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One of the areas where I think there is a obvious opportunity to differentiate around experience is in online shopping – yet most online experiences today are, in my opinion, poor. How many times have you had to wade through complex checkout processes, been unable to get meaninful product information or perform product/price comparisons or been left stuck with an unanswered question that has meant you abandon your purchase?

This topic came up recently whilst we were meeting with a company that focuses specifically on customer experience design and generated a lively debate.

The challenge seems to be that retailers are continuing to see a significant uptake in online shopping and a shift in revenue which is now being generated online rather than in traditional (and expensive) high street or out of town retail stores.  Consumers also are quite rightly seeing the benefits from improved choice, transparent price comparisons and the ability to shop whenever and wherever is convenient and thus are making use of the internet to purchase everything from groceries, electrical goods, theatre tickets to clothing.

Hence the problem – there is currently a lack of demand to radically improve the online shopping experience, when a ‘good enough’ service is seeing high adoption levels and a good ROI for retailers.

Harley Davidson product configurator (Flex) It would also seem that existing technologies (e.g. Flash/Flex) have not enabled retailers to augment current offerings within the browser (typically product configurators or single screen checkout applications are somewhat seperate to the rest of the site) and the opportunity and use-cases for providing desktop experiences has not been fully explored.

I am however hopeful that we will start to see enhanced retail experiences soon.

As online shopping continues to gain popularity retailers will be under increasing pressure to differentiate on more than just price. I fully expect that the richness of the shopping experience, including product configuration, product comparison, checkout and delivery slot selection will become more important and the experience more relevant to the goods being purchased. Why for example is it acceptable today for the experience when buying a CD to be the same as that provided for buying a widescreen LCD TV? With the CD, track listings and a grainy picture might do the job, but with a widescreen TV product closeups, interactive demonstrations, documentation and real-time personal assistance would provide a differentator to buy.

When focused on reducing shopping cart abondment or increasing browse-to-buy ratios even a 1% shift is a significant amount of revenue for large e-commerce operations. Once revenue from online sales starts to flatten then the importance of retaining a potential purchaser will undoubedtly increase and investment in user experience will need to be made.

We are now starting to see radically improved e-commerce services where the digital experience offered goes way beyond the browse and add-to-basket functionality that we experience predominately today.

Otto ecommerce application The Otto store for example represents a significant investment in defining how an online retail experience can be presented in such a way as to make selecting clothes engaging – customers can view complete outfits, select from a carousel of clothes and mix and match items on a virtual model; making the whole experience far closer to that in a physical retail environment. Whilst Otto is a desktop only experience (requiring a download/install) it does reward a regular shopper with a significantly enhanced experience – it will be interesting to see how this also benefits the retailer in terms of increased basket values, repeat purchases and reduced returns. This example challenges the way that we deliver digital experiences for shopping – just think how this could be adapted for grocery shopping at your preferred supermarket or selecting a holiday package from your preferred tour operator. Applications like those from Otto will force other retailers to consider their digital engagement strategy and step up to the mark if they want to differentiate themselves from other etailers.

With regard to delivering richer browser experiences, the emergance of WPF/E  will enable some of the UX work that has started with AJAX to be extended further to enable audio/video playback, rich comparison widgets and personalised interactive experiences to be integrated far more closely into existing HTML pages than is possible today with Flash. Given that XAML is being used to declare these user interfaces, there will be possibilities to consider the impact this will have on enabling rich content to be searchable, dynamically generated and exposed in such a way as to be accessible to screen readers and other assitive technologies – all of which are important to online retailers.

One thing that we probably won’t be able to solve in the short term is the frustration often associated with having goods ordered online delivered – having to wait around all day for the delivery and then it not turning up. Although I did recently come across the Hippo Box, which at approx £160 might provide a solution for those receiving frequent deliveries 🙂

Posted by: Andrew Shorten



  1. Hi Andrew, nice article! I referred to it on my latest post. We are currently working on the development of a tool that can help us measure (emotional) experience of, for example, online shopping: the LEMTool. It could help us design more engaging web-experiences…. all but the delivery! 😉

  2. “With regard to delivering richer browser experiences, the emergance of WPF/E will enable some of the UX work that has started with AJAX to be extended further to enable audio/video playback, rich comparison widgets and personalised interactive experiences to be integrated far more closely into existing HTML pages than is possible today with Flash.”

    Hi, you’re aware that JavaScript can drive the Adobe Flash Player today, right?

    (Or is it more an inline-markup vs binary delivery that’s your key point there?)


  3. Hi Marco – Thanks for the continuing the discussion over on your blog!

    Great to hear that you’re involved in developing a tool which will help identify the emotional impact that particular user interfaces have – one hopes that research and development such as this will help to quanitfy the value of investing in user experience and provide compelling evidence to improve the standard of online shopping experiences.

    I look forward to seeing how LEMtool develops 🙂

  4. Hi John – yes, after nearly three years as a Flex evangelist for Macromedia/Adobe I’m aware you can use JavaScript to interact with Flash Player 😉

    The aim of the post was not to devalue the experiences that have been created in Flash/Flex (some of the product configuration and single screen checkout experiences are great), but simply to note that so far Flash-based visual elements/controls have not been widely adopted as an integral part of today’s online shopping experiences. This is surprising given that the first ecommerce RIA experiences built in Flash have been in the marketplace for 4+ years (e.g. iHotelier).

    I suspect that the binary delivery mechanism and the typical implementation of Flash (i.e. that it displayed as a full page experience or pop-up window) have, from both a designer/developer and end-user perspective, made Flash feel like a “black box” that exists as an addition to the browser, rather than an extension of the existing programming models.

    WPF/E approaches it from a different perspective, encouraging designers/developers to extend existing experiences by leveraging the richness of the plugin when it is required, enabling HTML, CSS, JavaScript and XAML to be blended together on the page and then rendered to create the desired user interface.

    I predict (and hope) that WPF/E will have an impact on the richness of online shopping experiences – time will tell…

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