The e-commerce website features businesses choose impact how shoppers make purchasing decisions.
The right e-commerce website features anticipate shoppers’ questions, persuade them to purchase, and provide a seamless checkout process. We surveyed 1,000 shoppers about their most recent online purchase to learn about the website features they use and how businesses can deliver a better experience.
- Online shoppers tend to make quick purchasing decisions; over half (60%) complete their purchase within the same day.
- Nearly half (44%) of online shoppers spend between $1 and $25 on their purchases, meaning their investment risk is relatively low.
- More than 40% consider purchases so quickly that they do not compare products before making a purchase.
- For 29% of online shoppers, how well a website describes an item is the most important factor in making a purchase.
- Other highly-ranked website features include pictures of the product (27%) and customer reviews (18%).
- To improve the checkout experience, e-commerce businesses should offer features such as shipping cost calculators (31%) and stored credit card information (29%).
This article will provide data-driven recommendations to help e-commerce businesses select website features.
Consideration Period for Low-Cost Purchases Tends to Be Short
Our survey data paints a picture of a decisive online shopper logging online, finding the product they are looking for, and quickly completing the purchase.
Over half of online shoppers (60%) completed their most recent online purchase the same day that they began research.
Relatively low purchase costs might explain this short consideration period. Nearly half (44%) of online shoppers surveyed spent between $1 and $25 on their items. This finding holds true across all purchase categories with the exception of electronics, which typically cost $100 or more.
The relatively low investment for these purchases may explain why 41% of online shoppers do not compare products before completing a purchase. Still, e-commerce businesses should remain transparent by highlighting social proof from past customers, as a collective 37% percent of shoppers look to other websites and third-party review sites before making a final purchase.
As a user experience designer at Brave UX, Alicia Salvino uses her background in cognitive psychology and neuroscience to predict and interpret how people behave online. She finds that our existing attitudes to money influence the way we behave and seek information online.
“For many people, money is a very heated and personal topic,” said Salvino. Money explains why people’s behavior tends to be consistent whether they are shopping on Amazon or a small business’s online store.
While user experience and psychology help us understand customers, experts caution that context is essential. For example, it’s important to keep in mind that money has relative value. For some, a $100 purchase might seem inexpensive, even though other shoppers may view it as an investment.
As Vice President of Nielsen Norman Group, a leading user experience and research firm, Hoa Loranger applies her background in human factors and experimental psychology to countless business challenges.
“There’s a tendency for us to assume that our customers are going to think the same way [we think],” said Loranger. “It’s called the false consensus effect, and it’s very strong.”
As e-commerce businesses try to anticipate customers’ needs and desires, it’s important to acknowledge bias. While some recommendations may hold true for many businesses, keep in mind that customer preferences will vary across different products and industries.
4 Guidelines for E-Commerce Website Features
Our survey data reveals four key steps e-commerce businesses should take to improve their website:
- Prioritize detailed product descriptions
- Use images to provide context
- Offer social proof through reviews and testimonials
- Create an efficient process for checking out
Prioritize Detailed Product Descriptions
To help potential customers find the information they need, e-commerce businesses should keep product descriptions short and focused, using bullet points when possible.
For 29% of online shoppers, the most important factor in making a decision is how well the website describes the item.
In her research with Brave UX, Salvino finds that people skim quickly for key information online.
“There’s a recent study that shows if people notice that a website scrolls, they tend to scroll and go toward the bottom,” said Salvino.
In cases where a longer description is necessary or warranted, Salvino recommends using formatting to draw readers’ attention to key information.
“It’s usually a good idea to have some bullet points or bold to draw attention to sentences that are crucial,” said Salvino.
Product descriptions are more straightforward for some retailers than others. Amina Ahmad owns Handmade Habitat, a soy candle company inspired by her parents’ entrepreneurial projects and her college degree in environmental science.
Ahmad’s product descriptions must provide both concrete details, such as the materials her candles are made from, as well as more abstract elements such as a description of what her candles smell like.
“Customers can’t experience scents online and you can’t describe them with a number, so it’s really important to give them an experience,” said Ahmad.
When she first launched her online store, Ahmad prepared her product descriptions by browsing other online stores to see what descriptions appealed to her.
“It gave a lot of context to me as a buyer, and I applied that to my own product listings,” said Ahmad.
Ahmad also refreshes her product descriptions over time, as her audience’s knowledge of soy candles has changed. Consumers are more knowledgeable about the potential health benefits of using natural candles, and Ahmad finds it less necessary to elaborate on product descriptions.
