Online shopping has only become more ubiquitous over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, and it wouldn’t be surprising to hear that some shoppers have migrated more or less all of their shopping to e-commerce sites rather than travel to different brick-and-mortar stores.
But widespread e-commerce success doesn’t mean that the user experience (UX) of each site has been refined to the point of perfection.
The Confidence asked UX expert Xintong Liu to critique the UX of the five most popular e-commerce sites in the United States.
The sites Liu examined, in order of decreasing popularity (via web traffic), were Amazon, eBay, Walmart, Etsy, and Home Depot.
As for Liu’s professional credentials, she is a User Experience and User Interface Designer who has worked with a number of top-tier companies and organizations, among them the United Nations Development Programme and Microsoft.
During the height of the pandemic, Liu was assisting small and minority-owned businesses in creating better websites, where appropriate.
At the moment, Liu is working as an Interactive Designer for Apple, a tech leader which continues to prove how quality design can propel a brand to even further heights of success.
But of course, Apple doesn’t appear on our shortlist of the most popular e-commerce sites, so let’s dispense with the introductions and see what Liu had to say about some contemporary UX, starting with the big dogs: Amazon.
First up – Amazon
Liu started out by acknowledging Amazon’s immense presence in the tech world. There’s just no getting around how wildly successful The Big A has been, even after multiple transitional periods, which has only led to continued expansion.
Liu noted that Amazon clearly has strong teams, in both software development and UX design. She also said that Amazon has “set a benchmark for the rest of the companies in the field.”
However, Liu had points of criticism as well for the e-commerce powerhouse.
“Based on my personal shopping experience on the site and my years of professional background in the industry, I think there is still potential for improvement, especially in the customer purchase journey and customer support journey. I totally understand the technical constraints for Amazon to push for a revolutionary change, but I still think the site has some work to do to improve its personalization, automation, localization, and even aesthetic.”
Despite these drawbacks to their current design, Liu paid respects to the e-commerce foundation that Amazon established, with their use of easy navigation, drop-down menus, recommended products, user-generated reviews, etc.
One of Amazon’s most notable UX strengths, according to Liu, is its relatively frictionless customer purchase journey.
This is something that even the average customer has probably noticed about the Amazon shopping experience.
Compare the Amazon checkout process to that of another major retailer, or even to a small-scale online shop. It’s almost a guarantee that Amazon’s checkout will be faster.
However, Liu argues that the One-Click Buy feature is somewhat controversial as well.
“On one hand, it streamlines the purchase experience and saves users’ time and effort. On the other hand, the feature increases the user’s insecurity in the purchasing journey because details such as credit card information and shipping address are often changed. This increases the number of purchases in a short amount of time, but the return rate and the cancel rate may increase as well.”
Overall, Amazon’s current UX amounts to a mixed bag. It has clearly contributed to success, but it’s not necessarily the best it could be, either.
Moving on to another one of the oldest names in e-commerce, eBay is of course an online shopping powerhouse, but its UX and UI also need to support sellers, as well as a host of account information and buyer options.
Above all else, Liu pointed out that eBay’s search features are actually quite limited, especially when compared to competitors like Amazon and Google.
“The UX of eBay has slowly evolved over the years. As a marketplace website in which people and businesses buy and sell a wide variety of goods and services worldwide, the main customer experience should be search-driven. However, it only offers organic text search. In contrast, its competitors like Amazon and Google give users the ability to use voice search and picture search.”
Being able to quickly search for the items you want via different input methods is helpful, but eBay appears to be slightly behind the times, at least in this specific area of ease of use.
Of course, it’s unknown whether eBay plans to implement features like voice and picture search in the near future, but one can hope that these features arrive on the platform eventually. And if they do, you may very well see an editor’s note here and give eBay the props they deserve for realizing that, sometimes, typing isn’t the way I want to peruse antique telescopes.
Picture-based search would be especially useful on a site where many customers might be looking for a specific item where they know exactly what it looks like, but they don’t know the name or any other useful identifying information.
Walmart has been a retail powerhouse for decades now, but how do their digital storefronts stack up against the competition?
Liu noted that both of these have great user flow, although each has its own focus.
