KM: Greg, thank you so much for taking the time today to share some really beneficial insights businesses and UX professionals alike will find of value in planning and designing their ecommerce sites.
How long have you been working in ecommerce, and what were the driving experiences that inspired you to write this book?
GN: I’ve spent many of my 12-plus years of industry experience studying and designing various ecommerce applications. Perhaps my most important ecommerce experience came from working with eBay, because it allowed me to observe how people experience one of the most complex and variable ecommerce ecosystems on the planet, while at the same time watching people use many of their competitor sites.
eBay search really is a wicked design problem. I have seen many design approaches that work and also a great many designs that tended to confuse people. While many design principles are universal, seeing real people struggle during usability testing helped drive home many key points. This experience has shaped how I approach ecommerce and search design problems and has been invaluable in helping me write my book.
KM: This is very interesting to me, because, on the one hand, there are ecommerce Web sites that, by their very nature, are all about the business—the ROI (return on investment) of an online business; and on the other, you have user experience, which focuses on the people for whom you’re designing. These two aspects of a business have diametrically opposing ideologies, do they not?
GN: The traditional us-against-them thinking between business and user experience does hold true occasionally—for instance, in the case of ads in search results, which I deal with in Chapter 6 of my book. However, I have found that, for most finding activities, it is more effective for both business and user experience to embrace what I call experience partnership.? People use a Web site or mobile application to buy something they value more than the money they are spending, and a business is there to sell a product or service people want to buy.
In recent years, our understanding of ecommerce has expanded. We now understand that price, although important, is not the only factor governing ecommerce behavior. Convenience and ease of use are also important, and my book provides ample guidance to help make all aspects of a search user interface more usable. However, price and convenience are only the beginning. More and more, ecommerce success is about helping people to make informed choices. People expect to find product guidance, recommendations, and reviews to help them find products that express their unique personality and get the most out of their purchases. Companies that succeed in providing this kind of experience by developing a design vision and executing it with meticulous attention to detail will find their efforts richly rewarded with exceptional ROI. My book provides practical guidance on this journey.
KM: For whom did you write this book, Greg?
GN: When I was writing the book, I was thinking about helping creative, multidisciplinary product teams that set out with a goal to create a rich, engaging finding experience on an ecommerce site. This book is not just exclusively for designers or product managers. I wrote it to help everyone on a product team to literally get on the same page. It is no accident that the logical progression of the material follows a typical search system design path, from general to specific—from identifying the personas and roles to faceted Web search to mobile to tablet.
KM:? I think one of the things in marketing that we are cognizant of when we design ecommerce sites is the decision process of the buyer. We need to design and create Web sites that support problem recognition, information search, evaluation of alternatives, and purchase and post-purchase behavior. A lot of what you talk about in the book describes user experience strategies that complement this black-box model and encourage customers, ultimately, to buy. Do you have any hints or tips you can share here?
GN: I like to think of the ancient bazaar as the original social network. It was the place where people exchanged news, conducted commerce, and most important, where collective learning took place. This was where people learned what their fellows were doing and picked up new memes and ideas to up their own game. This kind of social network is in sharp contrast with a mall, where people mostly buy from large, faceless companies and push marketing reigns supreme.
The ecommerce companies that have understood the power of the bazaar as social network—like Amazon, eBay, and Apple—have been able to achieve growth even during the recession. In contrast, ecommerce companies that are structured around traditional mass-media, push marketing have found themselves, like physical malls, in decline.
Understand that it’s simply not enough to say We now have reviews!—any more than it will ever be enough to say We are now on Facebook or Twitter—or whatever the latest thing is! Your designs should be about approaching people as human beings, as customers you value and respect, not as users or consumers who will mindlessly gobble up whatever your marketing machine spews out.
Above all, successful ecommerce sites understand that the product they deliver is a service. Most of the products we now buy rely increasingly on their associated digital networks, and what we now call service design is becoming increasingly dominant. In this age of multichannel search, considerations such as location, the emotional attitudes of the actors, temporal sequences, and the differences between front-stage and back-stage service activities are becoming very important. It’s becoming less about closing the immediate ecommerce transaction and more about plugging into nodes of complex networks that are supporting a life-long relationship with a brand.
KM: That’s interesting, because in business, we talk about opportunity cost, and in your book, you make an excellent case for the opportunity cost of not thinking through a site’s search function and how it can augment a buyer’s experience on an ecommerce site. For instance, I never thought about the thousands of dollars in lost revenue alone that could potentially result from an improperly conceived no-search-results page. Would you say this is the one key area in which businesses should invest in getting help from a UX designer?
GN: You’ve touched on one of the most powerful concepts that I’ve woven throughout the book: what I call designing from zero—the practice of starting your team’s ideation from the use case in which there are no search results. Instead of ignoring the no-search-results page until the last minute, or worse, treating it like a user error, teams can unleash their creative genius by flipping the problem on its head and starting their design activities with the no-results use case.
Many recent search and browsing innovations that we now take for granted—like autocorrect and autosuggest have come from this kind of design thinking. A designing-from-zero strategy is especially important in mobile design. Because it is so hard to type accurately or see clearly on a tiny mobile phone screen as one is in motion, no-results conditions are more the norm than the exception on mobile devices. I continue to draw from this designing-from-zero principle as food for thought for my own innovations—such as my recent patent-pending mobile search design pattern, Tap-Ahead, which uses continuous refinement to dramatically reduce the amount of typing users must do to enter queries and help them avoid no-results pages.