Dismantling the Digital Fortress: E-Commerce Design Must Start with Humans, Not Tech and Templates

deptagency logoThe old way of online retail is obsolete. A bold statement, but it’s true. Yet these are the very platforms many Digital Marketing agencies are spending so much time and energy building, that have been putting bread and butter on our clients’ tables, and that everyone thought would reconnect brands with their audiences and help them grow.

Turns out, those platforms are not the key when heading into a digitally oriented future. We need to change our mindset, the way we envision and build ecommerce. It sounds harsh, but really, it’s a good thing. The new possibilities this shift unlocks means more creative opportunities and positive experiences for agencies, brands, and customers.

The Return of Connection

Let’s dive deeper into how we got to this moment. Some forty years ago, when people walked into their neighborhood stores, they had an entirely different customer experience than the one they would receive today. With a limited number of retail and transportation options, they would frequent stores that were in close proximity to them. The clerk probably knew them quite well and made their shopping experience personal – starting with the greeting and going all the way to tailor-made products or services.

Over the past few years, however, these personal points of contact have been reduced to next to nothing, as businesses became increasingly focused on making their supply chains and processes more efficient and cutting costs. Without the connection between clerk and customer, and without the proper technology, individualization was simply unthinkable, way too expensive and impossible to implement.

Today, Digitalization has evolved to replace the store clerk of forty years ago. Algorithms can collect, combine, and process data and learn about customers and their individual needs. Based on these insights, bots can engage in in-depth conversations that can often help customers feel they are talking to another person. The old connection between the retail point of contact and customer can now be reclaimed thanks to the latest technological developments, most notably AI and recommendation engines.

Read More: Successful E-Commerce Personalization Starts with the Right Data

Down with the Digital Fortress

The traditional visual interfaces you find when you visit many online shops, sites, and apps have been dubbed “digital fortresses,” and it’s time to tear down the walls.

In building these e-commerce citadelles, organizations tend to gather all the information they think is relevant in one place and make it accessible to their audiences–but on the company’s terms. From the users’ point of view, these fortresses are impenetrable. Access to the desired information is commonly restricted, and visual interfaces are one-way communication channels.

Cluttered information architecture, unclear menus, and content elements, and the failure to adapt to screen sizes and devices are just a few examples of how web designers struggle (and often fail) to offer a desirable experience on these platforms. This leaves customers feeling frustrated. They abandon attempts to storm the fortress, and organizations miss out on crucial revenue.

When we consider this frustration, it’s tempting to lean towards standardization of information architecture, as well as a baseline for tech, to help channel customer expectations and encourage certain consumer behaviors. Standards and templates have indeed been the first line of changes many in ecommerce have attempted.

For example, Shanying Leung, Design Director for Alipay and Ant-Financial, has explained in talks about how Alibaba is currently standardizing digital and non-digital design templates and supplying them to small business owners in China. They automated this process to such an extent that all elements of these templates are created via AI.

Based on a few parameters and some uploaded material, the algorithm defines colors, fonts, design elements, even copies, and creative claims. This process works so well that the customers are not able to tell that these experiences were created by a machine. This is obviously only the latest step in a development that describes the standardization of user interfaces through, among other things, Twitter Bootstrap, overflowing template libraries, smart CMS interfaces, and so on.

This just puts a new layer of boring on the same old problem. The question remains: if one-way-communication channels with visual interfaces are an inconvenient way for users to find and interact with an organization’s content, and if brands are having an increasingly hard time standing out of an ocean of standardized web-shops, sites, and apps, what good do these efforts do?

Why, with all the changing expectations and clear consumer frustration and feedback, do the majority of designers and brands still think in platforms?

Read More: Thwarting Digital Ad Fraud at Scale: An Open Source Experiment with Anomaly Detection

Think Humans, Not Tech

This is when it gets really interesting if you’re working with or for a Digital Marketing agency.

Many agencies approach ecommerce and platform projects with a focus on features and technological possibilities. People will debate interface elements and teasers and the position of menus and which payment methods to integrate. They focus too much on building and shipping the tools when they could be imagining and enabling meaningful interactions between brands and their customers. The ideal is conversational interactions, not one-way channels.

It makes a lot more sense to envision the frame hanging on the wall, and then getting the tools needed to get it there, than starting by tweaking the design of the hammer and the nail. It makes a lot more sense to talk about how a customer can feel informed and satisfied by their purchases, instead of ruminating about dropdowns.

This sounds daunting: the dots are scattered and diverse. But there’s no need to be afraid of complexity! Instead, gather as much information as you possibly can about the topic at hand, as well as its adjacent fields – look beyond what narrowly applies to your business–and derive fundamental, big-picture-insights.

In the end, making conversational information architecture and commerce a reality is not really about technology. It is about changing the mindset that digital agencies approach projects with. It is imperative to dig into the dialogue brands currently have gone with consumers and how they want to alter that, before getting too deep into how to integrate new platforms and technologies. The human question needs an answer first; the technology will follow.

Read More: The Digital Marketing Transformation: Accelerate the Path to Marketing Maturity