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The good, bad, and ugly e-commerce web design trends

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Web design trends are a double-edged sword. On one hand, using a trendy but well executed web design gives your visitors a new and better web experience. On the other hand, new designs simply add new features for the sake of having something new, instead of fixing old problems.

In the latest update to their E-Commerce UX report series, usability experts the Nielsen/Norman Group (NN/g) saw new web design improvements, but also spotted some bad design trends and even downright ugly concepts.

The Good – Larger Product Images

The jury’s still out on why larger product images are becoming more widespread across e-commerce sites, but whether it’s due to continually increasing screen resolutions and sizes, or visual designs that allow for more space, many sites are featuring large product images.

This of course, has allowed sites to show more product details, which is always a good thing for customers who naturally want to see more and as much of a product they like on a website. NN/g’s usability tests show that several users like to obtain additional details about a product from images, searching for things that may not have been included in the product description.

This also highlights the importance of using photos of the actual products in use or in context, instead of settling for stock images. NN/g’s tests found that based simply on product images, a user was able to tell if a toaster could fit bagels, while another was able to identify the feet on coasters that would protect wooden furniture.

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Coldwater Creek’s large product images give customers more details about their products.

The Ugly – Disorganized Customer Support

Many e-commerce designs exude minimalism, or a sense of space and openness, that is, until you go to the customer service section of the site. Unfortunately, many sites have failed to fix problems with their customer service/support sections, leaving them disorganized and hard to navigate through.

Common sense tells us that when a customer feels compelled to go to the customer support section of a site, it’s because of some problem or unanswered question. Naturally, a customer support page that fails to solve a customer’s problems only creates even more frustration.

You’re going to have problems when the areas of your site where you ask for payment are clean and easy to use, but the areas where customers can go to for help are a mess.

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Foot Locker’s customer service section, an unflattering wall of text.

When implementing design updates to your site, don’t forget to apply the similar changes to your customer service section. Keep things consistent with the rest of your site, and be sure that your FAQs are actually accurate and updated for questions that may accompany a redesigned website.

 The Bad – Shopping Carts

NN/g found that while several sites added small design quirks to their respective shopping cart systems, they still failed to provide enough feedback on whether a product has been added to the shopping car

It’s unfortunate that something so simple is so commonly ignored.

Don’t make your customers jump through hoops by scouring the page to see if they actually flagged an item for purchase or not. Neither do you want them to abandon the shopping process just to check if they added something to the cart. This kind of information needs to be immediately available and easy to find.

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And no, simply adding a short line of text beneath the “Add to cart” like Costco did on its site isn’t enough.

Showing shopping cart feedback on can be done in a variety of ways, whether through an overlay or modal, or an automatic redirect to the shopping cart (with a button to return to previous page). Nothing can spoil a shopping experience more than finding out you just bought multiples of the same product, or wasting 5 minutes navigating your way to the shopping cart.

To summarise, the do’s and don’ts of the current UX Trends:

Do’s:

  • Provide Larger, representative product images
  •  Create richer product information and show the product in its context

Don’ts:

  • Have inconsistent changes across your website. It’s important to update all sections, especially customer support and FAQs
  • Leave the customer hanging at the checkout. Provide solid feedback that an item has been added to their shopping cart, and make this easy to navigate.

Optimal Website Hierarchy Design

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Flat versus Deep – Choosing Between Website Hierarchies

When it comes to website structure, web pages can be arranged in two ways: in either a flat or a deep hierarchy. Having some sort of system is crucial to organizing content, and arranging them into groups, and then into subgroups, is what’s known as a hierarchy of content. It’s a structure that’s not all too different from what know in organizations, family trees, and even flora and fauna.

So why should you care about content hierarchy?

The manner in which your content is structured can have a major impact on how your website works for users, so it pays to make the right decisions. There are plenty of factors and nuances behind it, so the best way to understand the differences between a flat or deep hierarchy is to give you a bird’s eye view of the structure.

Consider the image below taken from web usability experts the Nielsen Norman Group

On the left side is a flat hierarchy, which as the name describes, is broad and short with 8 categories spread thinly. On the right side is a deep hierarchy, which as you can see, has only 4 categories and 8 subcategories, but cascades down into multiple levels and even more subcategories, giving it a tall and narrow appearance.

Both types of content structures have an equal amount of information, arranged into two different but equally understandable hierarchies. However, a user’s experience when going through these structures will be completely different.

Pros and Cons

The average web user will probably never think of these structures, let alone see it in this kind of visualization. Nonetheless, they will feel it.

Web content is easier to find when it’s not buried under multiple layers of categories, that means deep hierarchies have the short end of the stick.

Likewise, specific categories that don’t overlap against one another are easy to understand, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that flat hierarchies are superior. True, deep hierarchies have tendency to be more generic and confusing due to having fewer categories on each layer.