If you can’t see it, you can’t buy it

online store usability on a budget

img_0169The way news kiosks display as much as they possibly can serves as an interesting example for the world of online shopping and explains just why thorough user testing and analysis of how all your visitors behave is so important.

Just have a think about your own behaviour in a shop. You wander the aisles of the drugstore or supermarket, unable to fathom what kind of twisted logic is responsible for the MLP (Merchandise Layout Plan). 

What drives this behaviour is likely a mixture of stubbornness and a fear of embarrassment (“yes madam, it’s right here”) often combined with an inability to find a member of staff.

What happens when there’s nobody to ask? You hunt around, sometimes find what you’re after, sometimes give up.

What happens on the web? You go to a store’s home page and you’re trying to find the product by category, but that’s not working properly, the categories just aren’t organised in a way that works for you, you’re searching but can’t find it, maybe they just don’t have it. If the site has a phone number, you might call, if the site offers a live assistant service, maybe you’ll ask for help. Maybe it’s late at night, there’s nobody to call, or ask for help, maybe you email. Or maybe not. The majority of people just give up and go elsewhere.

Fix your search

If you’re not going to spend the money on user testing then the best way to handle these errors is to track the search failures on your site, view the report sorted by ‘number of failures, descending’ and start at the top. Work out what went wrong. Are people misspelling common words? Fix it for them (with a “we couldn’t find anything for ‘choclat’, here are the results for ‘chocolate'” message), are people searching for products you don’t carry? Maybe you should? If you sell vaguely technical products then search the manufacturer part number as well, with your ‘simple search’, an advanced search page should be unnecessary – hardly anyone uses them. If you publish catalogues with your own part numbers, include that in the fields that are searched as well.

Fix your categories

Categorisation is a whole can of worms, people browse differently, but the cheapest way to solve this one is to see how the big online stores do it, read studies and research to get the interface right, and make sure products are categorised correctly.


Getting online store usability right is a moving target, re-evaluate your efforts every couple of months and keep a close eye on conversion rate data* and see how your changes affect things. If you’ve got the technical chops use Google Website Optimizer to test your changes before they go live.

* your conversion rate data needs to be filtered for users checking order status, technically your conversion rate could stay the same whilst your number of orders rises simply because you’re taking more orders so more customers are returning to check up on their order.

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