We’ve been crossing paths with content strategists and information architects more and more in our work to improve product content for online retailers.
For the purposes of ecommerce, content strategy is all about consistent brand messaging and meeting information needs. Information architecture (IA) also deals with meeting information needs, as well as planning for how users search and browse and backend website challenges like navigation and taxonomy.
Have you wondered what these disciplines are all about? We wanted to get some expert insight, so we sat down with Bram Wessel of Factor and Misty Weaver of Portent to find out how IA and content strategy fit in the big picture of web product content.
In part 2 of our interview, we get into the nitty-gritty of what makes product pages good or bad, including how retailers do or don’t come across as credible and consistent, the value of breadcrumbs in navigation, how the design of the page helps or hurts shoppers in their quest to find information, and one way Amazon set the standard for online retailers.
“Users Need to Know Facts”
Augustin: What do you think the main purpose of ecommerce content is?
Bram: One is just addressing information needs. Users need to know facts about the product. In some of our enterprise engagements, we work with systems called PIMS (product information management systems) that manage fundamental attributes of the products like size and color. All these attributes need to be managed in a system that has a rational taxonomy.
That’s one information need. Another information need is people are evaluating products against other products. They need to understand what the unique benefits of one product is versus another. Or maybe they’re comparing features so they need to really understand what is beneficial about this particular feature.
In an ecommerce environment, shoppers need to be able to very quickly evaluate how right for them a product might be.
Misty: I think about both visibility and decision making. To go with what Bram’s saying, I think about having content models. You have a model, you know what information you need to provide so that someone can make a decision.
From there, I think about how it’s really difficult to know what systems require, what information and what format and what structure. That’s another critical piece of information architecture, information management. You’ve got to know how it’s right for Amazon or another ecommerce platform or system.
Knowing what information is most important to customers, formatting it and structuring it in the right way for the systems where it will live is going to create more visibility and also more of the information shoppers need to make that decision.
It’s just a critical piece, and most people don’t have the time or expertise to figure that out on their own. That’s where finding a partner like content26 is so important.
[Tweet “Good information design enhances credibility and decision making.”]
Augustin: What are the most common mistakes you see on product pages?
Misty: Often, there’s not enough information that’s actually critical. Some retailers hide information that they think make their product look bad. But realistically, the companies that are doing really well online and making large profits are very honest about the products that they have. That tends to be in their favor.
I often notice that there aren’t next steps. If something wasn’t the exact product a shopper was looking for but there might be another one that fits their needs, that that should be apparent. I think people miss that next step for related products in an organic, real way.
Those two things, honest information that really helps the buying decision and product relationships, are what make most product pages really good.
Bram: When I look at product pages as a unit of content, the Edward Tufte-information design side of my brain kicks into gear. The biggest mistake I see is in how the relative conceptual emphasis, not just visual emphasis, is out of whack.
The important things people need to know (and you know what those things are if you’ve done your user research) are often not made to look or seem as important as they should be. Consumers look at a product page and can’t synthesize any meaning from it, can’t tell why they should buy this product.
There’s a podcast called 99% Invisible about architecture. Well, there’s 99% invisible information design. Consumers don’t notice it. They just look at something and immediately understand what the unique benefits of this product are. Good information design enhances credibility and decision making, as well as making the experience of shopping online feel more positive because users are not having to do extra mental work.
Augustin: Can you think of specific example of a site that does it well?
Misty: I’m looking at ModCloth quite frequently because they’ve done a lot of work in personalization. When you visit their site, it knows you and it does a lot of things to show you what you want to see.
They also emphasize price and picture. Sometimes on other sites I see price way below the fold on the product page. Cost is the first decision for shoppers.
ModCloth has also put work into the editorial quality of product descriptions. When I read a description on the site, it’s the right link, it’s worth reading, it’s a story I want to read. There’s a sense of this product being a part of your lifestyle as opposed to just being a thing.
As much as Apple gets maligned, I think that they do a lot of work to provide links to other products, to offer a next step, a way to get help, associated products, or more information about a product. They have to do that because they change how their OS or hardware works often. So they have done a lot of work in keeping their product descriptions up to date in a clean, credible, and consistent way.
Bram: What’s interesting to me about Apple is that Apple is a polarizing brand. That’s intentional. Apple wants Apple people to gravitate to Apple.
