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This is a guest post by Gregory Ciotti from Help Scout.

Building an ecommerce site that customers love largely comes down to two things: sweating (and testing) the small stuff, and understanding human psychology.

How do people view, browse, and use your site? While testing will be the final judgement for what works on your site, conversion studies can be a great place to begin when designing your site.

Today I'd like to go over five big ecommerce design mistakes that I commonly notice on far too many of the shops that I visit.

Be sure to take careful note if your site is making any of the following mistakes, and try implementing A/B tests with my corrections; I have a hunch you'll see a noticeable change in your bottom line!

1. Lack of a Clear Value Proposition

One of my favorite conversion experts, Peep Laja of Markitekt, has the perfect quote for why communicating your value to customers is so important:

Your value proposition is the #1 thing that determines whether people will bother reading more about your product or hit the back button. If I could give you only one piece of conversion advice, “test your value proposition” would be it.

A strong value proposition is your argument as to why customers should buy from you when they could buy from the competition. This is especially important for ecommerce, because why should customers buy from you when they could buy from Amazon?

Unfortunately, not only do many ecommerce sites have poor value propositions, but many sites even have difficulty communicating exactly what they sell! I don't mean to pick on Yummy Tummy—a great soup and baked goods company—but landing on their site is one of the more confusing experiences I've had online:

What exactly am I buying here? If I can't figure it out soon, I'm likely to leave.

Compare that with sites that have excellent value propositions, such as Wolverine Boots:

Or Luxy Hair:

Both of these examples also make great used of images in their value propositions. Although clear, concise copy is very important for every website, remember that images can also tell a story about a product. As legendary advertiser Claude Hopkins would say:

Use pictures only to attract those who may profit you. Use them only when they form a better selling argument than the same amount of space set in type.

The essential elements of any good value proposition include the following items:

  • A headline (possibly with subheadings) that uses simple, clear language as to why an item is worth purchasing. It's not a slogan, it's a promise of value, such as "Create a professional client proposal in minutes," as seen on Bidsketch.
  • Body copy explaining why buying this item from you is the best choice. What do you have to offer that others don't? Why are you different?
  • Additional benefits and social proof (elements like free shipping and guarantees).
  • Images that create desire by showcasing the item in use.

When people understand what they are buying, and why they should buy it from you, I guarantee that your site will see an increase in sales over a design that doesn't communicate clearly with customers. People often don't know why they might need your product until you tell them ("You'll love our newest product because..."), so don't be afraid to be direct and crystal clear.

2. Misguided Product Descriptions

We all know that product descriptions can be extremely important, but oftentimes ecommerce store owners include or remove them at abandon.

As it turns out, these descriptions mean different things when you are selling different products. Check out the study conducted by the Nielsen Group below:

Here's what they found:

Thumbnails of bookcases were studied intensely, whereas thumbnails of flat-panel TVs were mainly ignored. In fact, on the full Amazon page, only 18% of the viewing time was spent on the photos, while 82% was spent on the text.

The comparison was between bookshelves and shelving on the Pottery Barn website, and TV listings on Amazon. When you think about it, the difference in the products is quite clear: most people buying a bookshelf care about how it will look in their room. Most people buying a TV do care somewhat about how it looks, but are mostly concerned with the specs (how big, Plasma or LCD, is it a smart TV?, etc.)

As the Nielsen write-up would so humorously point out:

The TV photos are of no help in deciding between the products. A guy in a canoe vs. a football player? What, because I watch more football than water sports, I’ll buy the TV showing a football player?

That's in contrast to a bookshelf, where cherry colored vs. oak colored matters. You can incorporate this information into how you handle product descriptions by really thinking about your product and how your customer shops for it.

Do they care mostly about how it looks, or about what it's capable of? Adjust your image use and product descriptions based on this need, and you'll have far more informed and happy shoppers.

3. Failing to Properly Utilize Quality Images

If you happen to sell items that are mostly dependent on looks (like the Pottery Barn example above), you should know by now that the visuals that you use are incredibly important.

In fact, one case study from Visual Website Optimizer showcased how an increase in ecommerce image size improved conversions by a notable amount:

Variation 2 with the large images and product description viewable on mouse over was the winner. It resulted in a straight 9.46% increase in sales (96% chance to beat original).

In another test first mentioned by Peep Laja, an online store was able to improve conversions via site search by 100% when they included images in the search bar, which looked like this:

There is also the matter of image quality. As this study mentions, one of the best ways to sell a physical good is to get it in somebody's hands. Since you can't do that online, the best alternative is to get them to imagine it in their hands.

High quality images help with this.

