E-commerce has exploded in the last five years, and with thousands of small business owners marketing their products online, it can be hard to stand out. Global e-commerce sales are projected to reach $4.5 trillion by 2021, according to a Statista report. In an expanding market where individualism and niche products drive sales, it's important to do the right things to stay relevant.
This starts, of course, with having an excellent product – if people don't have a need for your product or service, it won't matter how beautiful or intuitive your ecommerce site is. The next step is presentation of that product. Website design trends are constantly in flux, and you'll want to make sure you keep your site looking current and highly usable.
Adrian Salamunovic, co-founder of CanvasPop, said that the No. 1 goal of any e-commerce business owner should be to create a website that is as user-oriented as possible. Sometimes, that can mean constantly testing and monitoring your site, how users interact with different elements, and what drives sales.
"Mostly everything we do is driven by data when it comes to prioritizing design-level changes," he said. "We always start with what's best for our customer experience and, secondarily, how will that decision affect conversions/sales … A lot of things don't work, the key is to be constantly testing things, looking at the data and making corrections. Try new things, and learn fast."
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Another part of this process is thinking critically about your site, the features you include, and what purpose each design element and feature serves. It's important to remove yourself as an intermediary between your product and the customer, instead allowing the customer to interact with your product in the most intuitive and direct way. Jeremy Greenberg, founder and primary designer of the web development and design firm 97 Switch, said that e-commerce sites should prioritize design elements and features that serve a distinct purpose. After all, an e-commerce site acts as a 24/7 salesperson for your company.
"Sometimes I will see clients who want some sort of random feature on the site that doesn't really correlate with the user experience," he said. "People should understand what the experience [of a business] is like by going to the website as it would be going to the location of a business or talking to a person in the business. So, any other distractions can be really detrimental to a site."
There are two ways to establish an e-commerce site: hiring a web designer or building one on your own using web software such as Shopify or Wix. There are pros and cons to both. Using a web designer means having more control over your site, but will likely cost more. Using a third-party software is less expensive, but could result in a more formulaic site. Regardless of how you build your site, keep these best practices and design trends in mind so you can stand out in the e-commerce space in 2018.
Tell your story, but in the right way
Any great web designer or marketer will tell you that one of the keys to a great website is telling your brand's story. Customers want to interact with a company they feel they can identify with, but it's important to tell your story in an effective way.
Many e-commerce sites try and prioritize their own history as the main event of the website. Remember that your products are the No. 1 reason a customer is on your website. This may seem like an obvious statement, but it can be easy to get caught up in a personal story and forget that the products and the usability of your site are more important than pushing information about yourself or your business.
Greenberg notes that businesses should definitely tell their story, but opt for a simple layout, and trust that the customers who care about the business will spend more time on your site looking for information.
"What I've noticed [about great websites] is that the primary pages are simple and clean," he said. "If somebody wants to find out all the information, they'll do a deep dive two, three, four, five pages into a website and then they'll find [it]."
There are, however, quick and effective ways to tell your brand's story without running the user through a long description before getting to a product. Justin Shaw, founder of New York City-based digital marketing firm One & Zero, said that e-commerce businesses should connect their brand with the customer to stand out.
"Effectively communicate your brand message immediately," he said. "When a visitor arrives on your site, they should be able to determine 'who you are' via the information posted above the fold (before scrolling)."
Prioritize mobile-friendly design
Eighty percent of internet users own a smartphone, and mobile sales are expected to account for 27 percent of all U.S. retail e-commerce sales by the end of 2018. The first time a customer interacts with your brand may likely be on mobile, so it's important to build a mobile-optimized or responsive site so that it looks as good on mobile as it does on a desktop. Shaw argues for designing a responsive website – a site with a built-in structure that can adjust to the size of the device accessing it – because while users will interact with your site on mobile, they may not make a purchase until they're on a desktop or laptop.
But even that is changing. J.D. Power says the preferred method for purchasing smartphones this year is on a smartphone. That online shopping experience is the leading component of a customer's satisfaction with a brand.
"If budget is not a concern, then optimize for both – that means you'll create a separate UX (user experience) design for mobile users," Shaw said. "For small business owners, budget is often a factor, so I recommend going with a responsive design. A responsive design makes the desktop experience translate and looks great on mobile."
Simplicity is key
A simple, intuitive design can help drive customer engagement and lead to sales. Including white space, building only a few pages for users to navigate through, and including a lot of images are three ways you can prioritize simplicity when designing your website. Avoid text-heavy sections and unnecessary features.
"Simplistic design that serves to deliver an intuitive and enjoyable customer experience is very important," Shaw said. "Look to avoid adding design features and elements that are unnecessary and detract from usability."
Designers agree that elements or features should always serve a purpose. Adding superfluous aspects to your site can make it seem crowded and distracting. This goes for design features that are trending, like live chat and pop ups. Greenberg said that these elements can be a great addition to a website, and should be implemented by ecommerce businesses that see continued user engagement with these features. If there isn't continued engagement, it's better to avoid adding them because they could distract the user.
"If you have a support team that's going to be active with [live chat], then it's a good feature," he said. "I've seen a lot of websites not man it correctly; I've seen a lot of websites not get a lot of messages coming in, and, in that case, it's just a waste of space."
Avoid stock photos
Using images is a great way to communicate your brand's style and feel without taking up precious real estate on your website. The key, however, is using great images. Salamunovic said that business owners should feature their own photography or curate user content (with user permission, of course) on their site.
"Avoid using stock photography as much as possible," he said. "Shoot your own stuff, use high-quality images from your actual customers as an option … Product images are so important to e-commerce success."
Images can be a major addition to your site, if they're high quality and are added properly.
Create great content
One of the top ways an e-commerce site can set itself apart from competitors is with great content. If your product is the main event, think of content – in the form of blogs, social media posts or photos – as an avenue for customers to take toward your product.
It's important to only create and publish high-quality content that is geared toward the user. Don't publish content that is business-centric or focused heavily on your own business and its processes. Greenberg provided a good example for a hypothetical ecommerce travel website. Don't create blog posts about the company or how great it is; create content about different activities to do in different places to drive engagement with your brand.
"I think people are comfortable looking at a variety of different websites, so what they want is, if they're reading something, they want it to be relevant to them," Greenberg said. "If you're publishing blog posts, make it about something a customer wants to read."
Great e-commerce websites have a simple design with added elements and features that all serve a distinct purpose. When you're building your site, do your best to seek out other ecommerce websites to serve as models for creative inspiration. Some websites like TheBestDesigns.com curate design-first websites that can be used as examples.
This is a great way to get the ball rolling and consider new design styles. It's also important, however, not to simply copy what your competitors are doing.
"Avoid staring at your competitors all day," Salamunovic said. "Your design inspiration should come from the outside world – real customers or companies that you admire who are crushing it in their markets. It's OK to borrow from others, just don't copy your competitors because, before you know it, even your customers won't be able to tell the difference."