Sunday, 8 May 2011

Information Design for Product Display on e-Commerce Websites

Designers often get biased to widely used interaction design patterns on Web. It makes it difficult for them to find a completely different way of looking at how people would like to deal with information dissection, manipulation, and retrieval on Web.

Many times there is too much of information, too much data, or too many options and choices to make sense of. Users can easily become frustrated or disengage if they can’t find a connection with what is presented to them. One such example is e-commerce websites serving millions of products across thousands of categories.

Most e-commerce websites serve product information in a list or in a grid view. Facet search panel on left comprising either check boxes or links, with bracketed number of products inside each category, is another universal pattern used for product retrieval and filtering. For example, a website selling digital cameras, printers, or flat panel television sets will allow users to filter assortments by technical information such as megapixels, aspect ratio, screen size, FPS, make, model, and more. Most of these facets are not useful for people to make buying decisions anymore.

Few websites show number of reviews to prove product popularity in the market without caring for how long the product has been there on the shelf. Comparing product features is not desirable either because it just rearranges the technical information in a big table where each product is a column and users are forced to scan the information row-by-row to understand which product is better over others. And as mentioned before, technical information does not anyway affect people's choice of product.


When people buy items of such kind as mentioned above, beyond the technical information they are interested in the purpose and use of such products. Let's take an example of an office purchase manager searching for a large flat panel television to be used in a conference room with a seating capacity of 10 people for presentations and Internet video calls. Internally, it can be mapped to technical information such as resolution 1024x768, low priced, and Internet ready, and more. Similarly, let's look at a man who wants to buy a digital camera to capture his son’s Tennis game. Suitable camera can be internally mapped to technical information such as high FPS, bigger aperture, and in-built filter, and more. In both examples, the important point is that people want to buy stuff that is aligned to their needs. They find it very difficult to map their needs to the technical search/filter/compare criteria provided by websites.

A designer should experiment with visual/information graphic facets that will allow people to filter and compare products on their practical and emotional needs instead of technical information alone. A very simple visual representation of information can help people make better decisions, and understand something that's really complex, and connect them emotionally.


A product’s social popularity on the Web has become very important. Buying decisions have started to get influenced by people's online reviews of a product. It is time that e-commerce websites graduate from traditional popularity display patterns. Merely showing information such as "number of people recommendations," "number of people liked or disliked" or "number of reviews" is not good enough anymore.

Interface designers need to start experimenting with ideas that can generate popularity based on people’s reaction in a particular context, time, and specific need. For example, one could use data visualization, like pie charts, scatter plots, and relationship circles to compare two point-and-shoot cameras and display one being more popular than the other among amateur photographers for taking home pictures and not so popular among professional or wildlife photographers along with comparative results achieved. Such generic visualization patterns will add depth to the user interface and eventually make it more useful for buyers to make right decisions.


Ankush Samant said...

Another aspect that is yet to pick up, and will surely do so in the coming time will be "Analytics on Networks".
Example: Currently, when you open Amazon and start searching it shows you what you searched for last time on "Amazon". It fails to show you what you searched for during the day, in a nearby "Walmart" or what you searched for on "ebay".

If we look closely then, all such information is available through our digital imprints, increasingly so with smart phones, tablets, browsing etc.

The point will come when the ecommerce store will also become "intelligent" enough to suggest what we want, and if its available or not.

Ankush Samant said...

Effectively I think we are saying "personalization of e-commerce". Correct?

Madheswaran said...

As a designer and as a consumer i disagree to the statement mentioned over here.

You have mentioned that technical informations in form of a comparison table or in the form of facets are not useful for people to make buying decisions anymore.And also you have mentioned that people are interested in the purpose and use of such products. These technical informations are nothing but the benchmarked parameters to define a product capability.

As a consumer i know very well what is my need and what will fulfill my need. In this case my need is to capture moments and digital camera will fulfill that in form of capturing digital images.

Upon landing in a e-commerce site i find thousands of products serves the purpose. Now as a consumer how can i choose the best without the technical informations or comparing one with its peers/competitors?

In simple these are the set of questions a consumer will have in his/her mind to analyse the product same as like an interviewer analyse a candidate by his performance and capability.

