Part 2: E-Commerce Guidelines For Product Findability

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Today we are continuing on Part 1 e-commerce guidelines which we recommend you read prior to this article, since we shared some important findings from an 8- months large-scale usability research study on the product-finding experience. The research tested some of the biggest retailers today including Amazon, Best Buy, H&M, IKEA, Macy’s, Newegg, Pixmania, Pottery Barn, Tesco, etc. In Part 2, we will explain in detail the remaining 4 guidelines:

4. Suggest Both Alternative And Supplementary Products On Product Pages

Issue observed: Alternatives, substitutes, add-ons and accessories to the product that the user is currently viewing are unreasonably difficult to find without good upselling and cross-selling on the product page.

Upselling and cross-selling is great for business. And, when implemented appropriately, they can be great for usability, too. Suggesting supplementary products is great for users who are looking for add-ons or accessories to the product they are viewing, while suggesting similar products is great for users who are searching for alternatives or substitutes.

Case study: Tesco

“When they say ‘Recommended for you’, I assume they will fit”, a subject explained, referring to the camera cases displayed after adding a Nikon Coolpix pocket camera to his cart on Tesco. It turned out that one of the two recommended cases didn’t fit the camera.

When suggesting supplementary products, label them appropriately if compatibility is an issue in your industry. Many of the subjects assumed that any accessories suggested would be compatible with the product they were viewing or had just added to their cart. Only when the suggested products were explicitly labeled as being based on the behavior of other users (for example, “Other customers also bought”) did the subjects not assume them to be compatible. Be careful in labelling behavior-based suggestions for supplementary products as “recommended” if you can’t guarantee their compatibility with the product they are being suggested to complement.

“Something which is similar that other customers visited or bought”, a subject mumbled to himself when glancing over the sidebar shown above. Tesco helps its users find both alternative and supplementary products by including lists of both “Others bought these alternatives” and “Customers who bought this also bought” in the sidebar of its product pages. (And unlike on its shopping-cart page, Tesco gets the labeling right here by clearly indicating that the lists are based on the behavior of other customers.)

Given that users want suggestions for both similar and supplementary products, implementing both on product pages is recommended. The lists don’t have to be located near each other, although they could be, as long as they aren’t mixed. The subjects responded poorly when the criteria or theme of the product suggestions was not clear. Therefore, keep suggestions for similar products and supplementary products in distinct groups, but be sure to have both.

While basing these suggestions on the behavior of other users can be effective, exercise care. Tesco’s suggestions for supplementary products consisted entirely of memory cards, even though many other relevant add-ons and accessories are obvious, such as cases, lenses and batteries. So, either manually curate the suggestions or have the system generate them based on a broad range of factors, so that a diverse set of complementary product types is shown.

5. List “Recently Viewed Items”

Issue observed: Refinding a previously visited product becomes needlessly complex when the user has to rely on the browser’s native “Back” button or has to renavigate the categories or reuse search.

During testing, subjects often wanted to return to a previously visited item — sometimes to check whether certain features of the previous item were compatible with the new one, other times to compare two products before deciding on one to purchase, and still other times to return to a certain product scope from where they could use the breadcrumbs to climb back up the category hierarchy.

Whatever the reason, the subjects simply wanted to refind a previously viewed product. Yet, on websites without a “Recently viewed items” feature, the only ways to do this were through repeated clicking of the browser’s “Back” button (an option that occurred only to some subjects) or by searching for it or plowing through the product categories once again.

Case study: Tesco
On Tesco, refinding a previously visited product is made easy by the “Items you have recently viewed” list, which is integrated in the footer on all category and product pages. Compare how easy it was for this subject to check the camera’s dimensions with the previous Pixmania example.

Another location for the “Recently viewed items” list is the sidebar, as seen here on Crate & Barrel.

With this list readily available throughout the website, users are assured that refinding products will be easy, and they are more likely to explore other items because they know that returning to a favorite won’t be a hassle. Combined with breadcrumbs, users enjoy a powerful combination that facilitates both history-based cross-sectional navigation and section jumping. Show “Recently viewed items” to everyone, then, without requiring users to sign in; the list should be session-based, functioning much like a shopping cart.

Because the list is automatically generated for users, a couple of privacy features are worth considering. While the vast majority of users will enjoy seeing “Recently viewed items”, a few will want to hide the items because they don’t want others to know or because they’re on a public computer. In such cases, consider two features: “Clear all” and “Disable list”.

6. Create Dedicated Pages That List Compatible Products

Issue observed:Users have a difficult time finding compatible products and verifying their compatibility when the website doesn’t explicitly state their compatibility or link to the corresponding products.

Finding a spare adapter for your laptop or buying a camera and matching case might sound like trivial tasks, but during testing, it turned out to be extremely difficult for subjects, who had a completion rate of only 35%. This means that 65% had to give up or, worse, ended up purchasing a product that they believed was compatible but was, in fact, not.

