Recognizing that most consumers are shopping online, web designers have to decide how they're going to design sites that will appeal to their core customers more than the sites of competitors.
While they're at it, they've also got to make sure their designs come across effectively no matter the device the shopper is using—from a 27-inch desktop monitor to a 6-inch smartphone.
It's a big challenge, and it's sparked a wave of new design theories and strategies. Those strategies, and how to implement them, will be the theme of the Internet Retailer Web Design & Usability 2013 Conference taking place Feb. 11-13 at the Omni Orlando Resort.
Among the 53 presenters in the 34 sessions over the three-day conference will be keynote speaker Bernard Luthi, chief operating officer and top marketer at web-only retailer Rakuten Buy.com, which has gone through a major rethinking of its e-commerce strategy—and the design implications—since the web-only retailer was acquired in 2010 by Rakuten, the operator of Japan's largest online retail marketplace and a company that's buying up e-commerce companies around the world.
"Rakuten's global vision is to make e-commerce a living process, where retailers and consumers can communicate and discover," Luthi says. "Our challenge when redesigning Buy.com was making sure this vision of e-commerce was reflected. But what does 'living' e-commerce look like?"
One thing it looks like is people, and retailers selling on Buy.com's marketplace now figure prominently in the central image of the home page, which links to pages that tell their stories.
The focus on these merchants was part of the strategy; another part was simplifying the look, making the site resemble less the bargain basement of previous versions. "Even though we had moved away from a deal site in our strategy, we still visually looked like a deal site," Luthi says. "We wanted to ensure our site mimicked our strategy."
Less is more
Other retail web designers are coming to the view that they can sell more effectively if they reduce clutter and tone down screaming sales banners. They are adherents of a trend to minimalism that seeks to make a better impression with carefully selected images and fonts, and effective use of white space.
Attendees at IRWD 2013 will get a whirlwind tour of such sites from Stuart Silverstein, lead user experience designer at online movie ticket seller Fandango.
"I will be looking at 30 different sites that use minimalist design, and give a tip you can learn from each," says Silverstein, who ran his own design agency, Fetch Creative, for eight years before joining Fandango.
Another hot theory in the world of online design is responsive web design—the idea that a retailer can build a single web site that adapts to the size of the screen the consumer is using, such as desktop PC, tablet or smartphone. In a session titled "Responsive Web Design: One Size Fits All, But At What Price?," Raul Justiniano, web designer for the Original Penguin brand of fashion apparel maker Perry Ellis will describe his experience building a site based on responsive principles—the good, the bad and the still-evolving.
"There are a lot of benefits of having one site that works on all devices," Justiniano says. "But there are a lot of shortcomings in terms of what you can do in an e-commerce context."
One limitation affects the marketing images Original Penguin displays, which integrate text with fashion photos of models wearing the brand's trendy apparel. It's not easy to scale an image that looks great on a desktop down to fit a smaller screen, and the design team has had to create distinct images for tablets and phones to achieve the same effect, an approach he calls adaptive design. "Our images are selling the brand," Justiniano says. "It's very important how models are cropped and how products are displayed on the smaller-size screens."
His conclusion—sure to generate debate—is that responsive design may well work for smaller retailers that lack the resources to create separate sites for mobile phones, tablets and PCs, but that larger organizations may stick to distinct sites for each type of device.
One of the advantages of responsive design has to do with search engine optimization, or SEO: A responsive web site that is delivered to all devices has a single URL, which means that links to the site and comments customers make all add credibility to that one web address. That's not the case, for example, when a retailer whose main site is retailer.com creates a separate mobile site with the address m.retailer.com.
That's just one example of the SEO implications of site design choices. Drawing on the popularity of previous year's sessions on SEO and design, IRWD this year will offer a full SEO Day devoted to this topic. Sessions will cover the search engines' latest changes in their ranking algorithms, the importance of inbound links and fresh content in improving site ranking, and a session on how attracting the wrong kind of traffic can hurt a site's search engine results.
"Natural search is responsible for driving more than half of all traffic on the web, and has become the most important source of inbound marketing—converting visitors at a higher rate than any other source," says Hugo Guzman, senior manager for online market and search at retailer HSN Inc., who will kick off SEO Day with a presentation highlighting the latest search engine changes and what marketers need to know about them.
Preparing for battle
Designers returning from IRWD will bring a raft of new ideas with them, but colleagues back at the office may be skeptical or worse. Recognizing that redesign debates can get heated, a session at the conference will address how to maintain harmony, ensuring, for example, that creative types and operational personnel have their say, while not derailing progress.