Great user experience and accessibility are essential for any website – particularly ecommerce ones – but where do you start? In the third part of this series, we take a look at UX strategies and practices, quick wins, and how to get started with improving your own ecommerce site!
If you’ve missed the previous articles in this series, you can find them here:
UX and accessibility can be the biggest factors in losing sales once someone is on your website. The worst possible outcome is having a visitor who wants to buy something and is trying to buy something, but can’t achieve that or is getting extremely frustrated.
What is UX?
Simply put, UX is “user experience”, i.e. someone’s behaviour with and feelings around a particular encounter (for a more detailed explanation, take a look at Wikipedia’s UX page). Online, there are often blurred lines about where UX starts and ends due to it having so much overlap with other areas such as UI (user interface) design.
Further reading: 10 articles to better UX
For any website, UX should be considered an ongoing process of improvements. There’s an overwhelming amount to think about, so creating a list of questions and key areas to think about really helps break everything down.
Things to think about
Here are some key areas for ecommerce websites in particular:
Devices and browsers – Test your website on as many devices, browsers and operating systems as possible. You can often maximise compatibility with the combination that the majority of your customers use at a later point when you have more data, but it’s always a good idea to appeal to as big a base as possible. Many people prefer to buy from mobile devices such as tablets and phones, and they’re great for attracting impulse buys, so make sure your website is fully functional in every form and visitors can buy easily. There are groups that lend technology for this purpose in the flesh, and also plenty of websites that will simulate different device/browser combinations for you. Start with WebDesignerDepot’s article 6 free mobile device emulators for testing your site.
Finding – I’ve called this ‘finding’ rather than the traditional ‘searching’ because it instantly changes how you perceive it. Focusing on the visitor’s aim as well as their action ensures you consider both key angles. Additionally, it’s not just about your website’s search bar, as important as that is; it’s about making sure your visitors find what they’re looking for regardless of the mechanism they use to do it.
- Can your visitors easily search for products without the built-in search functionality? (i.e. do you have a good category system, are your products only a couple of clicks from the home page/key landing pages, is everything clearly labelled, etc.)
- Is your integrated search field easy to find and use? (e.g. is there a button, do your visitors have instructions on how to use it, does the field have prefilled text, is the text the right size, are there advanced search options and if so are these clear, etc.)?
- What does your built-in search functionality actually do, and can you improve it? (e.g. are there plugins, code snippets etc. or can you write code/hire a developer to allow for white listing/black listing search terms, associating searches with other matches, alternative or similar product suggestions, etc.)
- What happens if no matches are found? (e.g. do you ask customers to check their spelling, try a different search, submit a product request, direct them to another page, etc.)
Providing information – Again, it’s a balancing act. You need to provide the information customers need to make a buying decision, but you don’t want to overwhelm them and make choices too difficult.
- What formats is your product information available in? (e.g. images, text, video, audio, etc.)
- Can visitors ask/post product questions? Would they need to?
- How long are typical pages, and is there a way of making them shorter/longer as needed?
- If measurements are given, are they provided in multiple forms (e.g. lb and kg?)
- Do visitors have access to delivery information before they buy?
- Do you offer order tracking? Are visitors informed before they buy?
- Can visitors contact you without having to create an account?
- Do visitors have details of your address/location?
- Do you have an FAQ page with genuine, useful questions and answers?
For more on this, you might want to revisit Part 2: Presenting your products, which covers imagery and descriptions in more depth.
Anticipating issues – When you’re first launching your ecommerce website, this is mostly based on educated guesses and your own experiences of buying online. Once you’ve established your website, you can track customer behaviour and expectations more easily (see the ‘Tools’ section at the end of this post) as well as using any feedback they provide. For now, consider the main issues your customers may face buying your products or using your website, for example:
- Out of stock products – Is it clear that a product is out of stock, both on the product page and in search results? Can visitors subscribe to be notified when the item is back in stock? Do you provide rough dates as to when you anticipate the item being back? Can visitors contact you easily to ask?
- Signing up – Do visitors need to create an account to shop with you, or do you offer guest checkout functionality? Are you only asking for the information you really need? Can a customer sign up in under a minute?
- Communication – Does the customer get confirmation emails, receipts, survey/review emails, order tracking information, newsletters, abandoned basket notifications, real-life post etc. and do they know to expect this and where/when they’ll receive it? Are they aware of your policies on holding and storing personal information, and on returns?
Order process – Make it as easy and quick as possible whilst ensuring you have the information you need.
- If the customer can log in to order, can they log in via a social media account?
- How many screens is your order process? How do you signal this to your customer?
