Part 1: E-Commerce Guidelines For Product Findability

Posted Under: e-commerce

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If customers can’t find a product, they can’t buy it making the product findability a key to any e-commerce business. Baymard Institute conducted an 8- months large-scale usability research study on the product-finding experience, set to explore how users navigate, find and select products on e-commerce websites, using the home page and category navigation.

The one-on-one usability testing was conducted following the “think aloud” protocol. The research tested: Amazon, Best Buy, Blue Nile, Chemist Direct,, eBags, GILT, GoOutdoors, H&M, IKEA, Macy’s, Newegg, Pixmania, Pottery Barn, REI, Tesco, Toys’R’Us, The Entertainer, and Zappos. The pages and design elements that were tested include the home page, category navigation, subcategories, and product lists.

Throughout the test sessions, the subjects would repeatedly abandon websites because they were unable to find the products they were looking for. In total, the subjects encountered over 900 usability-related problems, despite the websites having been built for multi-million dollars. All of these usability issues have been distilled into 79 concise guidelines in a report titled “Homepage & Category Usability”.

In Part 1, we will explain in detail 3 of the guidelines:

1. Don’t Make Parent Categories Shallow (And do have Parent Categories)

Issue observed: When the hierarchy of categories is just labels and headers, it breaks the expectations of users and forces them into narrower sections than they desire, preventing explorative product browsing.

Grouping subcategory options in drop-down menus and other areas is a vital part of making them both manageable and scannable; and most websites have done so. Surprisingly, though, on many of the websites tested, the top level of the drop-down categories was only text labels, not actual clickable elements. This conflicted with the expectations of the majority of the test subjects, who anticipated that the headers would be clickable.

Case study: and

On Pixmania’s website, a subject tried to select the generic “Digital Cameras” category, instead of specific camera types. He didn’t want to specify a camera type subcategory yet because he was still unsure about the exact differences and hadn’t decided on his particular needs. On Amazon, another subject hovered over “Shop by Department” and tried to click “Movies, Music & Games,” which is orange when hovered over (Amazon’s hover style for links in the drop-down menu is orange and underlined), but nothing happened. She tried again before realizing that she had to choose one of the subcategories on the left.

On websites in which headings are actually selectable parent categories (i.e. part of the website’s taxonomy), the subjects often ended up relying on them for an initial overview of an entire category, and from there made informed decisions about which subcategories to select.

This critical guideline isn’t limited to drop-down menus, but applies to any representation of a hierarchy of categories. Examples would be the categories displayed in the sidebar or in the site map of a product catalog, as well as permanently visible main navigation bar options (i.e. very top-level categories). In all of these cases, a parent category should exist and be selectable, as opposed to being a shallow text label.

2. Put The Same Subcategory Within Multiple Main Categories When Necessary

Issue observed: When a subcategory could logically appear in multiple parent categories but appears only in one, users are often led astray.

Depending on your product catalog, you might end up with subcategories that users would expect to find in multiple parent categories. For example, users might look for a coffee table in both the “Living Room” and “Tables” sections, as well as in the “Accessories” subcategory of “Sofas”.

While the ideal solution is to craft a completely unambiguous set of top-level categories, this is not always realistic, and sometimes popular demand requires a fuzzy category to be introduced in the top-level categories. Therefore, to avoid the severe usability problem of users not being able find a subcategory where they expect (which often lead subjects to conclude that the store simply doesn’t carry the item), consider putting the subcategory in multiple parent categories.

Case study:
One subject was unsure whether she would find computer adapters in “Office” or “Computers & Tablets”, because the former describes a usage context, while the latter describes the type of product. Based on the subcategory options, she found the latter to be the correct one. However, in “Computers & Tablets” (above right), she was in doubt about whether to look in “Batteries & Power” or in the generic “Accessories”. Luckily, both led her to adapters. Also, notice how Best Buy has an “Ink & Toner” category within “Computers & Tablets,” as well as a “Printer Ink & Toner” category within “Office”, allowing users to find the category in any of the potentially matching parent categories.

