As a designer and developer, I always want to push forward new ideas and ways of thinking about design for the web and eCommerce. It’s often put to me that a lot of eCommerce stores look the same and could in essence be selling anything as is the nature of how it looks and more often than not that is the case. You can switch out product images and colours and have a perfectly good store but lacking any real thought, effort and individuality.
Of course it’s not as simple as just making it look different. It comes down to a lot of factors, some you may not even think about and actually a lot of it comes from the client.
Everything looks the same
It has been a debate for a long while now that most sites look the same. I think for a while that was true as we worked with platforms and frameworks but I feel there is some moving towards personality although it is a long way away from the olden days and skeuomorphism.
These days a lot of people can style a site with very little design knowhow. I touched on themes and frameworks which do a lot of the work for you and I have no issue with that. We also have sites like Wix and Squarespace again that take a lot of the grind away and I have no issue with them. Infact I champion these things for people that have little time or money to do something. Shouldn’t everyone have the tools to play?
It’s a bit different in the game I am in though where we have companies willing to spend 100k-200k or more for a website. A website that not only needs to function and sell products / services but also look good and be the best at UX it possibly can.
The thing with eCommerce sites is that there are a lot of moving parts, lots of decisions, third party apps, processes that need to be followed so design often takes a hit in favour of function but it always depends on the type of client. Fashion will always want something cool and often going against every UX rule whereas some sites need it to be more about the information and options where you need a simple design to make it easy to purchase.
As with a lot of ecommerce stores, you see the same patterns. Banners, recommended products, product cards, its very standard what you see so I can see why people think a site looks the same compared to others. But I think good colour choices, typography, great use of space and images make or break a site and can transform it in seconds.
The buying journey
I was always told to never disrupt the buying journey or change it too much from the norm. But what is the norm these days? Younger people shop differently to older people. First off, mobile is now ahead of desktop in online sales. Tikotok, Instagram have had a huge impact so I think the old way is to be challenged. They might go against some of the design rules we worked closely with on the web but it clearly is working for people so jump on that bus.
So what are the issues?
I use Dribbble as an example here. I see a lot of eCommerce work on there that is vanity work. It would never be built and would be really hard to implement in the real world. Not 100% impossible but for the vast majority of clients I think they would struggle. And here’s why.
Having a lot of money helps on projects, but how that money is distributed makes a huge impact. There might be a tonne of UX research that is needed or some complex journeys that need attention. Before you know it, making that really cool interactive flashy site is not really on the agenda.
But I’ve seen cool Shopify sites that standout
It’s not really the amount of money, it’s what it needs to be spent on that counts. I’ll come back to these shortly though.
Each platform has good and bad points. This goes hand in hand with budget too really. The more complexity there is, the more chance you will have to be less extravagant with the solution. Its the same with CMS options too. I can do things in CSS and HTML that a lot of modern CMS solutions don’t offer which again can make a site look less polished and cheap.
Not every team has the ability to do these kinds of sites. It’s a weak reason as you just go and find someone but it’s 100% an issue.
I work with sites that have anywhere between 50 to 1000 products, maybe more. The more products there are, the more chance of differing data and quality. Having a site that sells less products gives you more of a chance in producing a bespoke and unique experience I believe mainly because you might have some products that has lots of options and information and some don’t. So for example, if you have a section where you talk about the product features, you might design around a product having some great content, loads of associated images and then you find a few that has a couple of lines and no images. Of course you can fix these things so it shouldn’t always hold you back but a client is reluctant to start amending and fixing 1000 products.
This is my main reason for most sites either looking good, expensive, cheap or whatever. If the images are not right, your site will look off. It’s also one of the biggest factors for me even trying to attempt designing a unique experience and it ties in with the above.
A site with a small catalogue has less images to worry about than a site that has 1000 products. A lot of product shots come from suppliers which means you have the potential for 1000s of images that are inconsistent shapes, quality, they have cutouts or background colours. So even by looking at the images from the start, I can rule out a lot of design ideas before I even start simply by the quality of the images. Even with all images being the same shape and lets say on a grey background still rules out a lot of design options.
So the site where you have nice large cutout shots over gradients and text is now a pipe dream unless you can convince the client to reshoot or cut out their images which I am pretty sure it might be a “no”.
You can be different
eCommerce sites don’t really all look the same but they do often suffer from the very things mentioned above that stop them trying something different. In my experience also, the bigger the client, the less freedom you have. If the site has lots of products, you can bet your bottom dollar you’ll be designing something similar to others, there is no getting away from it.
I firmly believe that a good site and this is very true in eCommerce for me that a good looking site has great typography, great colours, lovely use of white space and most importantly great images. If you scrimp on any of them, you will impact the site.