We took a price aggregator with an awesome built in product and price comparison tool, made it responsive (the task) but at the same time stripped it of everything engaging. I’ll tell you how and what happened next.
We were a UX team of 10 - made up of Interaction Designers (I was one), front-end developers, a UX researcher, 2 BA’s, our UX team lead (also head of product) and we even had a product advisor! We were also backed by a big squad of back end devs, a R&D team constantly working on improving search and 30 other people doing all sorts.
Why did I take the time to introduce you to the team? Because it’s important you know how many people were impacted by our bad UX decisions.
To make sure no-one is hurt or takes complete offence by anything that is said here, even though I believe this is the truest account of what happened - I will call the company E-com Retailer X
Lets start here, what was E-com Retailer X?
E-com Retailer X was once a leading South African price aggregator and at the time had such an impressive SEO footprint that you could just about search for any product for sale online on any of the most popular search engines and you’d find E-com Retailer X listing of that product in the top 3 results. This site used to PUMP!
This is almost exactly what E-com Retailer X looked like when I joined: This is Takealot.com - South Africas no.1 online superstore!
Things they got right:
Exposed categories with nested sub-cats;
Highlighted Daily Deals which get sent to account holders inboxes daily (great deals here guys!);
Tabs, all in all not hiding much behind navigation;
Ad space used to highlight new products, sales and seasonal best buys;
Tiles displaying popular products/sections of the day, week or month, I think this is randomised (even better!);
The use of a few UI tricks like whitespace, moving products on a carousel and large open sub categories make it really easy to navigate around this page.
I cant be 100% certain of everything, but I do remember E-com Retailer X looking almost exactly like this when I started. So if it works now, why did it not work then? We’re all aware that trends, usage patterns and people especially change overtime. But I’ll explain why I think us changing from this simple, effective UX was the beginning of the end for this online giant.
OK, so the site had an amazing SEO footprint - Cool story bro, what was so special about this E-com Retailer X?
Let’s look at the 4 different models for e-commerce retailers:
Free advertising (paid for ad ons) | gumtree.co.za
Sell their own products and handle fulfilment | takealot.com
Sell other peoples things and take a cut when user buys (they handle fulfilment) | bidorbuy.co.za
Aggregate products from all suppliers and link users to the suppliers sites for purchase and fulfilment | E-com Retailer X
Besides amazing SEO bringing organic traffic to a site that could show aggregated products, ranges of models and colours, then differentiating then finally by price, there was another trick up their online sleeve.
You could look at up to 3 products side-by-side and compare them across a range of criteria. Ever seen GSMArena? Like this
Why am I writing this case study and why am I so passionate about it?
Firstly, I am passionate about everything I write/speak about. But, I also really believed in the product, the product vision and loved the working environment and admired my colleagues.
How the perfect eco-system worked
Users would search the internet for a product they wanted to purchase - let’s say they wanted an iPhone XS. They would open a browser and on their fav search engine run a search for “iPhone XS for sale Cape Town”. 9 out of 10 times E-com Retailer X would come up as a paid search and then also the top 3 results for this search.
A user could click on the link and be taken to the product page where they would be able to discover much more about the iPhone XS.
Detailed descriptions and more info:
Color (Black, White, Rose gold)
Capacity (64, 128, 256GB)
What’s in the box
Different angles if you hadn’t seen it before
Watch an expert review the product
Read user reviews from people who have recently purchased it
Compare it side-by-side to the iPhone XS Max and the Samsung Galaxy S10
Find the online supplier with the best price
Once our common user had spent enough time browsing around on the site they’d finally choose their preferred price and supplier and then, knowing enough about the product, complete the purchase on the supplier’s side.
Every time a user clicked through from E-com Retailer X to the suppliers online store, that supplier would pay E-com Retailer X a click through fee. And that is how we made the big bucks!
