Category: UX advice / Ecommerce guides

6 tips to curate your ecommerce design and focus on products

The internet provides us with everything we could possibly want, only a few clicks or taps away. This sheer amount of stuff causes us problems though: faced with a seemingly infinite amount of choice, where should we focus our attention?

A great example of this is Spotify. When I first used the service, knowing I had masses of 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.

I’ve written before about the choice paradox and limiting the options users face can give great results. Of course there are companies that realise this too and many are rushing to curate all of the mess. Searching can be hard work and requires research to find out whether a result is any good or not, so having other people recommend things gives you an easy shortcut.

Spotify have done a great job of solving this problem with their rafts of playlists and the particularly impressive Discover Weekly and Daily Mix playlists that predict what you’ll like to listen to. Plenty of sites have sprung up in the content space, looking to own particular niches.

Amazon, curated

Shopping online is a prime place where curation can help us as no-one wants to spend hard-earned cash on a duff product. Review systems help users but faced with five products, all with a 4.5 star rating, it can still be tough to make a choice. What would help the user is a recommendation.

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.

Amazon may be the biggest online retailer in the world but their design is very functional and products are quite drily presented. It offers an opportunity for someone else to use a more considered design to allow people to shop in a different way. Almost all the data on Canopy is the same as on Amazon but it looks very different. It perfectly encapsulates how you can take the same products and present them in two ways for totally different effects.

So how do you design for curation? Lets compare the differences in the listings pages to show how Canopy do it versus the mighty marketplace of Amazon…

Amazon and Canopy ecommerce listings

Product results on Amazon (top) and Canopy (bottom) – UI design as of 2017

1. Less on screen

The first thing that strikes you about the site is the minimalism of Canopy: there’s so much less on the screen than Amazon. The products images are the focus rather than lots of text and prices. The only text is a light grey title, which is much more subtle than the blue links on Amazon.

It tells you they want to make their chosen products the heroes, unlike Amazon, which is an aggregator and concerned most with allowing users to compare like for like.

2. Image-led

The star of each result or listing is the product 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 sitting it in more white space, so it isn’t jammed up against the next one.

White space is a great shortcut to something looking high end or luxury and makes the choice seem considered. Take a look at high-end fashion sites for more examples of white being the dominant element.

3. A single colour

The use of colour is much more subtle on Canopy, no competing oranges, greens and blues here. Again, using 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.

This is a good lesson in keeping the visual language of the site easy for users to understand. All of the link buttons are done in the same colour green so it’s clear that clicking this loads another page.

4. One price

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.

5. People not stars

Underneath each product photo, Canopy shows small images of the users who have recommended that product. This is a clear difference to the generic star ratings of Amazon and makes it feel more personal.

Star ratings are pretty ubiquitous and hard to trust at face value without further study of the actual review content. A person’s face with a profile that you can visit straight off the results page gives more of a suggestion of real humans behind the choice.

6. (Nearly) no filters

Where Amazon hits you with a ton of filters running down the left side, and covering many different ways to reduce those search results down, Canopy has just one filter. They’ve got five mutually exclusive options on that single selector so there are no complex permutations allowed.

This perhaps most defines curation over masses of results: if it’s curated it suggests you shouldn’t be presented too many options and so filters aren’t necessary. The saving of this space and complexity also adds to the white space and minimalism.

What’s next? Scaling curation

Canopy nicely represents how curation can be suggested throug the website design. At the heart of all of these approaches is a focus on the product image, and not on the excess of data that comes with it.

The danger in growing curation is that we can end up at a paradox, as 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.

Curation works best when it is at a small scale but after a certain point it becomes too unwieldy to equally present all your products. Even Canopy already has a search function and 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.

Or will it go a step further: will anyone end up curating Canopy?

Last updated on 28 October 2019
Designing Ecommerce Websites 2nd edition book cover

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