Did you know that there are big profits to be made from no-search-results pages? Have you ever considered that your customers’ search results—rather than the products you offer for sale on your site—have the potential to make or break sales online? I hadn’t, until I read Greg Nudelman’s book, Designing Search: UX Strategies for Ecommerce Success.
As businesses strive to reach the elusive brass ring of the ultimate ecommerce experience—replicating the success of the customer-centric shopping experiences of the bricks-and mortar-world—Nudelman’s book can definitely help them to get closer to their business goals. I recently caught up with Greg to discuss his book, which covers ecommerce site search across desktop and mobile platforms.
KM: Greg, thank you so much for taking the time today to share some really beneficial insights businesses and UX professionals alike will find of value in planning and designing their ecommerce sites.
How long have you been working in ecommerce, and what were the driving experiences that inspired you to write this book?
GN: I’ve spent many of my 12-plus years of industry experience studying and designing various ecommerce applications. Perhaps my most important ecommerce experience came from working with eBay, because it allowed me to observe how people experience one of the most complex and variable ecommerce ecosystems on the planet, while at the same time watching people use many of their competitor sites.
eBay search really is a wicked design problem. I have seen many design approaches that work and also a great many designs that tended to confuse people. While many design principles are universal, seeing real people struggle during usability testing helped drive home many key points. This experience has shaped how I approach ecommerce and search design problems and has been invaluable in helping me write my book.
KM: This is very interesting to me, because, on the one hand, there are ecommerce Web sites that, by their very nature, are all about the business—the ROI (return on investment) of an online business; and on the other, you have user experience, which focuses on the people for whom you’re designing. These two aspects of a business have diametrically opposing ideologies, do they not?
GN: The traditional us-against-them thinking between business and user experience does hold true occasionally—for instance, in the case of ads in search results, which I deal with in Chapter 6 of my book. However, I have found that, for most finding activities, it is more effective for both business and user experience to embrace what I call experience partnership. People use a Web site or mobile application to buy something they value more than the money they are spending, and a business is there to sell a product or service people want to buy.
In recent years, our understanding of ecommerce has expanded. We now understand that price, although important, is not the only factor governing ecommerce behavior. Convenience and ease of use are also important, and my book provides ample guidance to help make all aspects of a search user interface more usable. However, price and convenience are only the beginning. More and more, ecommerce success is about helping people to make informed choices. People expect to find product guidance, recommendations, and reviews to help them find products that express their unique personality and get the most out of their purchases. Companies that succeed in providing this kind of experience by developing a design vision and executing it with meticulous attention to detail will find their efforts richly rewarded with exceptional ROI. My book provides practical guidance on this journey.
KM: For whom did you write this book, Greg?
GN: When I was writing the book, I was thinking about helping creative, multidisciplinary product teams that set out with a goal to create a rich, engaging finding experience on an ecommerce site. This book is not just exclusively for designers or product managers. I wrote it to help everyone on a product team to literally get on the same page. It is no accident that the logical progression of the material follows a typical search system design path, from general to specific—from identifying the personas and roles to faceted Web search to mobile to tablet.
KM: I think one of the things in marketing that we are cognizant of when we design ecommerce sites is the decision process of the buyer. We need to design and create Web sites that support problem recognition, information search, evaluation of alternatives, and purchase and post-purchase behavior. A lot of what you talk about in the book describes user experience strategies that complement this black-box model and encourage customers, ultimately, to buy. Do you have any hints or tips you can share here?
GN: I like to think of the ancient bazaar as the original social network. It was the place where people exchanged news, conducted commerce, and most important, where collective learning took place. This was where people learned what their fellows were doing and picked up new memes and ideas to up their own game. This kind of social network is in sharp contrast with a mall, where people mostly buy from large, faceless companies and push marketing reigns supreme.
The ecommerce companies that have understood the power of the bazaar as social network—like Amazon, eBay, and Apple—have been able to achieve growth even during the recession. In contrast, ecommerce companies that are structured around traditional mass-media, push marketing have found themselves, like physical malls, in decline.