“With Walmart stores, they focus on showing the item’s availability, inventory, and pick-up time because the products rely on retail stores. In contrast, the marketplace focuses on the item’s variety, shipment method, etc. However, to a first-time user, it is confusing to operate two stores on the same platform. Users may not understand the differences, so the onboarding process needs to be improved.”
It may seem simple to you or I that these are basically separate entities, but to a first-time user or to someone who isn’t quite as tech-literate, it could very easily lead to confusion, which, when possible, isn’t ever part of quality UX.
Etsy is an interesting entry on this list, and if you’re already familiar with the company, then it should be obvious why.
Etsy’s branding is very much centered on small-scale, specialty shops powered by a diverse community of sellers.
On the customer-facing side, Etsy’s UX acknowledges that both their buyers and sellers are more image-oriented as opposed to data-oriented or information-oriented.
Compared to many of the other e-commerce sites on our list, Etsy doesn’t really need to provide long lists of specifications and precise data.
This can all still be found, usually, on each item’s page, but when looking at search results, images take center stage. The unique qualities of each item are pushed to the forefront.
“Buyers usually don’t care too much about the functionality or technical details of the items, such as electrical voltage, etc., but focus more on the aesthetic aspect of the product. Appropriately, Etsy has a unique web design that worships this kind of user preference by placing larger images and more images on the same list rather than text details. They also guide sellers regarding how to take good pictures of their products.”
At this stage, Etsy, both via its UX and via the shops and listings of individual sellers, has created a loose set of community norms that help to maintain a sense of cohesion, despite its products coming from literally thousands of different sellers around the world.
Home Depot is another interesting entry, since, unlike many other shops on this list, Home Depot more or less specializes in one major product category: home improvement/DIY.
Liu explained that Home Depot targets people who own their own homes and who have some level of DIY capability.
As a result, on its site, Home Depot needs to both demonstrate the immense number of products they offer while also making it relatively easy to find the specific part that a customer might need at the time.
“For example, there are more than 1,800 different types of screws in the marketplace with different materials, lengths, widths, heads, etc. The key to success here is figuring out how to help customers find the correct screw for their specific needs.”
Keeping track of 1,800 different types of anything would be a stiff challenge, but as the site stands today, it seems like the company has discovered a useful middle-ground.
“On their website, they have a short description of the ideal usage for each item. It’s a great feature, but there should be more features to help customers find the right product.”
There’s another challenge specific to Home Depot and its wide variety of users/customers.
While the majority of the company’s customers could be considered ‘DIY customers,’ this is a large group representing various levels of experience.
An experienced DIY customer, or even a professional contractor, will already know the relevant terminology for different items, making it easy to find what they need on the site.
But many other users might be relatively new to DIY, and they won’t understand every term or category the site presents them with.
This is a situation in which Home Depot’s massive selection may exacerbate customer difficulties.
While it’s nice to know that they have just about every kind of screw, for example, if the customer doesn’t know how to find the exact screw they need right then and there, then this large selection becomes intimidating and confusing.
“There needs to be a tool to help new DIY users understand these phrases and the differences between them. A tooltip can be a quick solution, but in the long-term, Home Depot needs to find solutions to support customers during this journey, such as comparison tools, chatbots, or live conversations.”
Home Depot, take note – artificial intelligence combined with the latest in image recognition may be able to help customers find exactly the things they need and skip all the things they don’t
Following this interesting exercise, what are the major takeaways? Well, for Liu, visiting these sites makes clear that UX is incredibly important in digital spaces, and it can even make or break a customer’s experience.
“User Experience is everywhere in the digital world. User interaction comes from each glance, each click, and even each word. From this exercise, we can clearly tell that UX impacts a company’s business and brand image significantly.”
Even beyond that, UX itself can alter a person’s image of a specific brand, independently of any other branding efforts the company has undertaken.
As Liu says,”Good UX can bring trust to users, whereas bad UX can make users avoid your brand.”
Understanding your target audience is crucial to understanding exactly what “good” and “bad” may look like, so don’t forget to think critically about who uses your stores and why they may be shopping there.
With all this in mind, we hope that you’ll look at e-commerce sites with a more critical eye. If a specific feature of part of the checkout process leads to frustration, try to understand why.
Your revenue numbers will thank you.