Shopping – many of us might not like to do it, but we all have to do it. It’s inevitable. Whether you’re looking for clothes, food, sporting goods, holidays abroad or even a new home, buying and selling are as natural as breathing air. What’s more, the Internet has opened up a new way of buying and selling for consumers and retailers. If you don’t want to, you no longer need to trudge around shopping malls, outlets or even the high street to buy goods. Instead, you can sit on your sofa, turn on your laptop, and click away to your heart’s (and wallet’s) content.

While e-commerce has brought buyers and sellers closer together and created a trillion dollar global market in the process, it’s not all smooth sailing. E-commerce might be future-proof, but it’s not foolproof. The pace of change in digital commerce is accelerating. Competitor activity, supplier relationships and consumer behaviour all create an uncertain and aggressive market; in order to survive, retailers have to be agile, dynamic and willing to embrace new technologies.

While change has previously been seen as a threat to website stability, it’s change that can actually provide retailers with the most lucrative opportunities. By embracing a more regular review of arguably the most important aspect of any e-commerce platform today – user experience – retailers can respond to new intelligence, technology and market conditions like never before.

The Truth About UX

There are millions of e-commerce sites trading online. With so much choice, how do consumers pick one website over another? According to a 2015 report conducted by supply chain company JDA and logistics company Centiro, more than 70% of UK consumers would switch online retailers as a result of a bad online shopping experience. The report mainly looks at the impact of fulfilment – or rather the inability to ship orders – in line with customer expectations. Fulfilment is just one of a huge array of factors that make up user experience.

Website speed, unexpected downtime, illegible text, annoying animations, and fuzzy product images – the list is virtually endless. Many brands today are still guilty of these crimes. It’s no surprise given many retailers think user experience is just about the practical elements of a website – checkout, layout, design. The reality is user experience encompasses so much more. It also looks at much more subtle factors – how a brand describes itself, how rich the product descriptions are, the images used to showcase products or the way consumers can navigate the website.

Ultimately, user experience comes down to how the consumer feels when they leave the website – did they get what they were looking for? Was it easy to navigate the website? Would the shopper return?

Get It Wrong; Shoppers Are Gone

In an age when consumers are bombarded with choice, online brands can’t afford to get user experience wrong. A bad UX sticks out like a sore thumb, and if a brand is making it difficult for a consumer to make a purchase, they will turn to a competitor. Would you revisit a hotel if the receptionist wouldn’t accept your credit card, gave you the wrong room number and refused you breakfast in the morning? In the same way, a receptionist acts as a middle man between the hotel’s facilities and the guests, user experience acts as an intermediary between shopper and brand. But if a shopper can’t find products quickly and easily, the brand in question will suffer.

Herein lies the challenge with user experience – there are no hard and fast rules. There are laws that offer guidance on accessibility, but otherwise the concept of user experience – away from wireframes, templates and the technical nuts and bolts – becomes quite abstract. One user experience research firm cites over 800 best practice guidelines for e-commerce usability. But where do brands start? Many turn to similar brands for inspiration, looking to replicate tactics they think might work for their own brand. Yet, there is no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to user experience.

New Mindset; New Opportunities

Imagine a consumer trying to buy a pair of trainers from an online sporting goods store. However, when they get to the checkout, the ‘complete order’ button doesn’t work. After clicking the button in frustration five or six times, the consumer sends the retailer a message to let them know of the issue. At this point, the website’s technical team will go in and fix the button. But at that point, how many potential customers will the brand have lost as a result of the website fault?

Nowadays, brands either amend the website when they know something is broken, or review performance every 12 months (if at all). This is a counterintuitive approach; competition today is so fierce, that brands should constantly be looking to evolve and adapt in order to provide customers with the best possible shopping experience. Instead, retailers need to be changing their mindset, looking at UX every quarter in order to maintain a competitive edge and a happier customer base.

What’s more, any decisions made as a result of these regular reviews need to be based on data rather than gut feeling. Many business leaders will often ask for changes to be made to a website – it could be the messaging used, or the colours, the logo, the layout, whatever it may be – because they think that’s what the brand should look like or represent. But how does the business leader know that will work with customers? They don’t.

When it comes to building a user experience that works, collaborating with a digital commerce agency can help time-poor and resource-scarce retailers take inspiration and industry best practice from the outside world, and use this as a foundation to build upon. These experts can help identify problem areas through UX audits – fact-finding missions that highlight sub-optimal parts of the website, or any parts that don’t follow industry best practice. This data is then used to make informed decisions on what and how things should be changed in line with customer habits and expectations.

Taking this approach can also be more rewarding and cost-effective compared to some brands who may make sweeping or numerous changes to a platform at once, without any data to back it up. Overhauling a website in this way makes it difficult to monitor any real change or quantify any ROI. After a UX audit comes branding workshops that allow brands to align their user experience to a brand ethos or central values – this is what will essentially make the user experience unique and tailored to the brand.

Welcome To The Future of UX

Analyst firm IDC estimated that 1.47 billion smartphones were shipped in 2016. That’s almost 6 times the number of computers. Devices will significantly influence how UX is delivered to consumers. Every new device that comes out has a different aspect ratio or operating system, so UX needs to be seriously considered to avoid websites incompatible with consumers’ technological preferences. While it’s been said many times before, it’s still something that many retailers neglect – when it comes to marketing, brands need to be mobile first. This will be even more important in the future as market share grows in line with devices.

UX will also need to evolve to ensure that, regardless of the device being used to browse the website, everyone gets the same consistent and seamless experience. Technology is being created to support this need – there’s better front-end development technology, frameworks and tooling to assist retailers making the move to mobile. Every new website build, re-design or re-template is moving towards responsive design; those retailers that continue to offer non-responsive websites, or have a shoestring version of a mobile site that just simply ‘does what it needs to’ will suffer heavily until they invest properly.

Social media will also have a huge impact on how brands showcase their online wares. In an era of social proof, where consumers evangelise, criticise and share their experiences of brands vocally online, retailers can quickly lose the respect of shoppers for even the smallest hiccup. Brands that are able to forge real human connections with consumers, going the extra mile to be more targeted, personalised and meaningful, will be praised and lauded. Treating customers with respect and empathy, becoming more interactive, and moving from the ‘expected’ experience to the truly remarkable will help brands stand out from the crowd.

User experience certainly isn’t foolproof, as evidenced by the many brands that still get it wrong today. However, those brands that are willing to invest more time, effort and resources into more regular reviews and change are investing in their own future, creating shopping experiences that are human, seamless, personalised and leave consumers begging for more.