Understand that it’s simply not enough to say We now have reviews!—any more than it will ever be enough to say We are now on Facebook or Twitter—or whatever the latest thing is! Your designs should be about approaching people as human beings, as customers you value and respect, not as users or consumers who will mindlessly gobble up whatever your marketing machine spews out.
Above all, successful ecommerce sites understand that the product they deliver is a service. Most of the products we now buy rely increasingly on their associated digital networks, and what we now call service design is becoming increasingly dominant. In this age of multichannel search, considerations such as location, the emotional attitudes of the actors, temporal sequences, and the differences between front-stage and back-stage service activities are becoming very important. It’s becoming less about closing the immediate ecommerce transaction and more about plugging into nodes of complex networks that are supporting a life-long relationship with a brand.
KM: That’s interesting, because in business, we talk about opportunity cost, and in your book, you make an excellent case for the opportunity cost of not thinking through a site’s search function and how it can augment a buyer’s experience on an ecommerce site. For instance, I never thought about the thousands of dollars in lost revenue alone that could potentially result from an improperly conceived no-search-results page. Would you say this is the one key area in which businesses should invest in getting help from a UX designer?
GN: You’ve touched on one of the most powerful concepts that I’ve woven throughout the book: what I call designing from zero—the practice of starting your team’s ideation from the use case in which there are no search results. Instead of ignoring the no-search-results page until the last minute, or worse, treating it like a user error, teams can unleash their creative genius by flipping the problem on its head and starting their design activities with the no-results use case.
Many recent search and browsing innovations that we now take for granted—like autocorrect and autosuggest have come from this kind of design thinking. A designing-from-zero strategy is especially important in mobile design. Because it is so hard to type accurately or see clearly on a tiny mobile phone screen as one is in motion, no-results conditions are more the norm than the exception on mobile devices. I continue to draw from this designing-from-zero principle as food for thought for my own innovations—such as my recent patent-pending mobile search design pattern, Tap-Ahead which uses continuous refinement to dramatically reduce the amount of typing users must do to enter queries and help them avoid no-results pages.
KM: Your book is a compendium of sorts. You don’t just hog the spotlight, but instead share it with other thought leaders’ brilliant examples, case studies, and book excerpts. Why did you choose this approach?
GN: I am very pleased that my publishing and editing team at Wiley enabled me to offer my readers 19 perspectives by co-authors who are truly experts in their field. I was inspired to adopt this strategy by Luke Wroblewski’s book Web Form Design: Filling in the Blanks. In his book, Luke presents his own findings and ideas, as well as focused sidebars by prominent designers who are masters of a particular topic that is pertinent to a chapter. This format provides tremendous value to readers, who get to learn about a topic in depth by examining it through varying viewpoints from several sources. After seeing this format, I had to invite Luke to share his perspective on mobile search forms with my own readers. Other notable contributions by authors of books and blogs on various aspects of search user experiences include perspectives on search analytics by Louis Rosenfeld, search behavior patterns by Peter Morville and Marti Hearst, search engine optimization (SEO) by Jaimie Sirovich, the future of breadcrumbs by Keith Instone, and many other great contributions.
KM: Mobile marketing is hot right now, and it is only going to get hotter. Morgan Stanley’s 2011 Mobile Internet Report predicted that, within the next 5 years, mobile access to the Internet will overtake desktop access. How can UX designers prepare themselves for this shift when designing the ecommerce sites of today?
GN: I think mobile is the most significant technology to come along since the invention of the Internet. That is why I have devoted a full third of my book to mobile and tablet search. UX designers need to realize that mobile is not just an extension of the Web. Mobile is a unique platform with its own design principles and presents abundant opportunities for experimentation and growth. Using the same design patterns for mobile search that one would use for the Web would be like using brick-and-mortar storefront design principles when designing ecommerce Web sites.
