Three things that surprised me about ecommerce design

Hear from our UX Designer about the surprising design elements that go into your favorite ecommerce applications.

by Sam Vitale Kofman

The great part about designing an ecommerce (or electronic commerce) app is that there are so many reliable points of reference: Amazon, Target, Etsy, Fandango. Because these apps are so pervasive, there’s a lot of literature circulating out there that summarizes best practices. (I’m talking about empirical sources that test and validate their claims--sites like The Baymard Institute.)

Even armed with research and plenty of personal experience navigating ecommerce apps, a few things caught me by surprise when I was working on a recent client project.

Location, Location, Location

In today’s globalized economy, we’re accustomed to being able to order items from other states and even other countries. Sure, delivery may take a little longer and shipping costs could double your checkout total, but we’re used to shopping globally.

However, this isn’t always the case. Sometimes an ecommerce platform may require short-term delivery; think, local flower services like The Enchanted Florist in Austin, Texas. Other business models may require customers to pick up and deliver equipment to a centralized location. For instance, Home Depot rents power tools and other equipment, but requires users to locate their closest store before proceeding.

The Solution

Before diving into wireframes, ensure that you account for your user’s location if necessary. This can be done via upfront zip code validation (like Instacart), which will exclude users outside your service radius. You can also opt for a more passive popup that appears on each new web session and again prior to checkout.

Information architecture can be tricky

Information architecture, (commonly known as IA), refers to the way in which content is organized and labeled to make it easy for your users to orient themselves within your app. Good navigation is a cornerstone of successful IA.

It’s not always clear, however, how to organize your content in an ecommerce app. Sometimes the logical order for arranging your products or services doesn’t match the way your users will want to browse your inventory. For instance, a manufacturer may want to organize shoes by type: sandals, heels, boots, etc. A shopper, on the other hand, may want to browse by occasion: formal, casual, beach, or lounge.

The Solution

Some retailers embrace redundancy, like the mail order food company, Harry and David: they arrange their products by both occasion and category. However, the ideal approach involves upfront user research, which allows you to understand your customers’ needs before fleshing out your information architecture. If your budget doesn’t permit significant research, the second-best option is to conduct usability testing after launch to validate your decision.

If none of this is in your budget, aim to provide autonomy to your user so they can circumvent your decisions if they need to. Sort, filter, and search features support this kind of autonomy.

A product photo is worth a thousand words

Any designer will assert the importance of visual design; users are more likely to enjoy a digital experience if the aesthetics are cohesive and pleasing. However, many designers overlook how significant a role product photos play in e-commerce platforms. Sure, consistent brand colors and typography are important, but the gallery-like nature of ecommerce apps places photography front-and-center. If these photos look amateur, your overall design will suffer.


To promote consistency, use templates that constrain aspect ratios and try to homogenize color, either naturally or artificially (e.g. using the same degree of saturation). If you’re hiring a photographer to take product photos, ensure the styling is consistent by using the same background, focus level, and zoom.

In Closing

When designing ecommerce platforms, it’s easy to get caught up in sales metrics like conversion and click-through rates. But it’s important to keep sight of foundational UX principles (like information architecture) and user experience design factors (like localization.) It’s equally important to be mindful of visual design choices, as these impact a customer’s perception of your brand, and by extension, their decision to make a purchase. Good user experience doesn’t only benefit your user; it benefits your business as well.

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