7 Nov 2014

E-Commerce Usability Needs To Improve

I’m surprised how primitive and clunky e-commerce web sites are, even after two decades of e-commerce, and even at market leaders like Amazon.

To begin with, you can’t even filter products by their attributes, say to ask for smartphones that have at least a 5.2-inch screen, or telescopes that weigh less than 10kg and are no more than two feet long. Every physical product has attributes such as weight and dimensions, and you should be able to filter by them.

Then there are attributes specific to a certain family of products, such as the OS and version on a smartphone, or the objective lens size for a telescope. Why can’t I ask a web site to show me telescopes with an objective of at least six inches? Sadly, special-purpose e-commerce stores like telescope.com fare no better than generic ones like Amazon, despite what you may expect. And telescope.com is Orion’s web site, and Orion is a major brand in telescopes and other astronomy equipment. We’re not talking about a hobbyist web site here.

So, whenever a product is listed on a e-commerce store, they should think of all the attributes of the product, and enter them in a machine-understandable form, that is as key-value pairs with standard meanings, rather than as free-form text. E-commerce websites should insist that every product listed must have a weight, dimensions, a warranty period, and all the other attributes you can imagine. And then, for a specific category of devices, there should be more fields, like the objective of a telescope, or the focal length of a lens.

If a seller refuses to provide these, don’t list them. It shouldn’t be a major effort to fill these out, all the more so given that someone listing a product on Amazon hopes to sell many units, and each unit makes a non-trivial amount of money. Unlike say, online ads, where a single impression makes a negligible amount of money, such as fractions of a cent. Compare that with hundreds of dollars for a telescope.

So, all physical products should have a baseline set of attributes, such as weight, dimensions, warranty period, etc. And every product should have additional attributes based on what type of device it is, such as an objective for a telescope, or an OS for a phone. And all of these should be mandatory for all products on the site.

Some list do list these attributes and filter by them, but only as predefined buckets. For example, telescope.com groups telescopes into 4-6 inches, and 6-8 inches. I can’t ask for a telescope that’s 4 inches or more, which is what I really want. I don’t want to exclude 6-8 inch telescopes, if they meet my requirements, because they will produce a clearer image.

Besides, I may be looking for a telescope that’s at least 5 inches. This straddles the 4-6 inch bucket, so I can’t filter by what I’m looking for. I either have to choose 4 inches, and end up with a lot of results that don’t match my criteria, or choose 6 inches and exclude what may be the best telescopes for me. This is stupid. You should be able to specify a less-than, or greater-than, or range requirement for any field. And you should be able to specify any threshold value you care about, such as a telescope that’s 5 inches or larger, or a phone with a 5-inch or larger screen.

Flipkart offers a great number of choices for filtering phones: you can filter by whether the phone is a smartphone, by its OS, by its OS version (like KitKat), by the screen size, by the number of SIMs it supports, and so on. For example, here’s a list of phones running KitKat, with 5-inch screens, 2GB RAM, and support for dual-SIMs. This is impressive, and Amazon should learn from it.

Users should also be able to filter and sort by “derived attributes”, for lack of a better term, like the pixels-per-inch value of a smartphone screen. This is just the result of dividing the height of the screen in pixels by the height in inches, but that detail doesn’t matter — users should be able to filter by this attribute, if they want to eliminate phones with low-res screens.

There’s also the specific UI choices. On many sites, when you select a filter, the listing updates, which takes several seconds, until which point you can’t select or modify other filters. Or if you accidentally made a wrong selection, you can’t correct it until the whole thing takes its own sweet time to reload. When you’re looking for a product, you often play with multiple filters, and multiple combinations of filters, to try to narrow down the thing you want, and it’s irritating to be slowed down at each step.

In addition to filtering by any attribute, you should also be able to sort by any of them, such as showing telescopes sorted by weight or smartphones sorted by screen size. If you can filter by an attribute, you should be able to sort by it, and vice-versa.

Sites also force me to make choices that I don’t know enough to make, or where there are multiple options I’m interested in. For example, telescope.com forces you to choose a telescope type (Dobsonian, Reflector, Refractor or Cassegrain) before you can filter by the things you actually care about, like price, weight, size or objective lens. This is again stupid. What I want is a telescope with a 6-inch or larger objective for less than $500. I care about telescope types as much as I do whether my phone uses a VM to run apps, which is to say: not at all. Sites should bend to fit the user, letting them approach their shopping the way they want to, rather than forcing users to bend themselves to fit the site’s preconceived (and bureaucratic) notions of how one should buy a telescope.

Finally, all e-commerce sites should offer live chat — text chat, audio chat, and video chat, so that each shopper can use the one that works for them in the situation they are in. If it helps buyers find what they want, and increases sales, and creates loyal customers who’ll come back in the future for other purchases, it pays for itself. And companies like Amazon should be able to track the return on investment in live chat. To put the question differently, why doesn’t Amazon offer live chat to people who spend $5000 per year on Amazon? It will surely pay for itself.

We techies prefer automated solutions, but there’s no reason why we shouldn’t use a human solution to a problem if it pays for itself and offers benefits that you can’t get with an automated solution. Besides, live chat will also be a pressure release for the site: if the automated filters and other tools don’t work, which is the case for all e-commerce sites, people can use chat to find what they want, rather than leaving the site and buying at a competitor’s site or at a physical shop. And the company can use the data from the chats to figure out what people need that the current site doesn’t do, and address those requirements.

So, in summary, e-commerce sites need improvements in many ways: You should be able to filter by any of the attributes of the product, both generic attributes like weight, and attributes specific to a class of device, such as the size of a smartphone screen. And you should be able to filter these not by predefined buckets, but by specifying the threshold value you care about, as as minimum, maximum or range. You should be able to filter by derived attributes like pixels-per-inch, and sort by all attributes you can filter by. You shouldn’t be forced to make a choice you don’t care about, and there would be live chat.

It’s strange, and sad, that after two-decades of e-commerce, online shopping is in such a primitive state, making it hard to find the products you want among the deluge. Improvement is overdue.

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