July 23, 2014, 12:53 PM

Shop Direct brings in more sales by bringing usability testing in house

The U.K. web-only retailer pays $170,000 for an onsite lab where it recruits consumers to navigate its web sites as employees watch. Two months later, the lab has already helped boost conversions.

Lead Photo

United Kingdom-based retailer Shop Direct takes usability testing seriously. So seriously, it’s invested $170,000 to develop its own on-site testing facility where it recruits consumers to visit and navigate its e-commerce sites while employees observe and look for ways to make the sites easier to shop and navigate.

The retailer, which operates full department store sites including Very.co.uk and Littlewoods.com, had been using usability testing labs though outside vendors for around five years, conducting tests with facilities throughout the U.K., says Jonathan Wall, e-commerce director for the web only retailer. For each of those tests, Shop Direct, No. 7 in the Internet Retailer Europe 500 shelled out around $6,000 for the external agency to run the test and recruit the  particular demographic of consumers Shop Direct wanted to analyze.

The problem with using outside facilities, Wall says, is that it was tough to get top executives and stakeholders to attend the testing sessions, which were often conducted in London or Manchester, U.K. Shop Direct is based in Liverpool, U.K. which is approximately 45 minutes from Manchester and nearly four hours from London. Without seeing consumers interacting with its e-commerce sites firsthand, it was difficult to convince top management to invest in web site or company changes, Wall says.

“As a pure play e-retailer, what we were lacking until recently was the ability to observe and interact regularly with our customers face-to-face,” Wall says.

The new, permanent user experience lab was launched in May and features technologies such as eye tracking and live recordings of consumers navigating the site. Wall says in the first month after the launch of the lab, the entire executive board, 260 additional employees and the mayor of Liverpool all visited to see live consumer usability tests.  

The lab comprises two rooms. The consumer room is a relaxing space where consumers can carry out tasks set by Shop Direct’s usability researchers. The viewing room is where staff observes consumer behavior through one-way glass, as well as debate and collaborate on ways to solve issues or improve the site. For help designing the lab, Shop Direct visited similar labs at gaming and technology companies, including Google Inc., Wall says. He says Shop Direct is the first U.K. retailer to develop such a facility.

A key objective of the UX lab is to conduct more usability sessions each month and better understand its shoppers. Having a UX research facility on site in its head office allows Shop Direct to place the customer at the center of the business in a way that many e-retailers struggle to achieve, says Shop Direct, which did $2.9 billion in sales in 2013.

Wall, who says the lab will pay for itself within a year, says Shop Direct is now conducting around 50 tests per month, about double what it was conducting before. That includes both bringing in consumers to navigate e-commerce sites and also conduct the A/B split tests it runs to explore the ROI of potential new features after watching shoppers. Wall aims to bring the number of monthly tests to 100 by the end of the year.

About 50% of the tests focus on making the site easier to navigate, about 30% focus on personalization and the last 20% analyze new offerings such as whether or not a potential new payment option resonates with shoppers. 

Shop Direct still uses an outside agency to recruit shoppers in its demographic of 25-35 year old females, Wall says. It typically splits tests between customer and non-customers, he says.

In one of the tests at the new lab, Shop Direct wanted to analyze an error message it was using on product pages that appeared when shoppers failed to choose a size or a color of an item. Shop Direct had been displaying a red warning box above the fold in bold type saying the customer had made an error and needed to make a selection before proceeding. “We thought it was clear and obvious,” Wall says. But eye tracking tests show shoppers weren’t looking at the box and were confused as to why there were stuck. Shop Direct changed the message to a pop-up box and conversion on product pages improved by 0.8%, Wall says.

“By the end of this year, we’ll be launching more tests on our web sites in a month than the majority of our competitors aim to achieve in a year,” Wall says. “It’s a massive leap forward on our journey to world class.”

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