February 1, 2012, 12:00 AM

The toughest design puzzle ever

(Page 3 of 3)

Rather than try to make one site work for all types of users, office supplies retailer Staples Inc. decided to create different sites and apps for different devices. It launched a mobile-optimized web site last June, an iPhone app in December, an Android app in January and will launch a web site optimized for tablet computers this month at t.staples.com. Consumers accessing Staples.com from a tablet will automatically route to the tablet site, says Brian Tilzer, vice president of e-commerce and business development. Tilzer says Staples lets its consumer research guide the order in which it launches different designs and what's contained in them.

The design for the tablet site is meant to be very "touch and go" says Staples' director of mobile strategy Prat Vemana. It is purposely designed to keep customers from having to type anything because the touchscreen keyboard, when expanded, takes up nearly half the screen size on most tablets and Vermana says that's valuable real estate. To combat that, the tablet site features Staples' most popular product categories, such as ink and toner, on the front page. Vemana says consumers should be able to navigate to popular products on the site by following visual cues.

Maintaining multiple sites and apps is challenging, and the company relies on internal teams working with vendors to do so, Tilzer says. Staples works with mobile technology providers Skava Inc. for the tablet site, Usablenet Inc. for the mobile-optimized site and Expicient Inc. for the mobile apps.

"We have one team that is managing the direction for feature and functionalities across all our e-commerce assets. We plan our smartphone web site developments in conjunction with tablet and desktop developments so we can be coordinated about execution, so what happens with one happens with the others," he says.

With e-commerce designers testing nearly as many design approaches as there are mobile devices on the market, designers and e-retailers say it is too early to know which approaches may become standard practice. But after years of following best practices set by others, it also makes it an exciting time for design. "We're at a time again where we are setting our own standards, and those standards evolve from designers making decisions and trying things out," says Whitton of Alexander Interactive. "There's more opportunity now for us to come up with elegant solutions and see those stick."

allison@verticalwebmedia.com

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