Kith NYC always has excellent images for the products they sell. When you're selling a $500 pair of men's boot, the visual better capture some imaginations:

As you can imagine, "action" shots often work well for fashion items and any product that is using aesthetics as a big selling point.

Consider the comments that people left on Reddit when someone posted about a Victorinox watch that was being sold on Amazon:

That’s a great picture. It looks so much better than it does in that Amazon listing. I wouldn’t give it the time of day just going by the Amazon page but your picture…

Remember that your images are going to be a big part of moving your products in many industries, so if you're selling homegrown stuff or even dropshipping, invest in quality photos.

4.) No Visual Hierarchy or Attention to Fitt's Law

You don't need to be a web designer to understand the importance of a visual hierarchy. One of the better images I've seen that clearly showcases how one should work comes from Josh Byers of StudioPress:

With a visual hierarchy in place, it's easy to navigate a website because actions begin to become recognizable due to the site's design. It becomes apparent that all accent colored text is a clickable link, and that base text is unclickable, used only to complement the site's overall background color.

One part of this hierarchy is the use of Fitt's law. In essence, the law states that eyes are drawn to larger items which makes them more clickable (duh). Therefore, important elements should be made larger and stand out from the rest of the page.

Color accents can also be used here, such as how the old MailChimp site used to offset their blue background with a red button:

Why is Fitt's law important?

Take a look at this case study from TechWyse. The team was working on a trucking site, and first examined where people were looking on the page:

As you can see, that big unclickable 'NO FEES' button was hogging all the attention! The problem is that this section of the site doesn't help to make any sales, the phone number is how they land customers.

Changes had to be made, and fast:

This is obviously much better. On-page viewing patterns don't automatically equate to more sales, but at the very least more people could find and were viewing the company phone number.

How about your site? Do any large, eye-grabbing on page elements not lead to direct sales or leads? Try to ease friction by looking at how you can highlight the most important elements on your site and blend in the less important links and information.

5. The Site Doesn't Look Trustworthy

When competing against the big boys of ecommerce, there is one thing you need to realize: their brand recognition means that they don't have to prove to people that they are trustworthy.

Just because you are trustworthy does not mean customers will believe you.

Your site has to reflect your willingness, ability and track record for delivering on your promises. As Derek Halpern first revealed, an interesting study done on the trustworthiness of health sites found that the design of the site played more of a role than the actual content of the site.

So how can you make your site appear more trustworthy? You need to take a customer focused approach here—too many companies offer up social proof in a way that seems like chest bumping, instead of thinking about the psychology behind why a potential customer might be worried about shopping via an online store they've never used before.

Instead, really think about what worries a customer might have when shopping from an unkown store, and structure your social proof to address these issues. Here are a few of my favorite elements to utilize:

Customer Testimonials

The perfect testimonial is typically found through a well known customer, or a customer that perfectly represents one of your personas. In other words, the source of the testimonial often matters just as much as what was said, so put your best foot forward by selecting the praise you received that will be most comforting to prospective customers. 

Notable Press

Prospects respect notable publications in your industry (Forbes for business, GQ for fashion, etc.), and if you've been featured there, it is very much worth noting. A recognizable press mention will go a long way in letting customers know that you're for real. Check out how Pebble Watch features their press mentions with logos right at the top of their homepage.

Interesting Info About the Company

How can customer guarantee that you'll be around even a few months after their purchase? One of the best ways to show that you plan to be around for the long haul is to share some interesting information about what your company does. At Help Scout, we share how many emails we processed last month:

An Up to Date Design

You aren't required to hire a world class designer (though you can find some here) to launch your bootstrapped ecommerce business, but just know that people do judge books buy their cover, and will judge your business by your site's design. Avoid trends, but make sure your site looks up to date and cleanly designed.

Always Be Testing

The final thought I'd like to leave you with when it comes to your ecommerce store design is that at a certain level, testing should become an ongoing process.

You can always discover some unusual things that go against the "best practices" that people preach elsewhere.

Consider the following case study from Body Ecology, which revealed a startling finding: the site greatly improved conversion when they removed drop-downs from their navigation, and instead utilized category pages with brief descriptions:

As you can read in the published case study, the change was relatively minor in design but fairly drastic for results:

As you can clearly see via the results, the average revenue per conversion has increased significantly and now stands at $143.61, which is great if you compare it to the average revenue per conversion of the Control, which was $100.33.

So remember that best practices are just a starting point, so adopt the mindset of "always be testing" and you won't fall prey to common practices that may not be working for your site.


About the Author: Gregory Ciotti is the marketing strategist at Help Scout, the invisible help desk software for small business. Learn about smarter customer service training and how to build customer loyalty by reading our blog.


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