Mobile is like the Wild West right now, and many new ideas and design patterns are beginning to emerge. Well-executed mobile search seems deceptively simple, but it is highly sophisticated. Every little thing is important, and it’s hard to get everything right the first time, making usability testing essential. I feel like I really took a chance in trying to describe what I see as the most important design patterns and ideas for mobile search in my book. I aimed to provide a solid foundation on which readers could build their own mobile search patterns and develop their own design ideas. Based on early reports that I am getting from readers, I have succeeded beyond my hopes.
KM: At the beginning of your book, you explain how shoppers search, then later you explore the concept of augmented personas. What an excellent idea! What are augmented personas and how can they benefit both UX designers and businesses?
GN: Over my years as a consultant, I have seen many teams create personas, but very few were able to use them effectively to inform their designs. The issue was often a lack of empathy or understanding about what a persona would have to go through to accomplish a given task. In other words, the teams often needed some tangible ways of tying personas back to practical use cases. I have developed my ecommerce roles as a way of starting the discussion and making teams think through the design problem and feel the persona’s pain. The concept of augmented personas has turned out to be very useful in achieving team consensus and a shared understanding of design problems. That shared understanding of the problem you’re trying to solve is what makes the most creative and original design solutions jump out at you!
KM: In content marketing, we focus a lot on keywords as the primary drivers to search success. In your book, you explore the concepts of image search, social search, and others. In the next 10 years, are we going to be getting away from the words and moving toward a more integrated search reality that, perhaps, mirrors in a virtual way the actual sensory experiences we have when we visit a bricks-and-mortar store?
GN: Absolutely! Not so long ago, most people performed their searches on a computer that they leased for just 30 minutes a day—specifically so they could perform searches. To search effectively, they needed to know a fair amount of SQL—or at the very least, be fluent in Boolean logic.
Today, we are at a point where we have very powerful, wearable computers with us 24×7, computers that know where we are and which floor of a building we’re on, are aware of our personal preferences, and know our entire search histories, as well as all of our personal and social information—maybe even how much sleep we got last night!
The limitations of mobile search are also interesting. Typing on mobile devices is actually pretty difficult and error prone. What this kind of technology means to us as a species is unprecedented, and we are just starting to get small glimpses of what adaptations this technology may drive. And search is at the center of this new mobile experience! For example, we are seeing a very tangible decrease in the number of keywords people are typing into search boxes. Instead, people are learning to rely on voice search, their recent search history, keyword suggestions, GPS (Global Positioning System) locators, QR (Quick Response) codes, NFC (Near Field Communication) signals, other onboard sensors, and multi-touch and motion interactions to get search results.
On mobile devices, we are finding that the best search is no search at all, but being able to use a mobile device to get the results we want served to us without requiring any input or effort on our part—without any search interface whatsoever. For example, as I’m writing, my mobile device might know that I have not purchased or consumed food in over four hours, so it is time for me to eat. It also knows who else is in the same area and their schedules, so it can suggest to me who I might want to meet for lunch based on my recent work and social schedule. It can remember what restaurants in the area I’ve frequented in the past and is aware of recent good reviews about nearby restaurants. The device also knows the state of my bank account and my budget and how far I am from my car, so it can suggest a few affordable, easy-to-reach options in the area. Once I decide who I want to have lunch with and suggest that we meet, my mobile device can get a response from each person and provide a personalized route for each of us. These are routine tasks that my mobile device can handle automatically. Augmented-reality applications are the key to an even richer kind of experience.
Our mobile devices are becoming true personal assistants. My concept of experience partners is replacing the concept of users, in a kind of symbiosis with this technology. By availing ourselves of this technology, it’s as if each of us is getting our own Iron Man suit that responds to our wishes instantly, at the speed at which our own thoughts and hands operate.
In the near future, the user interface of the search box as we now know it will recede to the point where it practically disappears.
KM: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me today, Greg. I think it’s exciting to see UX principles being applied to ecommerce activities in a way that, in the end, benefits customers. Your book identifies ways to create win-win-win situations—for UX designers, businesses, and their customers—so the online retail experience is positive and rewarding for all involved.