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design
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Customer Research and Why it’s Essential to the E-Commerce Experience



In today’s world, where technology plays such an integral role in our everyday lives, it’s no surprise that customers are developing astronomical expectations and competition within eCommerce is growing like wildfire. The driving factor for success has shifted from offering a quality product at a competitive price point to providing an exceptional end-to-end experience for your customers — in what’s being referred to as “the age of the customer”.

The realization that your customers have more power today than ever before, the kind of power that can make or break your business, can be nerve racking. That being said, investing in your customer experience can pay off… literally. In fact, Harvard Business Review analyzed data from a global, $1B+ transactional-based business and found that “customers who had the best past experience spend 140% more compared to those who had the poorest past experience”. Furthermore, according to a CEI study, “68% of customers will pay more for a better customer experience”. The value of a great customer experience is undeniable but where do you begin?

Get your customers involved.

Building the perfect customer experience without involving your customer is like an architect trying to design a client’s “dream home” without consulting the client. A really, really terrible idea.
You’ve got to go beyond just getting to know your customers. They need to be included in the process and, lucky for us, customer research and usability testing makes that possible. Through various testing techniques, you’re able to gather insight directly from your customers to then shape their experience in a way that satisfies their needs, fulfills their wants and aligns with their expectations.

Fact: customers don’t buy products that they can’t find.

While there are thousands of factors that play into a customer’s experience, two of the most impactful areas of any website in desperate need of customer input is the information architecture and navigation. Before we go further, let’s define the two:

Information Architecture (IA) is the underlying structure of a website’s content and the organization of those content categories in the backend of a website system. It is not part of the on-screen user interface, rather the IA informs the UI.

Navigation is the on-screen elements of the interface that a visitor uses to make their way through the structure on the website (i.e. menus, breadcrumbs, links, etc.)


As you can imagine, having these components misaligned with customer expectations can be detrimental to their experience and your site’s success — particularly for eCommerce, where the possibility of a purchase relies on the customer first being able to find the product they’re looking for. To effectively connect customers to relevant products, the taxonomy of an eCommerce site needs to reflect the way that your customers label and organize products. There are two usability techniques that go hand-in-hand to assist with such a task: Tree Testing and Card Sorting. For easy and effective online user testing, we recommend using the robust set of tools offered by one of the industry’s leading user research platforms, Optimal Workshop.

“If we can marry a user’s thought process to a navigation, they can focus more on the content presented and less on how to find things.” - Aaron Quinn, Founder of eHouse Studio

Tree Testing

Tree testing is a usability technique used to evaluate the findability of content on your website, making it perfect for analyzing the effectiveness of your site’s information architecture. Participants are asked to identify where they would expect to find the answers to a number of tasks using a simplified version of your website’s multi-level site structure. Results from tree testing can help answer questions like:

  • Are my products logically grouped according to my customers?
  • Do my category labels make sense to my customers?
  • Are my customers able to find products easily and quickly within my site structure?




Once you’ve gained visibility into which areas of the site structure are causing findability issues for your customers, you can use card sorting to help solve those problem areas.

Card Sorting

Card sorting is an exercise used to collect your customers’ perspectives on the labeling, grouping and organization of content on your website. Participants are given a number of “cards” representing various content topics and are asked to organize them into groups that make sense to them. There are three approaches to card sorting:

  • Open card sorting is when participants sort cards into categories that they create and label themselves. This approach can be a great starting place, generating ideas and learning how customers conceptualize your website’s content to help inform the initial draft of your site structure.
  • Closed card sorting is when participants sort cards into already established categories that have been provided to them. This approach can help spot discrepancies within your existing categories to find out if your customers agree or disagree with the way you would expect them to group the provided content.
  • Hybrid card sorting is when participants sort cards into already established categories that have been provided to them and are also able to create new categories as they see fit. This approach can be a more collaborative effort by allowing you to test categories that you feel confident in while gaining clarity on less certain groupings.



Implement the insights from card sorting exercises to create a customer-centric site structure that you can then tree test. Continue using the two techniques to test, learn, modify and re-test until your site structure is proven successful.

Test early, test often = Learn early, learn often

There’s never been so much emphasis on engaging customers like there is today, with 89% of companies expected to compete primarily on customer experience within the foreseeable future. With the stakes as high as they are and the competition as fierce as it is, you can’t afford not to invest in your customer experience. That investment includes getting to know your customers on a whole new level, beyond what your analytics can tell you. Use customer research and usability testing to learn what matters most to your customers. Prioritize fixing the pain-points that provide the biggest return on investment while seeking opportunities to differentiate from your competition. Do this regularly because, like all things in life, things are constantly changing — the industry, your competition, and your customers.

Learn more when you download our step-by-step guide to tree testing & card sorting or visit Optimal Workshop.