Case study: Pixmania
Finding compatibility-dependent accessories can be difficult, which is why you should always suggest both alternative and supplementary products on a product page (see guideline 5), as well as list “Recently viewed items” (guideline 6). However, if the majority of accessories in your industry are strictly compatible with certain other products (regardless of whether you sell those other products), then consider also offering whole pages listing compatible products. Technology industries are ideal for this (due to the technical dependency between products), whereas it would be overkill for a clothing store (all clothes “function” together — the only “compatibility” factor is taste).

“I’ll pick Nikon now — originally, I didn’t necessarily want one from Nikon — but I’ll do it now hoping to find an original camera bag so I know it will fit, because I’m not really keen on going back to find my camera dimensions and then compare to the bags,” a test subject explained. “So, unless it’s insanely expensive, I’ll probably take an original”. Subjects often gave up finding a compatible case that they liked and simply tried to find anything that would fit their camera. Using brand filters was often a part of that strategy, although it led some novice photographers to purchase incompatible cases, because they assumed that most Nikon cases would fit most Nikon cameras.

When dedicating whole pages to compatible products, then the page for, say, the “Nikon D7000 camera” would list all compatible accessories, such as batteries, cases and lenses. Going a step further, the page could even filter by product type, so that users can view “compatible ‘camera cases’ for ‘Nikon D7000′”. This enables users to navigate the product catalog vertically and to find (typically high-profit) accessories, instilling confidence in the accessories’ compatibility.

Determining compatibility across a catalog is a major undertaking, but with intelligent queries for each compatibility-dependent category, a lot of the work can be automated. The benefits of determining such compatibility are many. Besides the already mentioned ability to browse vertically across categories, it enables you to create powerful filters. Imagine one filter in the “Laptop Adapters & Chargers” category that allows the user to enter their computer’s model and see compatible chargers. Furthermore, it is also great for search engine optimization, because these compatibility lists can be presented as permanent pages, giving you several highly targeted and unique landing pages for each product, such as “Lenses for Nikon D7000″, “Laptop Chargers & Adapters for MacBook Pro” and “Covers for Kindle Paperwhite”.

When seeing these camera bags being cross-sold in their shopping cart, the subject above was disappointed by their looks (all black nylon).

Had Pixmania established compatibility across its catalog, it could have linked to a list of compatible accessories — “See all 8 compatible cases for Canon PowerShot A2300″ — at the end of this cross-selling section, providing a direct path to a complete overview of relevant cases.

Establishing compatibility across a catalog helps you to avoid plainly wrong matches.

7. Always Link Contextual Images Directly To The Products Shown

Issue observed:Users quickly grow frustrated when they spot a product in a contextual image but can’t navigate to it.

“I want this. What do I do?… I want this one”, one subject said, laughing out of despair while pointing and clicking at a coffee table shown in a contextual image on IKEA. While inspirational images can raise the aesthetic appeal of an e-commerce website and serve as an important vertical style-based navigation path, not directly linking to the products depicted in contextual images will frustrate users to no end.

During testing, the subjects were dumbfounded that a website didn’t simply link directly to all products depicted and that they had to hunt them down to learn more or to purchase them. This lowered their perception of the website, and some took it as a sign that the owners clearly hadn’t used their own website.

Case study: IKEA
“I don’t know how I found this cushions category. I wonder why there wasn’t a cushions category along with all the sofa options up there. But then I saw this image of a cushion down the page and thought that maybe I’m on the right track.” One subject said this while looking for cushions in the sofa category on IKEA’s website. As he scrolled down the “Sofas” subcategory page, he spotted an image containing a cushion, and while the image was actually cross-selling sofa covers, the “Cushions” category was linked to it as well.

Images tend to draw a lot of attention, and when users get stuck in first attempting to find a product, they tend to scan the page very narrowly for anything that looks like a path to the product they want. Therefore, contextual images should always link to the products depicted, even if the image is meant merely as inspiration for one of the products being shown. Users will still notice the other products in the image, especially if they are actively scanning for one of those product types. Even if the purpose of the image isn’t to promote that particular product, users will become frustrated if they can see the product but not access its page.

If an item is not being sold, ideally it shouldn’t be depicted at all. In practice, this is tricky because contextual images sometimes contain products that were available when the photograph was taken but that now are not (or are not in all distribution channels — for example, a store might sell some products offline only, or an international website might ship certain products to certain regions). Discarding or reshooting an entire scene of multiple products is likely unfeasible if just one or two of the products are no longer available.

In such cases, replace the product link with a description, rather than just remove it entirely. The description could be as simple as “Discontinued”, “Available only in store” or “Not available in US store” — the vital part is to indicate that the user may not purchase the item. If the item has not been discontinued but is simply unavailable for purchase in a particular channel or region (as with IKEA above), then the description can point very persistent customers in the right direction. Better yet, if similar products are available, consider linking to them or to their categories.

Conclusion: If They Can’t Find It, They Can’t Buy It
In a time when more and more customers are accessing e-commerce websites through search engines and social media links that send them deep into a website’s hierarchy, enabling users to infer their current position in the hierarchy, to go to the generic parent category and to find related products is critical. Even customers who use on-site search will depend on the website’s taxonomy of categories to infer the available range of products. By following the seven guidelines you can quickly improve the category navigation on a typical e-commerce website.

Posted by : Abhishek Agarwal Date : April 29, 2014

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

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