With ever more transactions happening online the importance of e-commerce is impossible to avoid. If you are running or starting a business and are looking to sell online there are many things to consider. With so many options in front of you, it can be a confusing situation. At Soapbox Digital Media, we are here to help! Here, we shall discuss 5 of the fundamental points that you need to think about to be successful.
1. Which E-Commerce Platform to use?
The first and probably most important question to ask yourself is “Which e-commerce platform should I use?” There are many options, each with their own advantages and drawbacks. The main problem is that the advantages and drawback are only really known to the people who use them, so how do you decide? Web designers will always promote their prefered option above others also, so how can you be sure that you are getting good advice? As a designer and developer who has worked in a number of platforms, let me try and break some of it down for you.
WordPress / WooCommerce
Pros: This is the main e-commerce platform that we use at Soapbox. It’s highly versatile and easy to manage. The main benefit of using WooCommerce is the flexibility – WordPress is the biggest CMS in the world just now and the levels of support are incredible. It’s extremely easy to customise and add functionality when required. WordPress is also very easy to style and create a look that fits your brand, as well as being quite good for SEO.
Cons: The biggest drawback when using WordPress is security. As the most popular platform in the world, it has made itself a target for hackers looking for websites to exploit. That said, it is relatively easy to ensure that the site is locked down and secure. We always make sure that we follow a few basic procedures which prevent access to the code. It’s often inexperienced developers who are unaware of the security risks who allow exploits to be available. Always ensure that you use trusted developers and designer who know how to keep your site secure.
Works Best For: Small to medium sized businesses and start-ups operating on local, national or international levels.
Pros: Magento presents itself as the all-in-one out of the box solution for businesses looking to sell online. Backed by E-Bay, Magento comes in three flavours offering increasing levels of functionality. Magento is certainly a very robust platform, capable of delivering a fast user experience and a lot of business options and statistics without the need to add modules.
Cons: Magento is cumbersome to manage and lacks an intuitive interface. It is also notoriously difficult to style, making each Magento shop look almost identical in layout. While Magento offers a lot of functionality, it also lacks a number of relatively basic functions which are rather difficult to add into the system without paying often large sums for additional software.
Works Best For: Medium to large businesses who have an in-house team of developers to manage the system.
Pros: Prestashop is a versatile and lightweight platform allowing reasonably quick setup. It offers many of the features available in Magento without much of the hassle. Prestashop is still growing to realise its full potential, however it does pack a reasonable punch and is able to hold it’s own. It also comes out of the box with a very versatile shipping setup allowing for even the most complicated of shipping pricing to be applied with relative ease.
Cons: Prestashop’s main issue is one of support – without having a lot of developers producing add-ons it can be difficult to extend the functionality without having to invest a lot of time and money.
Works Best For: Due to its ability to handle complex shipping, Prestashop is great for small businesses who want to ship globally. It’s also good for businesses who produce products which have many options for customers to select, such as T-Shirts with multiple colour and size options.
Full disclosure – I’ve not developed or designed using BigCommerce, so this is based on information available online.
Pros: As a hosted platform, BigCommerce offers a number of advantages over other platforms. Firstly it will have tight security and will run fast as it uses BigCommerce servers to deliver the content to end-users. It also means that the software running the platform is much more likely to be stable and will upgrade itself as it will have the full weight of the BigCommerce development team behind it.
Cons: With any hosted platform there are as many drawbacks as benefits. Firstly, you very rarely have access to the code which runs the site. What this means is that it is difficult to modify the core of the site, add functionality or change the styling without using the tools that are prescribed. While for many users this isn’t a problem, it can often be costly for those who need a more specific setup for their website. BigCommerce does have a system allowing developers to to customise the site, however using systems like these without access to the source code can be time-consuming and ultimately not cost-effective.
Works Best For: Medium to large businesses looking for a hands-off experience when it comes to hosting the platform.
Full disclosure – I’ve not developed or designed using Shopify, so this is based on information available online.
Pros: Shopify is similar to BigCommerce in that it is a hosted platform. This means that the code will be robust and the hosting will most likely be very fast and secure. Shopify also includes a number of additional features designed to help you market your business online including SEO features, in-built Google Analytics and integration for Google AdWords. While non-hosted platforms can have such functionality added easily, it is rare for a hosted platform to include such a range fresh out of the box.
Cons: Again, as a hosted platform the main issue is one of adaptability. Unlike BigCommerce, Shopify doesn’t have an API system allowing developers access to website functions to create their own applications using the platform. What this means is that Shopify store owners must rely on the Shopify developers producing plugins with the features they need, and they would need to pay for.
Works Best For: Small to medium sized businesses looking for a basic, hands-off experience.
As you can see, choosing an e-commerce platform instantly presents you with a mass of options which can be confusing. I’ve only discussed 5 of the more popular options here, however I hope that I have been able to give you some insight as to which option is the best fit for your business.
2. How does design affect E-Commerce websites?
In the world of web-design, E-Commerce websites present very specific challenges. Most websites give designers almost limitless scope in the use of colours, layout, shapes, animation – with a simple brochure site a designer can really let their imagination loose and create something that stands out. With an e-commerce site, however, design needs to be very specific to generate sales. This can create problems for less experienced designers who either want to push their imagination and skills or who haven’t quite learned how to make something which is simple and stylish.
