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The 3 rules of ecommerce design

My ecommerce website went through many visual changes in the 20 years that I operated it, from 2000 to 2020. Sometimes I retained a designer, and sometimes I did it myself using the ecommerce software I was using at the time. One of the worst designs was by a professional in 2002 who persuaded me that my demographic of science-fiction geeks would love it.

I don’t know what I was thinking. The spaceship icons were on a starfield background (now missing from the Wayback Machine screenshot, below) and blinked when the cursor passed over them. Sales plummeted. We quickly moved on.

This post is the third in a series on starting and growing an ecommerce business, following “Launching an ecommerce business: the first steps” and “Lessons from 20 years of ecommerce.”

Kulture Shock’s ecommerce site in 2002 as archived by Wayback Machine. The starfield background is missing.

The 2002 redesign and other similar processes were fruitful, however, as they taught me three rules about ecommerce design.

3 Design Rules

1. Focus on profits. First, effective web design for ecommerce is not what looks good. It’s what sells. Ecommerce sites can look amazing with all sorts of fancy graphics. None of it matters. What matters is the bottom line.

Consider Amazon. The site has been tested and re-tested. It looks boring and safe. It is not an artistic masterpiece. But it is a ruthlessly efficient selling machine and makes a lot of money.

So never forget that your site is there to sell products. It has to look professional enough to convince visitors to spend money. It has to be simple enough to find things to buy. It has to be easy to use. It’s critical to monitor your sales conversions to ensure that it keeps doing this. On occasion, you may need to change the appearance to keep up with current trends. Let the numbers tell you when to do it.

2. Content is key. The second lesson is the value of good content. An ecommerce platform is a content management system. The products, their descriptions, and pictures are the content, which is the true value of your site. You can change platforms, templates, menus, and categories. But what cannot be easily changed is the content. Good product detail pages can take several hours to create. A site with 1,000 products can be the result of thousands of hours of work.

Always make sure that you can port this content when you move to a new platform. This typically involves exporting the data in a comma-delimited file or similar and then importing it into your new system. Take the time to get this right so you don’t lose this investment.

Another consideration is whether to move customer data — names, addresses, and contact details. This may seem to be vital marketing data, but in my experience it’s not necessarily worth porting. It depends on your business model.

For years I ran an email mailing list in-house. As time grew, it became harder to manage. The essential tasks of updating and maintaining it took much effort. Eventually I moved to an external email service. This meant that key marketing content was stored on a different system and not on the ecommerce platform. Thus the need to port the customer data when switching carts diminished considerably.

3. Control and ownership. The final lesson — control and ownership — is, in many ways, the most important. I always registered my domain names. This ensured that I was the named owner and named admin and named contact. No one could take the domain away or prevent me from using it. I never used the web designer’s registrar or hosting.

Thus if I had a dispute with designers or other experts, all I had to do was remove their access. I never had to worry about being held ransom by a third party. Even when I used employees to develop my site and expand its content, I always held the master key.

The Purpose

An ecommerce site should be ever-evolving and relevant. Its content needs periodic refreshing. Old and dead stock should be removed. New stock should be highlighted, giving customers a reason to return — plan for this from the very beginning. But don’t forget that the purpose of the site is to make money, not to win design awards.

Richard Stubbings
Richard Stubbings
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