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Jan 31 2011

Dataquest - User Experience: The Holy Grail of E-tailing


By Sudhindra Venkateshamurthy

One of the sure shot ways of keeping your wife happy is to keep her family happy. And if she has a sister, pamper her with gifts and your happiness quotient is bound to be up, at least for a while.

In one such attempt many years ago did I first experience the pains of buying online. E-commerce was still in its infancy in India and the price of onions did not make us cry. I spent over 3 hours online, overcame countless breaks in the checkout, used all of my intellect, took the help of my colleagues and finally managed to place an order for some flowers and her favorite Chocolate Roulade to send to my sister-in-law for her birthday. But inspite of this, I did not earn any brownie points from my wife. The reason being, she was delivered some low quality kids toys and a teenagers t-shirt with a picture of a dragon on it. After that, I have been rather cautious in this rough terrain of e-commerce.

This was ages ago, and one tends to think that things would have greatly evolved by now; the situation has definitely improved but not drastically changed. In a recent attempt to gauge the e-commerce landscape in India, I was left with a feeling of uncomfortable apprehension of the current state but with a definite hope for the future.

When you closely analyze and evaluate the user experience of e-commerce sites in India, some key themes stand out.

• There is not enough effort made to build credibility for the site, though the Indian e-commerce industry has come a long way, quite in line with the overall development of the countrys economy

• Convenience is the primary motivator for users to visit e-commerce sites. This motivation of users is adequately addressed.

• Most sites are content in being poor imitations of other perceived successful Indian or American sites. There is not enough innovation or out-of-the-box thinking. They seem to believe that its sufficient to have all design elements, features and functionality in place without much importance given to strategic placement of design elements.

As I dig deeper into my evaluation of the sites, I realize that the number of e-commerce sites in India has grown drastically. There are innumerable numbers of sites that offer products ranging from a needle to a car, from diamonds to socks. There is an extensive product range to choose from, there are different options available for payment like Cash On Delivery, Credit Card, Debit Card and most sites do provide online customer support. The Indian e-commerce industry has crossed several hurdles to get where we are today. The policies have been increasingly designed to benefit customers. Most e-commerce businesses are coming to terms with the power of the right design to influence customers.

And yet, they still need to go a long way in terms of user experience. Lots of them are nothing but quick copies of other sitesIndian or American. You can find several half baked attempts at replicating an While Experience Design has gone way ahead in the US and Europe, we are yet to see the same kind of experience in the Indian e-commerce industry.


My biggest disappointment was the lack of an attempt to build credibility. When dealing with physically invisible entities, such as online checkout systems, people need to feel completely secure. Most sites do not seem to give the assurance of being a trusted place to spend ones money. Neither do they look very professional, nor do they make an attempt to provide policies that enhance trust such as a 30-day easy-return policy or no risk buying. Navigation that should be dealt with extra-care due to the large number of items on display, does not do an optimal job. A well-designed navigation is a major factor in usability and one of the most important sections of a site.

The time and effort users spend on a site is like a premium. A lack of trust means a wasted opportunity. If youve failed the first time in giving the desired experience to a consumer, there is a very high probability that the individual would not visit your site anytime soon. And, then there are always several other sites to choose from. So at the end of the day, its all about customer experience, to which the trust factor is a big contributor.

Designing for Indian Audiences

The service experience in India is not yet ideal. Be it your mobile service provider whose customer service system takes eons to connect to a person or the local plumber who never comes on time or your neighborhood grocer where you cannot afford to not check the expiry date of products or the CD Player you bought recently that does not play most of the CDs you have.

So, people who venture to shop online are apprehensive lest they face a similar service online. Sites have to be sensitive and communicate a sense of understanding of contextual nuances. Messages such as you can expect the delivered product to be exactly as advertised, it will be delivered on time and post sales support definitely works, when creatively communicated, increases the connection with users.

Another factor to take into account while designing sites should be their accessibility as well as the ability to degrade gracefully on older technologies and monitors; the layout should remain intact even when being viewed on older browsers. And, with the recent upsurge in Internet penetration in smaller towns, from a mere 5% 10 years ago to close to 40% now, older technologies and monitors and slow connections have to be accounted for.

