How are people still so bad with shopping web sites?

So I am on this site earlier looking for some parts. It looks rather dated but I am there for the shopping and don’t mind the look-and-feel too much. Looking at the company who supplied the site, they look like they have some decent sites out there so I can only assume this was something written 10 years ago, and like so many sites, it never gets updated. Why? The customer has already paid for it haven’t they? The supplier isn’t going to bankroll a rewrite so it just stays forever.

So what was wrong? Well, for me, there are two really important things to shopping sites:

  1. Finding what you want, especially when there are lots of options/parts
  2. Having a nice flow to your journey so that you can efficiently get from start to checkout

This site, as with many others are failing badly at this.

The browse home page

Firstly, when someone first arrives at your shopping site, they may or may not have a relationship with you but you better plan for them being completely new. Why? I know Builders Merchants in real life that are incredibly intimidating for people who are new shoppers. Do I order in the shop or in the yard? Who do I need to ask? etc. Same with a website, You get to the home page and want to find certain parts so at least they have a single top-level menu called “Parts and Accessories”.

But now what? A large page of 42 image buttons for each of the 42 categories. You know, “Brake parts”, “Chassis parts”. You probably know the problem here: overlap of categories. Where would I look for a brake caliper bracket? “Brake parts” or “Chassis parts”? Why is there “Security locks” as well as “Handles and locks”? Now this might not be the supplier’s fault but if you run a physical shop and you had confusing signs, people would quickly tell you how confusing it is or otherwise they might simply ask, something that is not easy on a website.


How many times do searches work out what you are looking for properly? On some sites, you type something like “lock” and get 85,000 search results, which anyone should know is entirely too many. A search engine, if it was even working correctly, should know and rank “Single word exact matches”, “Multiple word exact matches”, “Partial word matches e.g. locking for lock”, “Any other kind of fluffy or categoric searches”. If you are searching for “lock”, there is no universe where you are actually looking for “Bike carrier with lock”

A second kind of problem, as with the site I am discussing, is when all of the results don’t come up. My mum told me the other day that she saw a product in a “feature” panel on one site and when she decided to search for it later, “0 results”. She called them on the phone (very kind of her!) and told them and they initially responded that they didn’t have it (because they used the same search box), after protesting, they realised that they did and for unexplained reasons, the search engine couldn’t find it. Goodbye profit. Most of the time, you won’t know that they have something so if the search says no, you have lost a customer. The same with this site, search returns not many results although they all seem to include the word “lock” so possibly they have another problem since I know there is something missing from the results!

Fuzzy search can be a cool trick to lookup things that aren’t an exact match but match a common category, common misspellings or alternative names for the same thing e.g. hammer/mallet (I know they are strictly different but Joe Public might not!). But this is not an excuse for poor thought going into titles and descriptions. The part I expected to see in the results is “Black T Handle with gasket & 2 keys”. This is a mix of numbers, words and punctuation symbols and mistakenly does not use a hypen for “t-handle”. Search for “t-handle”? no results! It also has a lock “hence two keys” but rather than calling it e.g. “Locking T-handle”, it forgoes that description so anyone looking for this item thinking it is actually a lock is going to be disappointed because there won’t be any in the results.

Lack of information

One pet peeve recently has been trying to order parts from the web, like locks, which you simply cannot get for a reasonable price (or at all), “on the high street”. You need to know the critical dimensions and for some reason, the site doesn’t even have a basic engineering drawing. They might have some very basic facts like “25 x 70mm” but not the clearance, tolerances etc. Again, this is laxy and is down to the website owner (usually) to open the items they stock, photograph the instructions and upload them as an image. They also need to talk to their suppliers about whether there are no engineering drawings supplied - why not?

One of the parts I looked at had the usual bullet-points “8mm diameter spindle” but the other part it needed to mate with did not so I had to write an email. Could I have simply gone elsewhere? Yes. Did they update the description now I have pointed this out? Yes they did!

Add to basket

So if I am shopping in real life and add something to my basket, I do not get carried away to the checkouts and then asked if I want to pay or to go back to where I was, I stay where I am because there is a chance I am buying multiple things from the same place. So a very basic design pattern is to show “added to basket” perhaps as a popup of some kind with the option to ignore it or “Go to checkout”, which I can do any time I want anyway because the icon is always there. So going to the basket after adding something WITH NO WAY BACK TO WHERE I WAS, is about as crazy bad as you can imagine. You feel like giving up, especially if it took you a while to find the parts you wanted.

Poor filters

Some sites sell very large numbers of the same item (electronic components, DIY tools) and so filtering is a must. I can click to the screwdrivers category but I can’t easily just use browsing to refine it any more. Ultimately, I want to filter down to e.g. “Pozidrive”, “Number 2” etc and get a usable list of items. Despite this, many sites still either lack this feature completely or the items they are selling do not have their metadata complete. What does that mean? If a screwdriver does not have “Number 2” associated with it, I will never see it using the filters. In the case of a DIY shop, there should be no excuse. Every time you add a new item to your inventory, it doesn’t take much imagination to 1) Know all of the relevant piece of data and 2) If you don’t look at the data for the other items of the same type to see what you are missing.

Did you mean

This is a very useful nice-to-have. How many of you type a word into Google that you don’t know how to spell like “Catargh” (or however it’s spelled) and get Google to say, “did you mean Catarrh”! The same is true of a shopping site. If you spoke to a person and asked for a fozidrive screwdriver, the Shop Assistant would hopefully know that you meant “Pozidrive” and send you in the correct direction. The same should be true of any serious shopping site. You aboslutely must monitor any failed searches and if you see something that is often typed in wrongly (a misspelling like Pozzidrive) then you should be able to link that search term to the correct term and start returning results. You also get some nice information about what people might be looking for on your site as an idea for a new stock item!

So what do we do about it?

I think firstly, the website supplier industry needs to be more mature. If you are a generic website builder and someone asks for a shopping site, the answer should default to, “use a specialised shopping site”. It should also be hosted by default so updates can be made across all sites automatically as things change like payment regulations or Accessibility laws. People in the UK seem to hate renting something but why not? You are happy to make money from your shop so why not pay part of it to the people who will hopefully be creating lots of happy customers.

Likewise, website customers need to be aware that paying a fixed amount for a site is not practical after several years since updating webapps is ongoing and you won’t get that for free. Too many sites (that might have cost a small fortune) are still in existence that have no accessibility (potentially unlawfully), might have out of date security patches, have older payment providers and might even be breaking some laws with regards to looking after personal data correctly. They need to understand that in most places, they should just use Magento/Shopify/Whatever and get people who are specialists in online shops.

Developers play a part in this too. If our boss tells us to build a shopping site from scratch, it will never be value for money because we will need to re-invent things that have already been implemented 1000s of times before. We then create something that is usually inferior and will not maintain itself over the long-term. We will create a sub-standard experience for our customer’s customers and therefore not make it worthwhile. Just like a professional builder should not take on a specialist job they have never done before without levelling with their customer, so development companies need to stop the “Marketing = Lies” mentality that exists in some places and instead be professional with what they don’t do as much as what they do.