Lessons from a weary shopper’s online search for a sleeper sofa

An IRWD view from the shopper’s perspective shows how design flaws hinder sales.

Mary Wagner

Online retailers may consider their sites a breeze to navigate, but that doesn’t mean consumers won’t fumble when trying to search and buy on the site, Site Tuners CEO Tim Ash told the audience at the Internet Retailer Web Design & Usability Conference 2013 in Orlando Tuesday.

Ash stepped outside his usual role at Site Tuners, a vendor of landing page optimization and conversion services, to take the shopper’s perspective.  The session highlighted a host of ways that flaws in site design can derail a customer on the path to purchase. “I’m speaking as an advocate of the customer experience,” he said.

Ash pulled examples of how site design can impede a purchase from his own experience in trying to buy a sleeper sofa online, an exercise that turned up multiple missteps in design and usability across several sites. Those glitches spanned successive steps in the search and buy process, with each representing a friction point where shoppers could bail out of a purchase.

He encountered a usability problem right off the bat when he searched on the web’s leading search engine. Ash’s search for a sofa on Google,  turned up a results page with multiple text listings and a pane containing eight images of sofas. Eye-tracking studies show that a searcher’s eye goes right to the images, initially ignoring the listings, Ash said. That could leave some searchers to the conclusion that only eight sofas were available online—or at least that it would take a lot of effort to find others.  

Ash’s own search next took him to Amazon.com, which offered 946 sleeper sofas—and filtering and refinement options not geared to make it easy for consumers to narrow their choice among those many options. Less helpful was Furniture.com, where a revolving hero shot occupying much of the home page served to distract rather than help visitors on a targeted search, he said.

“Every two to three seconds, it’s going to jerk my attention away before I’ve even had time to find out if they have sleeper sofas,” he said. “Make sure your categories are visually discoverable.”

A local search on Google turned up a listing for an area furniture store that attracted him by including the word “modern.”    That site’s landing page showed six sofas—just part of the site’s assortment—some  of which weren’t modern. But properly used, pictures can be useful in helping shoppers zoom in on what they want to find on a site. In this case, shoppers would have been better served with the right photos selected to head different style categories, such as “modern” or “traditional,” he said.

Ash also cited other examples of sites that err by making shoppers work to get needed information, such as burying key information on price, dimensions and in-stock status at the bottom of a page, or offering it at the shopping cart level instead of earlier in the process.

“Give details at the point of desire,” Ash advised attendees.


Amazon, e-commerce, Furniture.com, Google, IRWD 2013, merchandising and design, product images, search engine marketing, site design, Site Tuners, Tim Ash