Consider the “Office” category in the Best Buy example above. All of its subcategories could be in other top-level categories, yet the “Office” section is presumably still needed to support the large portion of Best Buy’s customers who shop with a “home versus work” mindset. In these instances, featuring very important subcategories within multiple parent sections would be relevant (assuming that they semantically fit them equally well) because users will look in the one that best fits their context.

In terms of implementation, there are two main approaches to featuring the same subcategory in multiple parent categories. Our tests showed no conclusive evidence for one method over another. Each has its advantages and disadvantages:

You could put the subcategory in one place in the website’s taxonomy, and then simply link to that destination in the other parent categories (for example, in the drop-down menu). The user would then jump scope to the “real” category, regardless of where they access it from. This could cause confusion if the user knows they have clicked a link in a menu named “Office” but then landed in the “Electronics” section (as indicated by the breadcrumbs).

Alternatively, you could duplicate the categories so that each is a unique entry in the website’s hierarchy, with proper breadcrumb paths, etc. The downside here is technical complexity. Products must be tagged consistently across multiple duplicated subcategories; the search engine’s auto-suggestions must not suggest any one category more than once in a single search; and so on. Furthermore, implementing this requires canonical pages to be set up in order to avoid SEO penalties for the duplicate pages.

3. Consider Having A “What’s New” Category Or Filter

Issue observed: Some users want to see what’s new in your store — say, to be inspired or when buying for a friend — without having to plow through previously browsed products.

Case study: H&M
“H&M is one of the websites that I check from time to time”, a test subject explained, “so I might pick ‘New Arrivals’, like this, and see what new stuff they have”. Many subjects who had experience with a website or brand that we tested would look for a “What’s New” category. This was especially true if they cared deeply about the products and brand and already had a good idea of the product catalog and, thus, wanted to check out what had arrived since their previous visit.

Clearly, a “What’s New” filter-based category is a great way to support return visitors, so that they can easily identify what new products have arrived since their last visit. But there are other use cases for “What’s New.”

“New Arrivals” is particularly meaningful in seasonal industries, where the newness factor could be a major part of the purchasing decision.

“New Arrivals” is particularly meaningful in seasonal industries, where the newness factor could be a major part of the purchasing decision.

In seasonal industries, such as clothing and groceries, “What’s New” helps users to see what’s currently fresh and in season. “What’s New” shouldn’t be taken too literally. For example, fresh figs aren’t exactly new because they are in stores every year, but they are new to stores around summertime, and most users would expect to find them in a “What’s New” type of section, regardless of whether they are technically new (for example, the SKU might be the same). Indeed, the category or filter shouldn’t necessarily be called “What’s New”; depending on the product type, a label such as “New Arrivals” or “In Season” might be more appropriate.

Unsure of what to buy for an eight-year-old nephew, a subject decided to open the “New” category because “kids often want the latest thing”.

Unsure of what to buy for an eight-year-old nephew, a subject decided to open the “New” category because “kids often want the latest thing”.

Some gift-buyers want to see new releases to buy something interesting and novel. The recentness of a product also lowers the chance that the gift recipient already owns the product, which is particularly important when the buyer doesn’t know the recipient well.

Making “What’s New” a filter, rather than a separate site-wide category, is often a good idea, so that users can see new items within sections. This works well in several cases: for repeat visitors who want to check only the new items in a particular category; in seasonal industries where a user is interested only in what’s in season in a particular section, such as “Fruits”; and, last but not least, for gift-buyers who need to pick a section that’s relevant to the recipient before considering how to find the best item in that section.

“What’s New” can be integrated as an option in the filtering tools or as part of the category navigation (even if it’s actually a filter that’s presented as a subcategory). During testing, the subjects responded well to seeing it in both the filtering tools and in the category navigation of websites in seasonal industries. But they can clutter up category navigation quickly if not implemented carefully (i.e. if the options are not progressively disclosed as categories are selected). In industries in which newness isn’t as important, a filtering option would probably suffice.

If your e-commerce store is experiencing similar issues, you can contact our Magento certified developers at Don’t be shy, talk to us (consultations are free)!

Posted by : Abhishek Agarwal Date : April 22, 2014

Abhishek Agarwal is Co-founder and CEO of Rightway Solution and Leads Business Development and Marketing Initiatives.

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