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As companies scale, their founders and executives begin to realize one very fundamental thing: they can’t do it all themselves. Eventually, any growing company will need to either hire to fill gaps in capacity and capability, or begin looking for partners who have the expertise they need.
When it comes to ecommerce, one of the first business partnerships forged by mid-market brands is with a design firm. These are the experts who can craft your online storefront so that it plays into your overall marketing strategy, while helping turn your customer-facing experience into something that not only converts well, but helps communicate your brand, your differentiators and your vision.
Of course, handing the reigns over can be daunting for any small or midsize business. So, I caught up with the experts over at Pixel Union, an ecommerce design firm that has powered the design for tens of thousands of online stores. This is the team who built Tumblr’s most-loved templates in the late 2000’s, when Tumblr’s site design was second to none. These are the same folks who have created some of the most successful WordPress templates on that marketplace –– a highly competitive arena. Among their list of clients is the MoMa, Tesla, The Tonight Show, The White House and the BBC.
Thanks for taking the time to talk today, Ben! To begin, can you give the audience a bit of background on your work?
Sure. I took a bit of a circuitous route to get where I am now, doing everything from marketing and design to product development. I used to work for MetaLab, the agency that founded Pixel Union, before leaving to found my own agency. We did UX and UI design for web and mobile apps, marketing sites and ecommerce sites, as well as product and marketing strategy. It was the classic bootstrap scenario: on day one, I was designer, developer, bookkeeper, business development, account manager — and then eventually I brought in more people and just focused on building the business and serving as Creative Director on our client projects.
Over the years the agency grew and we acquired a WordPress theme company to start building out our product offering, running the agency and the theme business side by side. I stayed good friends with Andrew Wilkinson, the founder of MetaLab, throughout that time, so when he and I started talking about bringing my companies into Pixel Union, the decision came pretty easily. We agreed on terms, Pixel Union added an agency and another theme company to its portfolio, and I took over as CEO.
These days my job is more focused on developing strategies and building the relationships and partnerships that help Pixel Union grow, but I still participate in the design process of everything we work on, sitting in on design reviews and giving feedback and direction to our product teams.
I do that because the quality of our themes and products is so integral to who we are and our success as a company, whether they’re done as our own products for the marketplace or custom solutions for a client. We’re known as the best in the world at designing ecommerce experiences, and we have to live up to that with everything we do. So it’s not something I’ll ever let go of completely.
When you’re providing a review for concepts, what are you looking for?
The first and most important thing is making sure there’s a reason for everything. It’s one thing to make a theme that’s beautiful, and we certainly do that, but with ecommerce themes especially, it’s critical that aesthetics complement the true purpose of the design, which is to convert. I look for the thinking behind the design choices: what merchant or industry segment is it trying to serve? What are the problems those merchants need to solve? How is this design doing that for them? Then I look at the style itself: is it unique enough? Is it looking past trends and doing something truly original?
We also pay close attention to making sure the theme has the extensibility and customizability that will allow customers to turn it into something that truly works for their brand. With the custom designs we build for clients, we can control that ourselves, but with themes destined for the marketplace we need to make sure we’re setting merchants up for success as much as possible. All a merchant should have to do is provide their own content—products, photography, copy, videos—for the theme to feel rich and new and different. That’s tricky, but totally possible, and it’s one of the awesome things about themes when they’re done right.
Can you dive in just a little bit into what makes a theme flexible?
A lot of the onus for that depends on the platform, which controls what kind of options we can give merchants to customize their themes. As I said before, too many options can be a bad thing—people can end up undoing good design simply because they don’t have the skill or the experience to make the right decisions — but it’s important that brands are able to leverage a theme to make it work for them. No-one knows their customers better than they do, so it’s critical they can adjust our designs to speak to their particular audience.
All of the themes we’re building for Bigcommerce have that capability, giving merchants an easy way to differentiate their storefront from competitors while leaning on us to think through the more complicated aspects of the design—what we call the “customer journey.” Store owners will be able to tune the layout, fonts, colors, and other features so there’s no disconnect between the brand they’ve already established and the new direction they’re trying to take with their business.
I think going online in the first place can be scary for a lot of merchants. For established brands with existing customer relationships, upgrading to a new theme can be even scarier when you consider the need to create continuity with your customers, communicate a consistent message and also improve conversions. Great themes ease that burden because the heavy lifting is already done for you, and any fine-tuning that’s needed is simple to do yourself.