Use Images to Provide Context
Leading e-commerce website builders make it easy to upload product photos, and for good reason. For 27% of online shoppers surveyed, images are the most important website feature. This is especially true for online shoppers who buy clothing, shoes, or accessories, with 40% ranking photos as the most important website feature.
Salvino isn't surprised that photos and product descriptions are so closely tied. She offered an educated guess that online shoppers might underestimate the value they place on photos while shopping.
“We are such visual creatures,” said Salvino. “I can’t imagine going on Amazon and buying a bottle of detergent without seeing it. Somehow it feels very strange to do that. I can’t think of a single retailer where you don’t have photos.”
She points to eBay’s recent homepage redesign, which now features galleries of professional product photos.
“If you’re going to go on eBay and you’re going to buy a used shirt, would you feel more comfortable with the one that’s got a higher quality photo or the one from a camera phone?” said Salvino. “It’s the same shirt, but being able to see it is appealing to us.”
If you decide to add images to your e-commerce website, there are two key factors to consider.
First, images should be immediately adjacent to any text describing them, such as in the example from Nike's website below. This prevents ambiguity or confusion, especially on websites that display multiple products or versions of a product on the same page for customers to scroll through.
Second, images should never expand into a full-screen takeover when clicked, unless you give users a clear disclaimer. Users may be startled by the sudden appearance of a large image or think that they have been taken to an advertisement or another website.
When deciding whether to add images to an e-commerce website, Loranger said that e-commerce businesses should trust their understanding of their customers.
“I’ve tested some sites that have mostly text and black-and-white sketches of items, and that’s what people want,” said Loranger. In this case, a prominently displayed product number or another identifier might be more valuable than an image.
Loranger advises that businesses begin by identifying their website user’s goal.
“You kind of have to think about the use case for each situation and who your customer is,” said Loranger.
For e-commerce businesses that sell services or software that do not require product images, retailers still might be able to think creatively about users’ needs. For example, a screenshot of the software in use might prove compelling if a competitor does not provide the same insight.
Offer Social Proof Through Reviews and Testimonials
Online reviews and testimonials provide social proof that persuade online shoppers to complete a purchase.
While nearly 20% of online shoppers indicated that they viewed online reviews as the most important factor influencing their purchase, experts predict that number might dwindle with time. Shoppers are increasingly skeptical of online reviews.
“Some studies have shown that in recent years, there’s some flexibility around that because especially people who are more technologically savvy and comfortable have started recognizing that you can’t always trust reviews,” said Salvino.
To solve this problem, some e-commerce businesses use strategies such as verified reviews to provide an additional layer of credibility.
Glossier, a cosmetics company, provides verified reviews alongside additional metrics that provide insight into reviewers' commenters. Glossier also prominently displays the most highly ranked positive and negative reviews to ensure transparency and highlight a range of opinions so customers can make informed decisions.
Fortunately, e-commerce businesses have options for offering social proof without collecting reviews on their websites.
Collect Reviews on Third-Party Sites Like Amazon, Etsy
For many small businesses, a multichannel e-commerce strategy generates additional revenue by increasing product visibility. These e-commerce businesses may be able to forego collecting reviews on their websites and instead prioritize reviews collected on online marketplaces.
Online marketplaces typically have automated strategies for encouraging online reviews.
For example, many online marketplaces send emails requesting post-purchase reviews, with no additional effort needed from sellers.
Some online marketplaces also cultivate a community of users who are invested in helping others understand available products. Ahmad finds that online reviews on her Etsy profile help shoppers obtain more information about her products, such as when customers offer descriptions of various candle scents.
By outsourcing some of the logistics of soliciting and managing online reviews to online marketplaces, e-commerce businesses can refer shoppers to their marketplace profile reviews rather than collecting reviews on their website.
Create a Testimonials Page
As an alternative to online reviews, e-commerce businesses can curate a page of testimonials. By collecting positive feedback from loyal customers, testimonials showcase your brand’s best features.
Ahmad plans to roll out a testimonial page for customers who enjoy her candle subscription service.
“I’ve realized it’s also a very specific kind of gift,” said Ahmad, who consistently sees spikes in subscription orders on Mother’s Day and the day after Valentine’s Day. “It’s a good way for people to send a gift and not have to think about it.”
By providing a selection of curated testimonials, e-commerce businesses provide some insight into customers’ experiences without continuously solicit online reviews.