In the last paragraph you have mentioned about the popularity of a product should be displayed in the form of data visualizations. How this will help a lay man to understand the popularity of a product? Isn't too hifi for a layman?. Popularity based on people’s reaction in a particular context, time, and specific need are very subjective. A product which made you happy in a given context, time wont make me happy in the same context, time.

In short i would say, just changing the form of display or changing the patter will not help anybody. As a designer we should change the way a consumer look at a product in an e-commerce site or at-least we should drive the consumer to look at a product in a complete different way.

Vinay said...

Hi Maddu,
I must thank you for carefully reading the piece and having intelligent opinion on it.
Let’s understand the problem objectively – as you have mentioned.

Do people know what they want – you have pointed ‘yes’ …If it was so simple that people as a consumer know what they want, designer like you and me and many others who spent their entire life understanding user/consumer behavior, gaps, patterns, future needs and so on in order to design systems/products etc. are just wasting their time. Product manager should just ask their users and get their developers to develop those features.

As Henry ford once said (well said) – If I had asked people as to what they want- they would have said “faster horses”. And I would never have invented a motor driven vehicle (car). The fact is that people can only imagine and connect with things that they see around them. And as designer’s it is your responsibility to find hidden insights and behavioral patterns and use them to design solutions.

To your second point about showing lots of products on ecommerce websites – Let’s look at it objectively again – As we should always do. We are trying to help online buyers make faster and effective choices of their purchases. If the design goal is understandable, let’s details it out a little further.

1. Faster – time spent in search, selecting and buying a product online
2. Effective – Making an informed and intelligent choice out in the chaos – simple

Multiple human factors (physiological and psychological) must be considered when we set out to design faster and effective systems.

To explain, I will use the analogy of designing Information Dashboards for quick decision making by company management – I am sure you have designed a few in your career so far. All dashboards follow the single universal principle of progressive disclosure used with information graphics designed to support a unique context and situation of decision making. A similar thinking is behind proposing an info-graphic based solution to help people make ‘faster decisions’ of their purchases.

The second objective is probably a difficult one achieve with just the help of interaction design/interface design patterns. Also, because the problem is more psychological and self-esteem oriented. People want to make smarter and intelligent choices and want to continually feel that they made a right decision – Marketers use this human factor to do brand reinforcement. In online buying scenario – buyers wants to feel and later prove that they made a correct choice. Without making the mistake of generalizing consumers (e.g online digital camera buyers) people buy stuff for specific need and not for technical feature.

While that specific need may change over a period of time but in a specific context it is highly applicable to purchase decision at that point in time – For example, if you are traveling onsite on business to the US (regularly) and you want to purchase a new suitcase – you can define that as a need and allow people to buy stuff for business frequent flyer and not based on tech specs like size, number lock, weight etc. while these specs are important to the product but once you have assured the buyer that this suitcase is the best in the lot of frequent business traveller- half of the job is done already.

To your last question - Remember the discussion we had on social influence on consumer buying behavior. If you don’t, you have my number. Call me…

Madheswaran said...

Vinay,i agree to some of your points. In this developed world i would categorize the users into 2 broad areas. First category of consumers are the one's who just buy a product to fulfill a specific need by reading some basic necessary information. Whereas the second category of consumers are the one's who really explore the technical information before buying the product.

Example: Consumer buying a point & shoot camera is different from consumer buying a SLR. Lets keep the cost apart. But the need is same its just to capture a moment.

As a designer if we need to find the hidden insights of user needs then i would design the information in the following way.

1) Understand the consumer pattern when he/she is buying a product online.

2) Analyse what kind of information he/she is looking for while looking at a product.

3) Understand what kind of information is really influencing the user while making decision.

4)Identify what type of information of a product which is mainly used for bench-marking its capability & performance.

And all the above 4 points will be different for those 2 different categories of users.

Further discussion on this most welcome..

Madheswaran said...

And as you mentioned "Psychology" plays an important role in e-commerce.

But only with information design we cant win the human mind. Apart from information design there are lot of things as you know like cost, trust on the brand-portal-vendor, justified return on investment.