried and tested wireframe templates. They may even copy the websites of similar brands. A one-size-fits-all approach to UX is destined to fail; what works for one retailer won’t necessarily work for another.

Taking the right approach to UX

Retailers need to change their mind set to keep up with the rate of change within the industry. Some e-commerce companies will not formally review their UX. Instead, the website will go live, and changes will be made subjectively at the behest of someone else in the business. A smaller number of e-commerce companies will review UX every 12 months. However, a more regular approach to UX review – once every quarter for example – will ensure retailers can maintain a competitive edge and a happier customer base.

Today, too many UX decisions are based on opinion or gut feeling. Within any ecommerce organisation, individuals – whether they’re a part of sales, customer service, marketing or senior management – will inevitably have opinions on what the website should look like. Unfortunately, these people are too close to the brand, and approach things with a blinkered view. A CEO might ask for certain functionality to be added to the website because it will ‘bring the brand into the 21st century’. Yet what is this decision based on? Will customers embrace or shun the change?

Any retailer worth its salt will always look to industry best practice and competitors for inspiration and a foundation for their own UX. It’s what the retailer then does with this information that counts, using it as a guide to build a new UX, tailored specifically to its own brand guidelines and demographic. Despite this, any UX decisions should always be backed up by data – whether this is information in the public domain or a retailer’s own customer data – to create the best possible UX for the target market in question.

Retailers rarely have the time or internal resources to dedicate to continual improvements to a digital commerce platform. This is why it’s important to enlist the help of experts – either independent consultants or external digital commerce agencies. These experts have a broader knowledge of UX, they have their finger on the pulse of new technologies and innovation and they have a wealth of experience in building different types of website. Branding and UX workshops can also be used to add meat to the data bones – testing changes before they are implemented, brainstorming brand values and translating these values into aspects of the site that resonate with the target audience. By making frequent and gradual changes, backed up by data and testing, retailers can feel more confident that their UX will be more impactful and profitable.

A good UX is about giving shoppers the best possible experience so they continue to buy from a brand. Waiting for a website to become outdated, incompatible or stop working does not protect a retailer’s business bottom line or customer base.

Ultimately, building a good UX is about futureproofing a business; taking the time to continually improve a website in order to impress customers. As the old adage goes, “trust takes years to build, seconds to break and forever to repair.” Risking the performance of a website can put a brand’s whole reputation at risk. Instead of following the herd, retailers need to have confidence in their own brand, have a good sense how they want to be perceived, and how that translates into a good user experience. The best UX feels human, is fluid, and is constant.

Terry Hunter is UK MD of digital commerce agency, Astound Commerce

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