One by one, speakers at last month's Internet Retailer Web Design & Usability Conference showed off newly redesigned e-commerce sites.
They looked nothing like each other.
Nor should they.
At a time when the Internet pervades everyday life in so many ways—letting consumers check prices while in stores, seek friends' advice on social networks at all times, access videos on how to assemble that complicated gadget—each retailer has an almost infinite array of choices to make about which elements to include in an e-commerce site.
How should a retailer choose among those options? By understanding its customers, what they're trying to accomplish and how the retailer can best meet their needs. Design accordingly—then rigorously test to see if it's working.
IRWD speakers—there were 53 of them in 34 sessions over three days—offered plenty of examples of creative designs. And they also explained how they're using testing tools—some of them no more expensive than picking up a lunch check—to make sure their designs are meeting their goals.
A human face
Providing a prime example was keynote speaker Bernard Luthi, chief operating officer and chief marketing officer at Rakuten.com Shopping, the new name of Buy.com, which Japanese e-commerce giant Rakuten acquired in 2010.
Buy.com was a deal-centric site, with its home page jammed with products and promotions. The new site, at Rakuten.com, greets visitors with the picture of a merchant who sells on the site, which is now primarily a marketplace platform that other merchants sell from.
Putting a human face on the merchants who sell on Rakuten.com is how the site—like Rakuten's worldwide e-commerce sites—will differentiate itself, Luthi explained.
"This is how people used to shop," Luthi said. "They used to know the shop owner. They might know if he had kids. That's something we're trying to bring back."
Rakuten.com lets each merchant add its own personality to its product pages and the site seeks to maintain consistency with a common top banner and navigation. That seemed like a good idea, but Luthi emphasized that he and his small team—a big team can water down creativity in the search for consensus, he said—tested at every turn. And they didn't spend a lot of money.
One technique was to bring in groups of 10 consumers, show them newly designed pages for 5 seconds or 10 seconds, then ask them questions. "That provided the initial impression the consumer had, and that initial impression typically lasted throughout the shopping process," Luthi said. "We asked them do they like the site, when they landed on it were they happy, would it make them come back?"
In some cases, the price for conducting the test was the cost of lunch for the consumers who participated. "It was incredibly inexpensive," Luthi said. "And the information we gleaned from doing that as a team was invaluable."
The social shopper
A very different challenge faced apparel retailer Express Inc. last year as it redesigned its e-commerce site at the same time it moved to new e-commerce technology from ATG, now part of Oracle Inc.
The Express shopper is typically in her mid- to late-20's, fashion-conscious, highly social and almost-always connected to friends via her smartphone, Jason LaRose, senior vice president of e-commerce, explained. With that shopper in mind, social sharing is integral to the new site design. Each product page not only allots plenty of space for customer reviews, but also provides icons that allow easy sharing of each review to five social networks.
The typical Express customer's lifestyle dictates the retailer's marketing cadence, as well. Express now sends its marketing e-mails—three to five per week to customers who ask to receive them—at 7 a.m., figuring that the first thing an Express shopper does in the morning is check her phone for messages from friends. "They roll out of bed and look at the darned thing, before they brush their hair or brush their teeth," he says. The strategy is paying off: LaRose said Express' e-mail open rate was 23% higher in 2012 than the year before, though he did not disclose the actual rate.
The fact that young consumers are constantly moving back and forth between mobile phones, tablets and computers also led Express to choose a relatively new approach to building web sites called responsive design. A responsive site adapts to the screen the visitor is using. For example, it allows a retailer to show a horizontal array of three product images on the larger screen of a PC, then stack those images vertically for the narrow display of a smartphone.
Responsive design is an alternative to creating separate sites for computers, tablets and smartphones, and many retailers choose this approach to avoid the work of continually updating two or three e-commerce sites. But that wasn't Express' motivation, LaRose said.
Instead, he said, the retailer wanted to make it easy for consumers to move from one device to another, and find what they want.
"Our customers so seamlessly move back and forth between device types and we don't want to reteach them how to interact with us when they move from one device to another," he said. "We want our customer to know if that's the way you post a review on a desktop, that's also how you do it on a tablet or mobile."
Another speaker also addressed the advantages of responsive design—and its limitations.
Raul Justiniano, web designer for the Original Penguin e-commerce site of fashion brand Perry Ellis, explained that designing the site responsively significantly reduces the amount of time it takes to add new products and weekly promotions. "Having one site to update cuts my workload by more than half," Justiniano said, compared to maintaining separate sites for various types of devices.