January 6, 2014, 2:50 PM

Web design through a mobile lens

Retail web designers’ biggest challenge is crafting sites for mobile devices as well as PCs. Concurrent conferences on web design and m-commerce will focus on that task.

Lead Photo

If ever there were a year to combine a conference on mobile commerce with one on retail web site design, this is it.

That's because the biggest challenge facing retailers' web design teams today is how to build e-commerce sites that look good no matter what device a consumer is using—a laptop or desktop computer, tablet or smartphone. The importance of crafting a site that functions well on mobile devices was reinforced over the four-day Thanksgiving holiday weekend, when more than 30% of traffic and 18% of sales came from smartphones or tablets, IBM Corp. says.

"A shift is happening," says Todd Sprinkle, vice president of content and platform innovation at TV shopping network and online retailer QVC, a unit of Liberty Interactive Corp. "Sessions are going to these devices that have smaller screen resolutions. We have to make concessions and make sure the things we put in front of the customer first are the most impactful for her experience."

Sprinkle will deliver a keynote address at the IRCE Focus Mobile Commerce conference, which will take place at the same time and in the same hotel in Orlando, Fla., as the annual IRCE Focus Web Design event. Both conferences, together called IRCE Focus: Web Design + Mobile Commerce, are slated for Feb. 10-12. Anyone attending one conference will be able to attend sessions at the other, as well as to visit the shared exhibit hall. (For more details, see the sidebar on page 46.) That will provide attendees with plenty of opportunities to learn and discuss how best to reconfigure retail web sites with mobile devices—in all their growing varieties—in mind.

The question of how to design e-commerce sites for both mobile devices and computers will be a major topic of the design conference as well. For example, Sumant Sridharan, president of online retailer CafePress Inc. and a keynote speaker at the Web Design event, will discuss how the e-retailer has reduced page-load times and kept more visitors on its site since relaunching its site in October 2013 using the responsive design approach that adapts the way a web site looks depending on the size of the screen the consumer is using.

Indeed, the phrase "responsive design" is likely to be the center of many discussions during the three days of the web design and mobile commerce conferences. The February meetings will provide an opportunity for retail web designers and mobile commerce specialists to compare notes on the new techniques they've developed to maximize the advantages of responsive design, while minimizing its drawbacks.

Meanwhile, other retailers that have not gone the responsive route will address how they are responding to the multi-screen challenge. In many cases, the answer is to do a better job of figuring out what the web site visitor wants, and presenting her that information clearly and prominently. That often means eliminating the unnecessary clutter that is far more distracting and likely to deter a purchase on a mobile phone's small screen than on a computer monitor's wide screen. It's easier said than done, and speakers at the two conferences will provide details on how they have been accumulating information about their customers to better understand shopper intent and tailor their site designs accordingly.

That kind of informed simplicity is the new norm at CafePress, Sridharan says. For example, if a customer begins looking for maternity wear on CafePress.com the e-retailer can put her into its "new mothers" category and show her items other new mothers are interested in, such as baby apparel.

Personalization is especially important for CafePress, a site that lets consumers customize a broad range of items—mugs, T-shirts, even Monopoly games—with their own photos or designs submitted by artists from around the world. In all, the site offers some 600 million possible items, Sridharan says, and searching through them all is tough enough on a computer, let alone on a mobile phone. The e-retailer's latest design makes use of what it knows about the customer, both from her purchasing history and browsing data, to present the merchandise most likely to appeal to that shopper.

That's particularly crucial now that more consumers are shopping on mobile phones and tablets. "On a mobile device, you can't possibly look at thousands of products to make a purchase decision," Sridharan says. "Rather we take our best guess of the 10 products you'll be most interested in and put those in front of you. We think that will be a better experience for the consumer."

Making it easy for the customer to find what he wants was also a central goal at office supplies chain Staples Inc. as it redesigned its mobile commerce site, says Faisal Masud, executive vice president of global e-commerce at Staples, and a keynote speaker at the Mobile Commerce conference.

After studying customer activity data, Staples put at the center of its new mobile site, which launched in November, the three categories consumers were most often searching for: electronics, office supplies and maintenance products. Pushed to the bottom of the mobile screen were elements previously more prominent, including weekly ads and a store locator. The retailer also eliminated a rotating carousel of images, which slowed the mobile site down, Masud says. The mobile site now loads two to three times as fast, he says.

After seeing a growing number of consumers buying from its mobile site, Staples also made a strategic shift away from designing the site primarily to drive consumers into Staples stores, Masud says. "We had to reengineer some of that, because our customers wanted to be able to shop, not to be told to go to the store," Masud says. "They're coming to the mobile web because they find it convenient. We've become a lot more agnostic. Whether they go to the store or not, we want to provide the best possible experience in their journey."

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