February 15, 2012, 1:00 PM

IRWD 2012: E-commerce site lessons from the world of product design

Herman Miller’s streamlined approach to furniture design works for web sites too.

Lead Photo

Herman Miller's Michael Blum at IRWD 2012.

When storied office furniture manufacturer Herman Miller started selling directly to consumers from its own e-commerce site 18 months ago, it looked to its own product development process for guidance, featured speaker Michael Blum, Herman Miller’s retail e-commerce channel manager, said today at the Internet Retailer Web Design & Usability Conference in Orlando, FL.

Listing the basic design principles that underlie the Eames lounge chair, the Aeron office chair, and the other iconic pieces it’s produced in partnership with leading designers over its 75-year history, Blum said. “A lot of these can apply to how you design a web site as well.”

Design should be “human-centered,” he said. That is, it should focus foremost on the needs of the person who will use it. “If the design doesn’t solve a problem, there is no need to do it,” he said.

Good design, he said, avoids anything superfluous. “Design should have integrity,” Blum said. “Everything in the design should relate to the problem you are trying to solve.” Quality also should be apparent in the design of products—or web sites. “The quality of the work should be evident,” he said. “We should not have to explain it.”  In the end, good design provides such an effective yet simple solution to the problem it is seeking to solve that it strikes viewers as “exactly the way it should be,” he said.

Herman Miller applied those principles when creating a product configurator for office furniture on its site—a challenging proposition as the 85 products it chose to offer are all custom manufactured and represent more than 1 million possible combinations. Blum said Herman Miller designed the configurator to be as easy to use as possible, enabling shoppers to select options including swatches, detail enlargements, and instant imaging and pricing updates on a single product page. The page also includes an Add To Cart button—all in an uncluttered, spare presentation designed not to overwhelm the consumer.

Blum didn’t provide online sales data, but counted the product configurator’s benefits to Herman Miller in other ways.  The e-commerce site and product configurator are now the best representations of Herman Miller’s products, he said, better than the presentations on the sites of merchants that sell Herman Miller products. “The retailers do a nice job, but they did not invest in representing our products like we did,” he said. Many retailers have now responded to Herman Miller’s e-commerce site by stepping up the way they present the brand on their own sites, he said.

Many retailers now use the Herman Miller site and product configurator to help customers specify orders for Herman Miller products. “So it becomes a great customer experience and brand tool, even when the sale registers on their site, not ours,” he said.

The product configurator has also provided valuable data on customer preferences that the manufacturer shares with its retailer partners and product development team.  He advised attendees to look at their own customer data for the kind of surprises Herman Miller got when reviewing orders for its Embody office chair. The company expected black would be the leading color choice for the chair, but in offering consumers the full range of color options, few shoppers order the chair in black.

“Don’t make assumptions about who your customers are,” he said. “Don’t just show them your best sellers—it will not help customers understand your product line.”

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