How to design bespoke, curated ecommerce sites

The internet provides us with everything we could possibly want, only a few clicks or taps away. Of course this scale causes us problems: faced with a seemingly infinite amount of choice, where should we focus our attention? I’ve written before about the choice paradox and how limiting the options users face can give great results. In fact companies realise this too and there are many springing up to offer us curation of all the mess. Realising that searching can be hard work and offers little context to explain whether a result is any good or not, people tend to like other people recommending things to them as an easy shortcut.

A great example of this is Spotify. I remember when I first used the service, in its very basic interface days and with all this music at my fingertips, I often stalled at the search box not knowing what to look for. And this was in 2009 when there was a tiny fraction of what’s on there now. Spotify have done a great job of solving this problem more recently with their rafts of playlists and the particularly good Discover Weekly playlist that predicts what you’ll like to listen to. I find it so good that I listen to little else on there now.

Selective shopping

Shopping online is a prime place where curation can help us as no-one wants to part with cash for a duff product. In the last year of teaching ecommerce design and talking about the elements you need on an ecommerce site, I use the example of the comparison of the retail megalith Amazon and a site called Canopy. It perfectly encapsulates how you can take the same products and present them in two ways for totally different effects.

Canopy is a site where users recommend items (grouping them in collections) and the user can then go and buy them on Amazon. The site makes its money from Amazon affiliate links in a canny but simple business model. Almost all the data on the site is the same as on Amazon but it looks very different. So how do you design for curation? Here’s a break down of the differences in the results/category pages to show how Canopy do it.

Amazon and Canopy ecommerce search

Product results on Amazon (top) and Canopy (bottom)


The first thing that strikes you about the site is the minimalism of Canopy, there’s so much less on the screen than Amazon. And the products are the focus rather than lots of text and prices. It tells you they’re not worried about being comprehensive with the information, but want to make the products they are suggesting the star of the show.


The star of each result or listing is the image. It’s exactly the same image as on Amazon for each product but they’ve managed to make it look much more important just by making it slightly bigger (about 20%) and sitting it in more white space. In fact there’s no product title until it is hovered on making it feel less like a database and more like you’ve found it naturally on the shelf of a shop or round a friend’s house. White space is a great shortcut to something looking high end or luxury and makes the choice seem considered.


The use of colour is much more subtle on Canopy. No competing oranges and blues here. It’s about selling one over another, it’s about curation, so every product is the star and given equal treatment. Greys and whites mean that the product itself is where the focus lies. The only splash of colour comes from the green price label, which makes it a very clearly defined call to action.


The price itself suggests curation too. Rather than offering a prevalence of options like Amazon (their price, used & new price, Kindle price etc) there is just one. It’s not trying to compete for the lowest rate. They’ve also rounded the price to the nearest dollar, which helps it feel more human-friendly, as people tend to find rounded prices more trustworthy.


Underneath each product photo, Canopy shows small images of the users who have recommended that product. This instantly humanises it over the generic star ratings of Amazon and makes it feel more personal. Star ratings are pretty ubiquitous and hard to trust without further study of the actual reviews. A person’s face with a profile that you can visit straight off the results page feels more open.


This is perhaps the epitome of curation over masses of results, after all if it’s curated you shouldn’t be facing too many options. Where Amazon hits you with a ton of filters running down the left side, and covering many different ways to get those search results down, Canopy has just one. They’ve got five mutually exclusive options on that single filter so there’s no complex permutations allowed.

Expanding curation

Canopy represents how curation can be suggested throughout the website design. However, by following the logic of curation we can end up at a paradox too, as brilliantly summed up in a tweet by Benedict Evans (and then expanded upon in this great blog post):

All curation grows until it requires search. All search grows until it requires curation.

So curation works best when it is small and even Canopy already has a search function. It will be interesting to see if, as the number of products on there grows, they feel the need to add more details or filters to the results screen. Will anyone end up curating Canopy too?

Last updated on 28 June 2016

ux / ecommerce / design / visual / curation / search / images / spotify /

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