With e-commerce sites, the layout is a fundamental piece of the design which has a number of requirements depending on the types of product being sold. Every e-commerce site requires ‘category’ pages where users can browse through different categories of products similarly to a shopping catalog. The layout of these pages can be grids (best for simple products which are mostly visual) or a vertical list (better for more complex products where buyers have more features and options to consider. Being able to design and style these layouts in a way which is effective can be difficult, however if the design is kept product-focussed then the conversion rates will improve. What is important is that users can see what they are buying and aren’t distracted by overly stylised web-design features.
A similar approach should be taken with the ‘product’ pages, which show the individual products and give the user the options to buy. For visual products, a simple gallery is normally enough to show the product off and allow users the chance to see the product from a number of angles. For more complicated products, a clear focus should be placed on the product’s main selling points and additional features. For any product that requires options to be selected (size, colour, etc), these options should be clear, obvious and preferably close to the ‘Add to Cart’ button.
Branding within e-commerce websites is important, however is shouldn’t overpower the design. Most users who are coming to e-commerce sites have already connected with the brand in order to get there, so the design should be more sales focussed as opposed to trying to reinforce the brand in the minds of the users. Users tend to know what to expect when it comes to e-commerce websites so the use of colour and positioning of elements needs to fall within those expectations.
3. How can I enable customers to use my e-commerce site effectively?
As I touched on above, there are generally accepted layouts and colour schemes that are so widely adopted in the design of e-commerce websites that users feel much more comfortable with them. Designs which don’t fit the norms feel very clunky and awkward resulting in a loss of sales as users get frustrated. Being able to easily understand a website is fundamental to user experience and therefore conversions. I always equate a website to a physical shop. You wouldn’t hide the register and you wouldn’t hide the products behind lots of random interior designs or advertising boards, so why do that online?
All websites should be easy to use. E-commerce sites are no exception. The main issue with e-commerce sites in this regard is that they tend towards having much more content and complex navigation than a standard brochure site or blog. As designers and developers our job is to put the users in the driving seat of the website. We do this by putting the things users need to use front and center, making them feel agile as they browse effortlessly through products.
At Soapbox we employ various tactics to ensure that we create websites give users an enjoyable experience. By adding heat-maps, we can track where users are looking and clicking, which shows us which parts of the site are the most effective and which parts need work. Google Analytics allows us to see where users are moving through websites, where they have come from, which devices they are using and also gives us a little insight into user demographics. However often the most effective method is direct usability testing which involves getting users with no knowledge of a site to perform certain functions (such as adding a specific product to their cart or finding a special offer) and recording how they managed to complete the tasks. This gives us direct feedback on how easy the site is to use and invaluable comments regarding the website. Often designers and developers are blinkered by their own experience and make assumptions regarding how easy certain elements are to understand for other users. Usability tests prevent this and enable us to find out what end users actually do and think about our clients’ sites.
4. How do I get the right balance of functionality?
Designers and developers these days are finding that functionality can be a major issue, more so when it comes to e-commerce sites. We find that clients often want websites to do so much that users end up confused or distracted. With e-commerce sites, you generally have a reasonably fixed amount of time with a user to make the sale, so keeping them focussed is paramount. This means that you probably don’t need the animated header and newsletter sign-up to pull them away from the products.
E-Commerce sites tend to be quite heavy on functionality as par for the course. Many products require galleries to show users the product from various angles, they may also require drop-down options and for products with long descriptions or feature lists they may need various tabs to present this information in an easy way. As a result, users often have quite a lot to do in order to get them to the buying state. I would always suggest doing the minimum to get them there easily and no more. Keep functionality stripped back and you have a site which is more taught and streamlined.
That said, there are various things specific to e-commerce sites which I would recommend adding to increase profitability. Naturally these are situation dependant, but where applicable I would add related products, cross sells and upsells. These additional features will allow you to advertise products that customers might be interested in based on what they are buying. As soon as a user is in the buying state, it’s much easier to get them to buy more or upgrade their product as they have already reached a certain level of trust. Using these features can increase your profit margins by allowing you to advertise cheaper related accessories which you make a larger percentage on.
5. How do I get users to my website?
If your website is a shop, then SEO is your footfall. You can equate your position on Google for your target keywords and searches as being akin to your location on the highstreet. You can of course boost this by using various online and offline marketing strategies, however with a solid foundation in SEO you will find that growth is much easier and your additional marketing more effective.
We have our own in-house team of SEO specialists which gives our design and development team a unique understanding of how SEO really works. We build all of our sites with a certain degree of SEO in-built, giving our customers a better start. We also are very quick to dispel the many myths that there are surrounding search engine optimisation. We use in-depth analysis tools to give us a better idea as to how effective a website will be when the site launches.
Before embarking on your e-commerce project, ensure that you are working with a team who understand SEO properly. It’s very easy to find people who are willing to charge the Earth for SEO and will often guarantee things like ‘we will get you on page one of Google’. We have had many clients come to us who have been burned in the past by companies with many promises and nothing delivered. By contrast we have in the past told clients who are looking to have SEO work done for them that based on our analysis it wouldn’t be needed for them, or that the best thing to do is wait a couple of months to see where their website is sitting amongst their competitors before embarking on SEO campaigns that may not be required.
If you are interested in our e-commerce websites, feel free to get in touch on 0141 429 1356 or via firstname.lastname@example.org. Alternatively, if you live in the area why not pop in for a chat? We always welcome new customers, and we do have great coffee!