- Does your customer have the opportunity to add similar/better products to their order during it?
- Is it clear which fields are required and which aren’t (and do you need optional fields at all)?
- Is your order process easy to complete regardless of device?
- What payment methods do you offer and are visitors ever taken to another website or thirds party screen to complete information?
These questions and areas just scratch the surface of all the things you can look at: if it’s on your website, you can look at it, test it, change it, and improve it. Everything from font colours to lightboxes is up for scrutiny. Hopefully the list above gives you some useful areas to think about. Ideally, you want to manage customer expectations and make them feel comfortable because you’re offering a process that’s largely familiar but it optimised to do everything they need.
But don’t forget that you’re also guiding them to make particular decisions in your favour as a business. A UX first approach often leads to more long term custom and sales generally, but sometimes you’ll want to guide your visitors in another direction, for example subscribing to your emails or using a particular payment method. There are ways to achieve many of your business aims without impacting on-site UX, for example making a particular payment method more cost-effective than the others. Don’t prevent or unnecessarily distract the visitor from achieving their goal: buying from your website.
What is accessibility?
Web accessibility is the art and science of making your website functional to as many people as possible. This includes choosing and implementing best practice functionality for those with disabilities covering everything from colour blindness to inability to use a mouse to accommodating those with learning and understanding difficulties. There are four main areas of web accessibility, which are covered in an interview we did with accessibility advocate Laura Kalbag.
There are plenty of other great resources and tips that Laura’s shared in that post, but if you’re keen to see how accessibility policies are implemented in the wild, it’s best to go to individual websites. Gov.uk in particular has some excellent information about user centred design and their own design principles for UX and accessibility.
For a quick checklist of the main considerations to make any website instantly more accessible, check out this condensed Web Content Accessibility Guidelines list from W3.
Never underestimate the importance of knowing who your customers are for optimising accessibility. If you have a large consumer base, it’s more challenging, but you can still work from a lot of common traits. Surveys, social media and email interactions, buying habits and the products/services you sell all offer insight.
Users requiring accessibility features may be a minority, but they often have so few options available and so many frustrations, that you’re not only improving people’s lives by improving your website’s accessibility, but you also have a much higher chance of customers who will return for life. If you’re looking to maximise your website’s accessibility, this is a great selling point to promote your business and a vitally important concept at the same time.
Again, we’d refer you back to Laura’s expert blog post for best practice advice, particularly on accessibility. There are also services out there where you can ask people with genuine disabilities who use technologies such as screen readers to use your website as they would normally and give you specific feedback on the results. There are several groups and talks across the UK where accessibility use and browsing can be seen in person, and it’s definitely worth checking out if you can because it makes a huge difference to your perception and understanding.
There are also lots of tools you can use for UX and accessibility that have the added advantage of being multi-purpose and have other benefits for your website and visitors.
Heatmapping – Unfortunately the best heatmapping tools aren’t free (prices vary depending on number of visitors and pages). However, many offer a free trial so you can get an idea of where people are clicking/tapping (and even looking) on your pages. This offers a lot of insight into where you can rearrange elements, what functionality they prefer (e.g. buttons vs. menus), and what they’re interacting with more (e.g. clicking on images rather than titles). Crazy Egg and Heatmap are great places to start.
Google Analytics funnels – This feature within Google Analytics is vital for any ecommerce website. Funnels allow you to see where visitors drop off your website. So, for example, you can see the different paths visitors use to get to the checkout, see where they abandon their basket, and be made aware of any unclear/non-functioning areas. Check out this video by Kissmetrics to find out how to set up conversion funnels for your website.
UX and accessibility testing services – A quick search will reveal numerous services, both online and offline, that will test your website. These vary a lot depending on whether you want a quick report or in-depth analysis with video or face-to-face meetings. Again, look out for free trials and no obligation reports. If you’re really stuck, ask friends, family and contacts – and of course customers – for feedback on specific pages or elements; it’s not as thorough, but it can throw up things you’ve not thought about.
The art of balance in setting goals and making changes
Whilst it is essential, good UX is just one part of the story. You need to balance UX needs with search engine optimisation needs, customer expectations, sales, marketing, and your own business aims, for best results. None of these elements should be viewed in isolation; instead, they should form components of your complete strategy. It’s not easy to get the balance right, but a big part of that is setting goals in each area. Take one page at a time and look at it from each different perspective before making any decisions about changing it.
The next part in our “How to make your ecommerce website profitable” series looks at SEO, covering everything from the keyword research to creating a practical long-term strategy to get the best rankings.