The most important pieces of the puzzle that created the ecosystem and kept it working, were:
Great SEO efforts
Great email and online marketing efforts
Great support team
Accessibility across almost any cellphone from the dumbest to the smartest and everything in between (Remember Blackberrys)
Cross platform integrations (WeChat, SMS, MTN)
Very stable product with solid dev team backing it
Make E-com Retailer X responsive
At that time we had people using SMS to search for products, and using 3rd party chat platforms, users could run a search and in almost chat-bot like style receive results and click out to complete discovery. We had deals with major network service providers preloading the app on flagship devices in and outside of South Africa.
Our reach was far and our team was big, but having a range of different applications across multiple stores with multiple code bases became a nightmare to manage and even scarier to test (I was testing on 24 devices at one point). In order to keep ahead of the times, it was decided that ONE RESPONSIVE SITE TO RULE THEM ALL was the answer.
Over the period of a year, we made E-com Retailer X responsive. Through a combined team effort - which included late night work sessions multiple times per week, sprints of varying lengths and feedback rich retrospectives lead, attended and facilitated by our expert team. But, never without the energy shifting interruption of miss management, lack of communication, bad planning and no understanding of who we built it for - we did it!
Where we went wrong
We focused solely on the new product we were building and barely took into account flows that were already working for users, and oh, making money for us;
We laughed at the SEO guy when he tried to squeeze in a ticket or two for the dev team to ensure the new platform was as SEO’d (sorry) as the current one was;
We lost sight of the core and built new features to bring extra revenue streams that were so far off the business model that it sometimes seemed we were trying to make money for jam.
We did not understand enough about our users and how they used our site and what kept them coming back;
We flipped the switch on old users with no real instruction or guidance on how to use this newly launched platform (Beta may as well have been Alpha);
We stripped all the information scent from the product and now pushed up above the fold a new untested feature we believed was ground breaking, that we would later find out was nothing at all;
We focused our time and energy on making it as lean as possible with some flows feeling almost useless;
We tampered with the only real sticky part of the site, (product discovery), and in doing so we removed everything that would keep users engaged.
Exposed categories - information scent;
Trending products - social validation, group identity;
Side-by-side comparison - autonomy, trust, choice;
Multiple images and colours - trust;
Ability to zoom - trust;
User reviews - group identity, social validation;
Expert reviews - trust;
Video product review - trust, dopamine;
Deep descriptions - trust, progressive disclosure;
Ratings - social validation;
Too much whitespace (almost empty) - trust;
The product broke the business
It was more important that the CTA be redder and BIGGER so that users would get through the experience in record time to click it. This lightening fast transaction was great for the numbers, we increased our clicks to suppliers websites 5 fold but massively decreased conversion on their end. Users were no longer discovering the products they wanted to buy on E-com Retailer X. They could now only check the price, and then would have to click and view multiple suppliers online stores to get the overall idea of the product. It wasn’t long before suppliers could smell a rat and when our monthly revenues became so high, (them spending money) and conversions month-on-month plummeted for them, we had messed with the most important part of the business - the model!
This time, the product failed us. One of the biggest suppliers at the time, cancelled their contract and withdraw a few hundred-thousand product matches.
That was one of the best working experiences of my life so far. The team, the vibe, the commitment to build something amazing under immense amounts of pressure and the resilience to stick it out as a team even when we fought management on ideas - which posed threats - the feeling of progress and success remained. Getting lunch with my friends or playing ping pong against temporary foes - this was a great group of people who all just so happened to work under the same roof, toward the same goal. To them I will be forever grateful, for even though we failed, we failed together and we learned much more through that experience than any textbook could teach.
Two months after I resigned and left the company, around 20 people/friends were retrenched and asked to leave at a minute’s notice.
- The team broke the product;
- The product broke the business;
- The business broke the team.
The company, since then, seems to be doing much better and I wish them nothing but success as they continue their journey.
Thanks for reading
Be kind. Be helpful. Be useful.