Improve Checkout by Optimizing for Mobile
When a customer is ready to make a purchase, e-commerce websites should ensure that the checkout process is efficient and secure to avoid purchase abandonment. As customers increasingly shop on their mobile devices, e-commerce businesses should prioritize mobile optimization.
Our survey found that online shoppers value an efficient checkout process. Nearly one-third (31%) of online shoppers use a shipping cost calculator before checkout, while a similar number (29%) save their credit card information for faster checkout.
But 37% of online shoppers indicated that they do not value any of the common features listed in the survey such as descriptions, images, and online reviews. This suggests that shoppers seek features that are not yet popular or widely available.
Leo Castro, Vice President of Product and Partner Marketing at BigCommerce, sees mobile compatibility as one of the most important website improvements e-commerce businesses should focus on.
“So much e-commerce now is started on mobile devices if not all the way through to the checkout,” said Castro. “Being able to have a website that’s responsive and looks great not only on a desktop but also on mobile is key.”
By optimizing their e-commerce websites for mobile, e-commerce businesses ensure that they don’t lose potential sales due to a frustrating website experience.
Additionally, Castro identifies payment options as a complimentary area e-commerce businesses should address.
BigCommerce now provides integrations with top digital wallets including Apple Pay, Amazon Pay, and PayPal. These options streamline the checkout process, reducing obstacles to sales.
“Look for those features that help you attract and convert shoppers, but also help you manage complexity on the back end,” said Castro.
At Nielsen Norman Group, Loranger advises clients to balance efficiency with users’ expectations for how similar websites function.
“Sometimes you don’t go for the most efficient method because if that route is not what people expect, they’re going to get messed up,” said Loranger.
In keeping with Loranger’s advice, mobile optimization and additional payment options are two examples of ways to enhance an e-commerce website without introducing elements that might confuse or surprise users.
E-commerce website builders such as BigCommerce and Shopify require no coding experience or technical knowledge, allowing e-commerce businesses that use their platforms to easily upgrade their websites with modern checkout features.
Consumers are Slow to Adopt the Latest Technology
Technology consistently outpaces our ability to adapt to it. While it’s important for e-commerce businesses to stay apprised of the latest trends and technology, in most cases, there is a generous window of time before new website features become obligatory.
“People oftentimes take a long time to adapt to new ways of thinking, and that goes back to how our brains are wired,” said Loranger. “Unless the new technology is rather intuitive and in line with our expectations and instincts, we resist learning something new.”
One trend that is gaining traction among several e-commerce businesses is the concept of “contexting.” Although it is not yet widespread, contexting aims to personalize online shopping experiences by allowing users to picture a product in their home.
For example, Ikea allows users to take a photo of their home and use augmented reality to visualize items such as a sofa or lamp in their specific context.
“Things like that are unique but maybe not as sustainable for small business,” said Salvino, who points out that the performance-intensive requirements for these types of features can hinder their spread. “They’re a little more unconventional so some users are not going to be comfortable with it right away.”
In the near term, businesses that allow users to order and test a selection of products before making a final decision are already catching on.
For example, Warby Parker allows customers to select up to five pairs of glasses to try at home before placing a final order.
Similarly, a print design company called Moo offers a free pack of sample business cards to potential customers so that they can make informed decisions about what materials to choose.
An even simpler version of contexting involves providing photos of products in use so that shoppers have a sense of scale. For example, a purse might be shown on a model or next to familiar household items to provide context to numeric dimensions.
This example demonstrates the way consumers are gradually adapting to contexting through both low- and high-tech website features.
Above all, Loranger encourages her clients to pinpoint exactly what problems they are trying to solve with technology.
“Find the easiest way to do that from a user’s perspective,” said Loranger, “and if it’s too finicky, if it requires me to think too hard, requires me to learn something new, then you might risk alienating a lot of people.”
Small business owners should not feel pressured to adopt all of the latest trends until a majority of consumers are accustomed to navigating new features.
When Selecting E-Commerce Website Features, Prioritize Customers’ Needs
Our research found that in general, e-commerce businesses benefit from website features that provide detailed information, product photos, and streamlined mobile and checkout options.
These features all share a common goal: making customers’ online shopping experience more informed and efficient.
Before investing in new website upgrades, e-commerce businesses should evaluate how changes might improve their customers’ online shopping experience, keeping in mind that online shoppers’ familiarity with new technology tends to evolve slowly.
By prioritizing empathy for their customers, e-commerce businesses can make informed decisions about how new website features improve their online stores.