IRWD+MC 2014: Many Focus on Getting the Basics Right

Here’s to another successful IRWD+MC! Kudos for choosing sunny Florida once again; it was a nice break for a north easterner like me. Our FitForCommerce team was staying busy at the show; talking to retailers/manufacturers/brands at our booth, giving design consultations, and having Bernardine Wu, our founder and CEO, speak at a session on usability testing. With all the different touch points, we gained a lot of insight into what issues retailers are facing and the solutions they are interested in to help solve their problems.

Top buzzwords we expected to hear were responsive design and omnichannel. Surprisingly, one of the major themes we observed throughout the show was refocusing on the basics. For many retailers, user experience has taken a backseat to merchandising, promotions, omnichannel, marketing, etc. Retailers at the show were determined to optimize customer experience – not by high-tech software and solutions but by sticking to the fundamentals of serving a pleasant shopping experience via a user-friendly site that focused on the customers’ needs, first.

Navigation and taxonomy was a sore spot for many. Many retailers were overwhelmed with the number of products they offered and didn’t know how to effectively group products based on their customers’ shopping habits and patterns. Some overloaded their top navigation with over twelve categories, making it difficult to read and consume. Others hid products behind many sub-categories, forcing customers to click four times to reach a product detail page.

Solutions for some retailers were simple in nature, such as implementing a left navigation to effectively present all the categories vertically rather than the limited horizontal space. An alternative is to implement a fly-out navigation to reduce the amount of clicks to get to a product. Others needed to resort to more advanced measures to solve their problem, such as user testing in the form of card sorting. This method strictly evaluates and tests the site’s product category tree. During a card sorting session, users are asked to organize a list of products into categories. The retailer can then get a better sense of how their customers really shop and then can organize their categories, accordingly.

Site design and page layout was another area where retailers still seem to struggle, especially on the homepage. Homepage has always been a sensitive topic because each internal department has an input on what needs to go on the page, often resulting in an extremely cluttered, banner-heavy homepage with a dizzying number of messages. If you’ve managed to confuse your customer on your homepage, you’ve already failed to provide a positive customer experience.

One of the best ways to understand how your customers react to the site’s design and layout is to conduct an eye tracking study. Eye tracking helps retailers step inside the minds of their customers to see what their customer is viewing. This helps identify whether key call-outs, promotions, or functionality are being missed due to poor design or page layout.

Lack of important site features was a surprising find during the consultations. Many of the sites I evaluated did not have features that are considered “must haves” in today’s competitive landscape.  It’s hard for retailers to constantly stay ahead of the curve, while attending to their “day jobs”. However, it is still important to maintain a full grasp of where your site stands against your competitors’ and other best-of-breed sites. Many were in need of a site assessment coupled with a competitive analysis in order to identify usability issues and receive a prioritized list of recommendations.

There is no substitute to bringing in a fresh pair of eyes, be it experts or users, to get a clean perspective on how to optimize the site. We are glad to see that retailers are embracing the need to refocus on the basics to ensure a positive shopping experience for their customers, which undoubtedly will pay back ten-fold.


  • Card Sorting: Don’t overwhelm the user by asking them to organize a large set of subcategories. User fatigue can have a detrimental impact to card sorting (and other usability tests), so try your best to limit the number of products (cards) in the test.
  • Site Assessment: After conducting a site assessment, make changes incrementally so you can test and gather data about specifically what worked and what didn’t (if you make all your changes at once, you won’t know which changes had positive/negative impact).
  • Eye tracking: By keeping your test concise and focused, it allows you to incorporate a few competitors’ sites in your test. This is a great way to see how users react to your competitors’ sites.