Best Practices for Online Guided-Selling Experiences

Research That Works

Innovative approaches to research that informs design

A column by Michael Hawley
November 19, 2012

Guided selling is an approach that attempts to educate consumers about a set of products or services and provide decision-making support that directs them to a solution that is right for them. Similar to a helpful salesperson, a software-based guided-selling application leads a consumer through a set of questions that assess their values, intended usage, and knowledge of a particular product category, then directs them to information and products that meet their needs.

This approach is especially helpful in situations where the decision-making process is complex—for example, when purchasing complex products with many features and functions. In addition, this approach is valuable when selling products that are new to the marketplace and in situations where the intended audience is not likely to have knowledge of a product domain. Some obvious examples are consumer electronics and complex products and services relating to healthcare, insurance, financial services, and travel. Guided selling can be helpful in any circumstance where consumers are likely to need help orienting themselves to the available choices, as well as support in making an informed choice.

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Guided Selling: What It Is Not

Looking at some examples, like those shown in Figure 1, might help you to understand what guided selling is not. Let’s say you’re interested in buying a grill. A typical online shopping experience might present you with a number of filters to help you narrow the set of choices that are available to you. For example, you could select a certain brand of grill, size of cooking area, or type of ignition.

Figure 1—Filtering and narrowing groups of products is not guided selling
Filtering and narrowing groups of products is not guided selling

While such filtering mechanisms are powerful and helpful for people who know what they’re looking for, I don’t consider them to be guided selling. For shoppers who don’t know what they need, filtering mechanisms don’t guide them toward making an informed choice that meets their needs. For example, what if a shopper doesn’t know what size of cooking area he needs or what grate type would be best for the type of cooking he wants to do?

Guided Selling: What It Is

In contrast, guided selling is an interaction that serves to educate shoppers about a set of products or services. Typically, it involves having a dialogue or conversation with shoppers to elicit their needs and make recommendations that are specific to their situation, similar to that shown in Figure 2. This interaction is analogous to an in-person experience with a salesperson who knows how to ask the right questions to guide shoppers toward the right product and make them feel confident about their decision.

Figure 2—Guided selling resembles an in-person dialogue about needs and personal recommendations
Guided selling resembles an in-person dialogue about needs and personal recommendations

Such a conversation would likely include a discussion of a shopper’s intended usage or preferences for a product, an explanation of various product features and attributes, a product recommendation based on the personal needs of the shopper, and potentially, a presentation of alternative products and upsell options. In this example, a guided-selling application might ask the shopper about how often he intends to grill, what types of food he likes, and whether he intends to place the grill in an area where it might be difficult to light. Based on the customer’s answers to these questions, the guided-selling experience would suggest certain product options and educate the shopper on why those options would make sense for their situation.

Guided-Selling for Complex Products

In addition to selling straightforward consumer products, companies can also use a guided-selling approach to sell complex products and services—for example, heating and cooling systems like that shown in Figure 3; running shoes, in Figure 4; laptop computers, in Figure 5; life insurance, in Figure 6; and mortgages, in Figure 7.

Figure 3—Selling heating and cooling systems
Selling heating and cooling systems
Figure 4—Selling running shoes
Selling running shoes
Figure 5—Selling laptop computers
Selling laptop computers
Figure 6—Selling life insurance
Selling life insurance
Figure 7—Selling mortgages
Selling mortgages

Each of these examples requires a slightly different approach to the conversation, as well as the display of its eventual results and recommendations. Key differences include the

  • degree to which an application shows and adjusts results as a shopper answers questions
  • extent to which an application leverages video and audio
  • presence or absence of progress indicators throughout the questioning portion of the conversation
  • ability to go back in the conversation or start over
  • language and presentation of recommendations and next steps

Best Practices

To help companies make better design decisions for their implementations of guided-selling applications, my company sponsored an independent usability study of existing applications. We examined a number of different guided-selling applications that represented a variety of industries, as well as different approaches to navigation and interactions, and we solicited feedback from representative shoppers in several usability testing environments. The following best practices for designing and developing guided-selling applications emerged from those studies:

  • Enable speed and efficiency.
  • Use video with caution, but leverage audio to enhance the experience.
  • Present the consequences of making decisions during questioning.
  • Show the impact of responses on the recommendations.

Now, let’s look at each of these best practices in greater detail.

Enable Speed and Efficiency

By far the most important criteria for success in designing a guided-selling experience is the efficiency with which the application asks the necessary questions and moves the shopper through to the recommendations. No one wants to spend time entering information unnecessarily—especially if they are unsure or leery of the result.

To increase the perception of speed, a particularly helpful guideline is to limit the number of pages through which a shopper must navigate. Pageless designs and interactions that use progressive disclosure, such as accordion-based designs, were well received by participants in our study.

