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The way your site looks can make or break your success. Today, online shoppers are particularly engaged with design-centric sites –– and they expect those sites to load quickly and work intuitively. In fact, these last two expectations are more requirements than nice-to-haves. But that alone isn’t enough to earn the trust and business of today’s online shoppers. Now, more than ever, design plays a crucial role in customer loyalty, conversion and business success.
This is because users expect, more than anything else, a website to be convenient. Convenience is the cornerstone of the modern consumer mindset. It is why Uber, AirBnB, Favor, Amazon Prime and so many other services are doing so incredibly well: they take the hassle out of everyday tasks, for a perceivably low cost. Online convenience is part of the larger concept of customer experience. Your site must load quickly, your on-site search functionality must work properly and your design must convey trustworthiness. A site’s design, after all, is about presenting products and brand in such a way that it reflects the customer back to themselves, the way they want to be seen. Good design achieves this while also driving conversions.
Of course, every business is unique. So, I caught up with the experts over at Pixel Union, an ecommerce design firm which 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.
Note that this is a multi-part series. Today, we’ll be highlighting the thoughts and expertise of Cory Gibbons, designer at Pixel Union.
Cory, so nice to get to talk with you! To begin, can you give the audience a bit of background on your work?
Design was always a big interest of mine growing up. I went to school for print design, and then like a lot of designers I got into web because there was more work and it was just as fun.
I started making themes because I found the idea really fascinating — designing for a large group of users rather than a single client. There’s a much different set of challenges when your use-case scenarios jump from one store owner to tens of thousands of businesses.
Pixel Union came across my work in early 2014, and after a few conversations I decided to make the move from Vancouver to Victoria. Since then, I’ve been happily designing the future of ecommerce with an amazing team of designers, developers, and other creatives.
As for how I define my own work, I’ve always believed in finding the simplest solution to complex design problems. I’m a firm believer of “less is more,” and I make sure all aspects of the products I design are well considered and provide tangible solutions for the merchants using them. I get a lot of “minimalist” jokes around the office. I’m okay with that label.
Thanks for the background! Let’s jump in: How do you determine what type of site design is best for a particular brand? Is there a strategy you think through as you design out templates?
All good design starts with research. First, we have to define the group we’re designing for. This could be a segment of the market that’s underrepresented in the theme space — single-product merchants, for example.
After that, we dig in and try to learn as much as we can about the potential merchants and their customers. The better we can understand their needs and goals, the better we can design the perfect solution. We’re always conscious of making sure that both the functionality and the look and feel of the theme help merchants achieve success in their market.
After you determine who the target audience is, what’s that next step?
That’s when we start crafting a theme that solves their specific problems. Say you have a merchant selling large quantities of low-priced items, something like electronics components, where most customers check out with a minimum of 10 products. It’s important to make sure getting items into the cart with varying quantities is as easy as possible. We might then include quantity selectors inside the product tiles to save customers from having to click into another page to add-to-cart or make quantity edits. It’s these kinds of “minor” features that often seem invisible, but which combine to make a theme really valuable to its merchants.
When you’re thinking through how to design these pages, what are the key features you have seen increase conversions most for brands?
Establishing trust is a big one for ecommerce conversions. Customers aren’t going to spend time in your shop and spend money if they don’t trust you. Little things like making your return policy clear and easily accessible help build trust. Having a clear value proposition, using the best product photos you can, writing great and descriptive product descriptions, and enabling free shipping when possible will all help increase your conversions.
What kind of requests are you seeing from clients in terms of some of those more creative ways to increase engagement?
There’s a lot of interest in product upsell options like the ability to add recommendations within the cart, or being able to shop entire “looks” at once instead of one product at a time. Social elements are big, too — things like social proof feeds and anything else that helps the merchant’s online store and social media accounts work together seamlessly.
It’s not uncommon for clients to request something based simply on aesthetics, even when it isn’t necessarily a good solution for their business. For example, a lot of merchants really like the look of full-bleed hero slideshows on the homepage. The problem is that many of these stores don’t have the high-quality photos needed to fill those sections, and so they end up using mediocre product images instead, doing more harm than good. In reality, dropping the large slideshow and having product photos higher on the page would probably benefit them more.
What are some big brands out there, say like a Walmart, whose ecommerce site you particularly admire, or some features they might have that you really like?
They’re not Walmart, but there’s a fairly big Canadian clothing retailer called Aritzia whose online store has a really nice small boutique feel, while maintaining a huge catalogue. They’re constantly iterating and improving things as they learn more about their customer base, something that’s hugely important to crafting a successful ecommerce experience.
What do you consider ecommerce table-stakes these days, versus nice-to-haves?
First and foremost, the shop needs to look great and load fast on all devices and screen sizes. Every day, more and more people are shopping from an assortment of mobile devices, so it’s absolutely vital that your shop supports all of them.
Design-wise, I think categories should be structured in an obvious and logical way to make finding products as easy as possible. Along the same lines, the larger your catalogue, the more important it becomes to have an accessible and well-functioning search feature.
Product photography is really important. If you’re a small merchant, that might mean learning how to take great photos yourself, or if you have the budget, hiring a professional photographer to do the work for you goes a long way. Top-notch product photography can really benefit the overall look and trustworthiness of your site, therefore helping your conversions.
Finally, social media integration has really become table-stakes. At minimum, the integration should be seamless and allow visitors to easily share your products on a variety of social networks.
Next in the series, we’ll be chatting with Luke Seeley, the creative director over at Pixel Union. Stay tuned, and in the meantime, feel free to comment with questions, concerns and ideas below.
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