To me, the proof of how effectively Apple organizes their product content is that the way you learn about products in the Apple store is on Apple devices with content formatted for those devices. They thought about how to make it appropriate for the in-store environment. There’s no more high-stakes environment than on the retail floor.
I think Crate & Barrel does a really good job of content in the retail environment, too. They’ve been a Factor client; we have helped them with pre-cart findability challenges on their website, which is all about taxonomy and attribution fixes and sorting and filtering mechanisms. But as far as product pages are concerned, I’m more interested in the information design. Some of the best examples that I’ve seen are some of the usual suspects.
Amazon does a pretty decent job. I think the site tends to be too dense, but I know that Amazon is continually performance testing the information design of their product pages. As long as their methodology is sound, I think that that’s leading them in a good direction.
[Tweet ” Rule number 1: always use the customer’s words.”]
Misty: There are leading elements to Amazon design that every retailer who wants to compete with them and also sell through them needs to keep in mind. One is product relationships–if this is out of stock, you could get this other, similar item. Make sure you’re structuring and connecting all the products available so shoppers can see their options.
The other important thing, I think, is the honest review system. For most products, reviews and number of stars from real people make a huge difference in the buying decision.
Amazon has made those two features, honest product reviews and product relationships, standard and necessary for a lot of online shoppers. So it behooves all retailers to find a way to integrate those things.
Bram: What you said about cross-selling was interesting because to be able to do that, a retailer has to have their content management, e-commerce delivery, and merchandising systems in lock step. The promise is, “This information is credible.”
If you tell the shopper there’s this other product, that product has to be available in real time. Your merchandising system has to be in sync with what you’re telling the customer in real time.
Augustin: What are some of the most common navigation sins of online retailers? I’m sure you could talk about that all day, but top two or three.
Bram: When we do evaluations, we usually find that the root of most problems is about not understanding how users consume, synthesize, and decode information.
The obvious one is if you’re trying to sell products and your navigation structure reflects your corporate structure, not the structure of the array of products you sell.
Another common problem is that the retailer’s merchandising system has too much influence over site navigation. There are all kinds of aspects of a merchandising system that need to exist for retailers to be able to successfully manage inventory that are in conflict with how customers need to navigate that retailer’s product offering.
A merchandising system can’t be your customer-facing navigation. When we’ve done evaluations and user research with companies like West Marine and Crate & Barrel, most of the problems stem from some subtle nuance in the navigation that is an artifact of the merchandising system.
[Tweet “Getting people to find your product is the best way you can convert.”]
Misty: Sometimes it’s even simpler than that. For example, James Callan at Sur la Table wrote about a merchandising issue related to spatulas. Many customers use the word “turner” or “flipper” to describe a spatula, even though the kitchen industry officially uses “spatula.”
Simple things like that can cause a huge problem for navigation. That’s one of the biggest sins I see: Sticking with vendor terms and not using the terms your customers use. That makes the retailer not visible in search.
I say rule number 1 is always use the customer’s words. Build a good control vocabulary. Understand those connections between those things.
I think retailers rely too much on the main global navigation or site navigation and forget to put navigation within the content itself, which is where people look. Most people are looking at the content and the center of the page, so there need to be next steps or back steps within that content. It can’t just be all the terms on the top or on the side, which so many people have learned to ignore because they associate those areas with ads.
Not having breadcrumbs, not having hierarchies, not having words that people actually use, focusing too much on very simple top navigation that looks like your company structure… That doesn’t offer people much and it doesn’t reflect what people want to do.
Getting people to find your product is the best way you can convert.
Informed by 2+ decades of practice in information architecture, Bram Wessel, Principal at Factor Firm, believes technology is not an end in itself but it should enable natural experiences for actual humans. The broad theme emerging from studying user behavior is that people care about the utility and quality of experiences much more than they care about pleasing designs.
Bram is dedicated to “getting technology out of our way.” He has delivered experience designs and strategies for organizations such as Adobe, Amazon, City of Seattle, Crate and Barrel, Disney, Expedia, GE, Group Health, Intel, MasterCard, Microsoft, Nordstrom, Real, Safeco, Sony, Starbucks, Volvo, UW Medicine, Warner, and many others.
Misty Weaver is a content strategist, community manager, and co-organizer of IA Meetup and Content Strategy Seattle Meetup. As the content strategy lead at Portent, she works collaboratively to research and deliver relevant, useful, and innovative content services.
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