Online Retailers: Help Your Customers Find Your Products

The Web is ever changing, and this article is relatively ancient having been published 13 years ago. It is likely out of date or even blatantly incorrect in relation to modern better practices, so proceed at your own risk.

Aisle of products One of my favorite (only because it has the best, low-price selection) sources of quality fabrics has horrible UX on their store site. Horrible to the point that I’m only able to do rudimentary filtering because I understand the GET variables they use to display their catalog. In fact, I wrote a post to help non-developer users figure out how to filter the catalog by changing the URL. The fact that I had to do either of those things really bothers me as a front-end developer; your users should never have to resort to manipulating the URL in order to filter or find products.

If a user can’t easily figure out that you carry a certain product, you just lost a sale. Think about that and what it means to your business.

Say a customer walks into your brick-and-mortar store wanting a specific type of whatchamacallit with a budget of $5. They see that there is a whatchamacallit aisle, but it’s just overwhelming: you have have 200 different colors of that specific type of whatchamacallit. There are different sizes, weights, and patterns. The customer’s not too picky about some of the finer points, or maybe they are, but it doesn’t matter because they only have $5 that they want to spend. So, they want to quickly narrow it down to all whatchamacallits under $5. They could go down the aisle looking at every one, but it’s easier for them to find a store employee and ask, “can you show me the whatchamacallits that are under $5?”

Being a store that cares about making a sale, your employee says yes, helps the customer, maybe even upsells them, and the customer makes a purchase. Money in the bank for the store.

Now stop. Why should this interaction be any different in your online store? That’s right, it shouldn’t be. Sure, it’s a bit difficult to have a person there, so to speak (you could have a live chat function). But there are alternatives:

  • An obvious search box that accepts queries like “whatchamacallits under $5” and returns useful, intuitive results.
  • Obvious, intuitive filtering and sorting options for search results with obvious, intuitive controls.
  • Obvious, intuitive filtering and sorting options within categories with obvious, intuitive controls.
  • An obvious, intuitive way to change the number of items shown on a page.

Notice the similarities up there: obvious and intuitive. It’s not simply adequate to provide those controls; people need to be able to find them and use them easily—just like they’d need to be able to easily find a knowledgeable employee. Good online store software will have all of those things out of the box or your developer will set it up as a standard part of your store creation. All of these filters should persist until the user says to remove it, as well: if a user filters to blue whatchamacallits then applies a $5 filter, they should be shown blue, $5 whatchamacallits not just $5 ones in any color. Sounds like common sense, right? Too many online stores don’t seem to get it.

Now, back to the earlier example. What if your employee said to the customer, “no, find it yourself.” Maybe the customer would spend time looking, but more likely they’d realize that you don’t care about their patronage and they’d go somewhere else to find the whatchamacallit. You just lost the sale. You’d probably fire an employee that did that consistently.

That’s exactly what’s happening at the fabric store. And many other online stores with outdated store software that has no filtering. There’s no provided way to easily narrow the products down to a specific one you’re searching for. There’s a search function, but it’s not that great, and there’s no way to narrow down the results. There’s absolutely no way to sort of filter the category item listings at all. They need to fire their store software.

Keep in mind that simple categorization is not sufficient criteria browsing or searching. Just because I want a whatchamacallit doesn’t mean I’m interested any whatchamacallit you carry. Shoppers, whether they’re just browsing or are looking for a very specific item, are more likely to buy from you if they can find what they are looking for. If they can’t find it, they can’t buy it. If they’re browsing a sales listing hoping to find something they think they need, you’ll have more success on a conversion if they can narrow down that sales list to items they are interested in. Sure, they can start at the top—viewing everything—but maybe they see a coolthing that intrigues them, but it’s not the perfect coolthing they want to buy. If they can easily narrow that listing to all coolthings, your ability to sell them something just increased. They know you carry the type of item, and are easily able to drill down to all items of that type. If they can’t, then maybe they keep looking, or maybe they get bored after going through another 2 pages with no more coolthings because all the other coolthings are 12 pages into the sales. A bored visitor leaves, and so does their money.

What do you expect from online shopping user interfaces? What makes you go to another store? Stay at the current store? Feel free to share good or bad experiences and examples in the comments.