Could you talk a bit about design’s role on a marketing front?
A site’s design carries a lot of impact when it comes to first impressions. You want people to stick around long enough so that they’ll dig deeper into your product catalog and learn more about your brand. People have short attention spans. They bounce faster and faster all the time. They feel like they should know in one to three seconds whether they’ve found what they’re looking for.
This is part of the reason we often use a big hero image at the top of the home page. Above the fold, it’s an immediate signifier to a new or returning customer that they’ve landed in the right place, and that they’re going to find the type of thing they’re looking for from the type of people they want to do business with.
That’s what the homepage is all about. You’re offering a snapshot of the business that presents your brand in a way that instills trust, which is a huge part of succeeding as an online business. You need to have the right products for your customers, you need a theme that’s optimized to drive sales, but all of that falls short if you aren’t able to convince customers that you’re someone they trust enough to do business and form a relationship with.
That relationship-building is where design and marketing meet. Great design is recognizable, even for those customers who can’t tell you why it just “feels right,” and it speaks to a level of professionalism, care, and status customers want to be associated with. It’s the difference between someone who shows up once and spends $29 on a t-shirt and then disappears forever, and someone who returns every week to see what’s new in stock. It’s that lifetime value of a customer merchants should care about. That’s achieved through trust, and trust is a product of smart design.
You mentioned the home page, but what about for product pages?
The single product page is much narrower in its focus. It’s all about converting. By the time the customer has clicked through to that product, you’ve already gotten through the first hurdle: they trust you; they feel you’re relatable and they’re digging deeper.
Now the important thing is to get across the virtues of that product as clearly and efficiently as possible, and avoid cluttering the view with supplementary information that’s nice to know, but ultimately not what they care about. A store that presents images in an appealing way, makes product pricing and options clear and accessible, describes the product with a good voice and presents a strong call-to-action (your “add to cart” button) will convert better. Full feature and spec lists need to be available, but they don’t always need to be front and centre (with the exception of certain industry segments where those specs are the primary determining factor).
In a nutshell: the product page is all about answering questions quickly and minimizing confusion on the customer’s part so they can make a decision. They’re there because they need something. Where the homepage helped them get to know your brand, now you’re helping them get to know your product. If those two things are done well, the decision to buy from you and not the competition will come easily.
You’ve been doing this for a while. What’s changed in the ecommerce design industry?
I think five, six years ago, everything was a bit of a free-for-all. It was a bit of a Wild West. People were still figuring out what kinds of experiences merchants and customers were looking for. Platforms still had a ways to go in terms of providing the tools necessary to run a successful online business. A lot was still emerging, or being experimented with, and we didn’t yet have the experience or depth of research to back up some of the assumptions we were making.
These days, that’s all changed. We’ve evolved quickly. We know far more about buyer behaviors, interaction patterns and merchant and customer pain points than we did before, and all that informs our product work. We know what we should and shouldn’t do on a product page, and why. We know what layouts may look great but won’t convert, so we don’t go down those rabbit holes. We’re a lot smarter about the choices we make; we know why we make them. And that’s important, because merchants and customers are a lot smarter, too.
As an industry, ecommerce has grown in leaps and bounds, but it’s still just getting started. That’s what I love about working in this industry: it’s got traction, it’s blowing up, but we’ve only scratched the surface of its potential.
That’s why I spend so much time thinking about and talking to our clients about the relationships they’re building with their customers. Because the work they do now to build that trust will mean the difference between catching this massive wave that’s forming, or watching it roll by.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Ultimately, our goal as a company, whether it’s designing themes for the marketplace or creating custom ecommerce experiences for our clients, is to help businesses succeed online. And we see it happen all the time, from single product startups beginning a new venture, to brick-and-mortar retailers adapting their model, to global brands developing new channels that will help them continue to grow. It’s an incredible position to be in, to play that role with so many entrepreneurs doing so many amazing things in so many different industries. It’s what keeps us passionate about what we do.
That’s our version of the trust thing I was talking about earlier. We’re building that long-term relationship with our customers, so they can build the same with theirs. It’s pretty awesome.
That’s a wrap on our Designed to Sell interview series. Stay tuned for more Designed to Sell articles in 2016. Have questions for Ben? Leave them in the comments below.
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