When you look at the products range available on an e-commerce sites, companies ensure products are updated regularly, some even by the hour and promotions are surfaced upfront. But, the product pages generally are inadequate in providing cues for decision making. People are used to several common place features that are available by default in the more well-known sites. The Best Selling, Most Recent products, comparison between products, search filtersall have become quite expected these days. While many Indian sites do have them, they are not used to their full potential.

High resolution images and photographs that can instantly create a positive emotional impact, are few and far between. A recent study conducted in Punjab to identify attitude towards e-shopping concluded that consumer purchases are often based on the web appearances and information of the product or service offering. Images play a major part in creating that favorable appearance.

Today with web technology breaking new grounds, the interaction of design elements can take on a whole new meaning. But its rare to see a site that employs interactivity that allows users more control. People do look for a touch-feel-try experience which is not possible on the Internet. But, a good interaction design can overcome this gap to a great extent.


Another notable flaw I noticed in many e-commerce sites was the lack of communication of the USP of the site or the brand. Why should I buy this product here when I have numerous options? is a question that is largely left unanswered by most sites. For example, a site that offers US products at Indian doorsteps has its key message at the bottom of the page, well hidden from the public eye. Neither the USP is upfront nor is the brand primed throughout the site.

Even content that benefits customers, and therefore are hooks are not surfaced upfront, undermining the business value. Its just not enough to rip a copy of the brochures and put up on the websitean old design flaw that continues to exist. Due to a lack of engaging content, casual browsing is largely reduced which is akin to having no window shoppers in a shopping mall.

Check Out

Some sites have made an honest attempt to ease a shoppers apprehensions during checkout. They realize that most users drop off here, and hence offer options such as cash on delivery which is definitely something that interests people. But, the interaction during the checkout leaves a lot to be desired. Not many sites let you shop without registering. An e-commerce study by has found that 23% of the customers quit even before they register themselves at a particular site because they hesitate to register.

Long forms, irrelevant fields and the perception of long process for checkout deter users from continuing with the checkout. Therefore, something as simple as designing a single page checkout form cuts down user effort by almost 50%.

Almost none answer the question of what to do when they encounter technical glitches such as if the transaction fails midway or if the card is charged but the successfully completed message does not come up. Details such as these make the difference between an also-ran and a trend-setter. Building a successful e-commerce site means investment of time and effort to make the transaction process easy, to improve trust, and to make check out processes effective and efficient. It means an investment in understanding user behavior through research, developing personas and scenarios, creating user journeys, ecosystems and designing strategies to ensure that the users enjoy a positive experience.

Other Points to Note

Most of the e-commerce sites surveyed did not tap into important cross-selling opportunities. The places where users invest their efforts, such as collecting items in wishlists are precious. They also are accurate predictors of their interests, needs, wants and behavior patterns. This again comes across as a list of items dumped in a single place in the container. The users do not get to know if there are updates to the products, discounts on any of them, or if there are similar but better rated products so that there is more choice.

Social Media is another powerful tool that almost everyone is trying to encash on. While most e-commerce sites have a presence on social network sites one way or the other, they fail to bring in the much needed connect and leverage the power of the network. The sites that are slightly different than the rest, such as group buying sites, need to explain the concept upfront.

Recent research outlines the positive and negative forces that affect consumer behavior in the e-commerce arena. The positive forces include increase in buyers and sellers, change in customer attitudes, convenience and better bargains. Almost all aspects that influence behavior negatively are driven by poor user experience. Mounting competitive pressures, credibility in payment system, untimely delivery of products and to some extent, consumer biasall of these barriers to growth can be addressed through concentrated, research based Experience Design.

Though we see a lot of areas of improvements for the industry, it is heartening to know that the e-tailing sales have gone up. Small towns have become a major consumer base. Mobile commerce is all set to increase. It only goes to show that the market in India is growing and its important for e-commerce players to seize the opportunity it provides.

In the future, sites that have specific focus, such as books for senior citizens will probably be more common in the Indian Internet scene. Innovative ideas, harnessing the potential of location based services, m-commerce and sophisticated persuasive design are set to be common place in the next few years. As the market sees bigger numbers, the focus should be on providing an experience rather than just buying an item.

Sudhindra Venkateshamurthy
The author is head of experience design at SapientNitro India. He headed the team that rated e-commerce sites on user experience parameters for the Dataquest 20 Hot E-commerce Start-ups research

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