Working on redesigning the user interface for an online store, I found myself digging deep into my own experiences to be able to anticipate the needs of the customer.

For 8 years, from the ages of 14 to 22, I worked in retail. My parents ran a couple of manchester stores and I worked there after school and on weekends. In two of those years I also worked in a video library*.

The thing about designing for the web is, we often don’t take into account, not only what our audience’s real-world experience is, but also our own.

When laying out a ‘brick & mortar’ retail store, there is a logical flow to entice customers further in. A clothing retailer, for example, has the changing rooms at the back of the store so you have to walk past all the racks first. Trestle tables with specials are outside the store to entice the customer to come in.

‘Brick & mortar’ stores have their differences to online stores but customers expect a similar experience. The shopping brain has certain established neural pathways. It’s easier to capitalise on those than to try to forge new pathways.

When I explained the concept of the customer’s journey through the store to my client I could speak with experienced knowledge of how a customer expects to be treated.

I was able to draw on my knowledge and experience in working with shoppers to design and explain how an online shop needs to feel. I used parts of the screen real-estate as if they were parts of the shop floor:

  • The shopping cart is like the cashier’s counter. It needs to be visible, obvious but unobtrusive to the flow of the store. That’s why it’s in the top right, squarish and about one third the width of the content area.
  • The front page is like the window-dressing. It needs to show popular, attractive, sought-after, and new items in an enticing way. It’s a lot easier in a web-store because you can actually give areas of the screen titles like “Popular Items”, “Highest Rated” and “Recently Added”. Cookies and user history also give the opportunity to tailor the store to the visitor.
  • There’s a section of the front page that has a different coloured header and displays some heavily discounted items like the trestle tables on the footpath in front of the shop.

There are plenty of times when I’ve worked on websites in areas of business where I didn’t have 8 years’ experience. In those situations I’ve sat down with clients and asked them to show me every aspect of their business I can think of. I go through business processes with them for hours so that I can accurately recreate real world experiences.

We have a tendency, because we work with computers, to isolate ourselves from the real world. We forget, sometimes, that people in the real world often just want to replicate their own experience with some added convenience. It’s up to us to be able to capture the essence of the real world to make our audiences feel more comfortable online. Sometimes that means digging into our own past and sometimes it means distilling someone else’s knowledge but the aim should always remain: Make the user’s transition from real world to online as seamless as possible.

*The older people in the audience may need to explain that concept to the young ‘uns.

About Josh Kinal

Josh makes things on the web easy to use and understand. Sounds simple, but it’s not. His understanding of developing engaging content comes from many years of writing for print and radio. You might have heard him on Boxcutters, his popular weekly podcast about TV or years of appearing on Triple J, Radio National and 3RRR. He also holds a science degree and in 2012 was one of Australia’s few panelists at SXSW Interactive conference in Austin, Texas