Practical Ecommerce

Ecommerce Platforms: Design Control vs. Ease of Launching

Online shoppers judge an Internet retailer’s trustworthiness and a product’s value based, at least in part, on how good a site or product detail page looks. Given its importance, one might think that design control would be an essential part of every available ecommerce platform. But many ecommerce solutions swap control over how a page looks for the ease of creating a store, potentially undermining that store’s ultimate success.

“Users make lasting judgments about a website’s appeal within a split second of seeing it for the first time. This first impression is influential enough to later affect their opinion of a site’s usability and trustworthiness,” wrote a group of researchers from Harvard University, the University of Colorado at Boulder, and the University of Maryland College Park in a recent PDF paper.

“It might not be surprising that website aesthetics are a decisive factor for engaging users online,” the researchers wrote. “What is surprising, however, is the speed at which we decide whether we like a site or not…if we perceive a website as unappealing, we are less likely to trust it, and more likely to leave it in favor of others…This has enormous economic implications for online consumer-vendor relationships.”

When you choose an ecommerce platform to manage your online catalog and process orders, pay attention to the level of design control that platform gives your business. Often design flexibility, in the sense of your control over how a page is laid out, its color scheme, and its “look,” is juxtaposed against ease of use.

Ease of Use in Ecommerce Platforms

One of the greatest things about an online retail business is that it requires very little capital or even expertise to start. Just about anyone with a few hundred dollars, as an example, can set up a dropship-based business in a day or two and soon be selling products to customers across the nation.

To help facilitate this sort of rapid business set up, there are several ecommerce platform providers — an ecommerce platform is the software that manages your product catalog and the checkout process — that offer a nearly turn-key solution.

These turnkey solutions are developed using “professional templates and widgets.” While there is certainly a benefit to being able to launch an online store rapidly, it is important to understand that ease of use almost always comes at the price of design control, site aesthetics, and branding.

To make a site easy to launch, platform providers must make some choices for you. Deciding, as possible examples, how a page is laid out, what sections can or cannot be customized, or even the size and format of product images or logos. Every decision that an ecommerce platform provider makes for you limits your ability to ultimately control how your site looks and acts.

It could be that for your particular business, it really is better to surrender control to gain ease of use, but this should be a conscience business choice, not something your newly minted online store is forced into because of the software you select.

What follows are some of the things you might consider, if you need to choose between ease of use or the freedom to design a beautiful site.

Controlling HTML, CSS, and JavaScript

HTML, CSS, and JavaScript are sometimes referred to as the languages of the Internet. Together the typically control how a web page is structured, how it looks, and how it acts, respectively.

If you want to have ultimate control over how your retail business and the products you sell are presented to the customers, you will need access to the HTML, CSS, and JavaScript for your store. If you have this level of control, there are very few limits to how your site might look.

Many very good ecommerce platforms allow for this sort of control. Just be aware that you will need to understand how to read and write HTML, CSS, and JavaScript for that control to be meaningful.

Changes in Design Trends

If you do choose an ecommerce platform that allows you to determine how your site is laid out and styled, if may be much easier to follow design trends and keep your site current.

Website designs, like the wallpaper your family had in the 1970s, do go out of style. Most every leading online retailer has gone through a number of site designs.

Zoom Enlarge This Image

Amazon's site design in 2013 (left) and in 2000.

Amazon’s site design in 2013 (left) and in 2000.

Ecommerce platforms that rely on templates tend to trail far behind the leaders of Internet retailing, since updating a site is not simply a matter of changing the CSS, but rather it requires the platform provider to go back and make new choices, if you will, for you.

An additional side effect of using templates is that you may end up with a layout or page design that is identical or nearly identical to someone else’s online store.

Zoom Enlarge This Image

Templated ecommerce platforms imply that there may be a lot of sites that look very much the same, as is the case with these two sites.

Templated ecommerce platforms imply that there may be a lot of sites that look very much the same, as is the case with these two sites.

Responsive and Adaptive Design

Mobile commerce, which is a very important trend in online retailing, has encouraged many merchants to design sites that respond and adapt to a tablet like an iPad or a smartphone like the Samsung S4.

This is another area with trading ease of use for design control could impact your business. Although, some template-based, ease-of-use focused ecommerce platforms have now begun to offer responsive templates, storeowners who made to choice to give up control, in order to deploy quickly may be a year or more behind the responsive design curve.

How much business a store does or doesn’t due through the mobile channel will define how important this trend is.

Implications for Selecting an Ecommerce Platform

The key takeaway for online storeowners is the knowledge that choosing an ecommerce platform because it can be up and running in a few hours may mean that you’re surrendering design control. Be sure to consider how your site will look when you weigh the balance between the ease of launching and long-term control of your brand and store.

Armando Roggio

Armando Roggio

Bio   •   RSS Feed


Sign up for our email newsletter

  1. Snade July 3, 2013 Reply

    Really nice article, with very good advices, but I believe no one can make a good decision based on these points if he is not a developer or at least familiar with HTML/CSS/JS and all the available options out there.

    So here is an advice from a developer familiar with all the options:

    1. If your budget is tight, and cant hire professional web design company go for Prestashop. By far the best e-commerce platform for the avarage user with everything essential ready to use out of the box

    2. If youre looking for the best possible shop out there and have the budget for it, find a good web design company that works with Magento.
    Magento is probably better than prestashop(at least it was, things change everyday), but for developers not "regular" people.

  2. John Debrincat July 4, 2013 Reply

    Interesting article but there are some issues in the way that you present your conclusions.

    1. In the Harvard research that you refer to you need to carefully review the purpose and result. They achieved a 48% success but with the caveat – "Moreover, our findings suggest that the importance of these two website characteristics is not universal, but dependent on users’ demographic backgrounds."

    2. Many ecommerce platforms are based of a template concept for design but those templates in modern platforms are made up of HTML5 / CSS3 code principles and are modifiable. You can also create and add new templates that achieve whatever the design requires. So that offers flexibility but also simplified maintenance by the site owner. You do not get in to unmanageable design issues such as arise with Magento where only a skilled designer/developer can make modifications. So there is noting wrong with templated systems and the final look and feel can be anything the designer wants.

    3. If you are running an online store then you do want to have certain elements on the store that are expected. The location and access it also in general to be expected to be found in the same place. This is not much different to what happens in a bricks and mortar store. So online stores will have some similarities due to the nature of what the user expects.

    4. The judge is still out on "Responsive Design" delivering a unique template to a mobile device has its advantages. These are simplicity, speed and flexibility. Responsive Design by its nature creates a bigger footprint and can slow down the loading of websites on mobile devices. It can also be far more expensive to develop and maintain. Great for developers but not for the site owner. So although a seemingly good concept there are some real issues.


  3. James Harrison December 2, 2014 Reply

    We briefly tried Shopify before ultimately going with Magento for In terms of the sheer availability of customization and SEO tweaks, and, as you said, code-level access, I don’t think Magento can be beat. We were able to completely manipulate rendering of title tags, H1 tags, URL’s, alt text for images, etc. When you have some idea of something you want to change (301’s, noindex, nofollow, etc.), many times you simply can’t do it with the “boxed” shopping cart solutions (though those are arguably easier to use and launch), but with Magento there always seems to be a way. Granted, with that availability comes a need for some coding knowledge and a familiarity with the Magento platform, so it’s definitely a trade-off.