Figure 8—Accordions, pageless design, and attention to speed
Accordions, pageless design, and attention to speed

Use Video with Caution, But Leverage Audio to Enhance the Experience

Our tests indicated that video has the potential to be very polarizing or distracting in guided-selling scenarios. There are a number of pitfalls. If the video is low quality, it can appear gratuitous or unnecessary. Also, a video of a person in this context can seem like an intrusive salesperson rather than a helpful one. Finally, we found that shoppers have a tendency to become distracted by trivial or unimportant details in a talking-head video during the question and content portion of the discussion. For example, in the video example shown in Figure 9, several research participants indicated that they were looking at the woman’s outfit rather than listening to what she had to say.

Figure 9—“ That’s an ill-fitting suit.”
That’s an ill-fitting suit.

In contrast, audio alone rather than video can enhance the overall experience without being too distracting. During our tests and through analysis, we discovered that the best experiences leveraged audio to elaborate on or supplement textual information on the screen. The audio enhanced the sense of having a conversation during the guided-selling experience and both educated and engaged participants. To ensure accessibility, shoppers should be able to get through the experience by just reading the text. However, we found that audio can significantly add to the overall effectiveness of such interactions.

Present the Consequences of Making Decisions During Questioning

If you were shopping for a laptop in a store, a salesperson would ask you questions about more than just your intended use of the laptop during your conversation with him. He would use your answers to his questions as an opportunity to educate you about your choices. This same technique is characteristic of successful online guided-selling experiences.

If you ask shoppers questions about their preferences and intended use, but they don’t understand why you’re asking those questions or what the consequences of their decisions are, they’ll slow down in making responses and become distrustful. Similarly, there may be some questions that don’t apply in a particular case or to which a shopper doesn’t know the answers. To facilitate efficiency throughout a transaction, it is important to present mutually exclusive responses and allow a shopper to skip a question if it doesn’t apply.

Figure 10—Successful questions educate shoppers as they proceed through the conversation
Successful questions educate shoppers as they proceed through the conversation

Show the Impact of Responses on the Recommendations

If you make recommendations without giving any rationale for them, shoppers become prone to skepticism. Imagine you are buying that laptop at a store: The salesperson asks you questions about your intended use, then simply ends the conversation by telling you to buy laptop model 123. Your first question would be “Why?” This is a natural consequence of an in-person selling situation, but for some reason, many online guided-selling experiences omit this important information. To build trust with shoppers, the best guided-selling experiences complete the story by telling shoppers why they’ve recommended particular choices.

Figure 11—Successful recommendations include their rationale, based on a shopper’s responses to questions
Successful recommendations include their rationale, based on a shopper’s responses to questions

One option for making recommendations might be to show what impact a shopper’s answers to your initial questions would have on the results rather than simply displaying the recommendations on an explicit results page, as in the example shown in Figure 12. Before our study, we thought that this would be a very successful strategy. But our usability test results suggested that this approach too often adds unnecessary complexity to the questioning process. Many participants became distracted by the changing elements on the screen. They would have performed better if they had initially been asked questions, then reviewed the results separately.

Figure 12—The recommended insurance allocation changed instantly as shoppers answered questions, distracting some shoppers
The recommended insurance allocation changed instantly as shoppers answered questions, distracting some shoppers


Guided-selling experiences are not for every audience. Some shoppers know exactly what they are looking for and just want to quickly find it and buy it. Other shoppers just don’t have the patience or inclination for conversational shopping experiences online. Guided selling should not be the only approach to shopping on a given Web site. However, for audiences who need an orientation to a product set and help making an informed decision, guided-selling experiences that follow the best practices that I’ve presented in this column offer the potential to be highly persuasive and effective shopping experiences. 

Chief Design Officer at Mad*Pow Media Solutions LLC

Adjunct Professor at Bentley University

Boston, Massachusetts, USA

Michael HawleyAs Chief Design Officer at Mad*Pow, Mike brings deep expertise in user experience research, usability, and design to Mad*Pow clients, providing tremendous customer value. Prior to joining Mad*Pow, Mike served as Usability Project Manager for Staples, Inc., in Framingham, Massachusetts. He led their design projects for customer-facing materials, including e-commerce and Web sites, marketing communications, and print materials. Previously, Mike worked at the Bentley College Design and Usability Center as a Usability Research Consultant. He was responsible for planning, executing, and analyzing the user experience for corporate clients. At Avitage, he served as the lead designer and developer for an online Webcast application. Mike received an M.S. in Human Factors in Information Design from Bentley College McCallum Graduate School of Business in Waltham, Massachusetts, and has more than 13 years of usability experience.  Read More

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