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It’s not your fault online shopping is confusing. It’s a design problem.

We analyzed the best and worst of Amazon, REI, and Walmart.

A woman throws her hands up in front of a computer.
Isn’t online shopping the worst sometimes?
Blend Images/Getty Images

Say you’re planning to buy a bottle of Bioderma face cleanser off the internet. You type “Bioderma” into the search bar and find your product, but then your eye strays downward to Amazon’s suggestion that you pair it with a “moisturizing eye contour gel cream.” While you suspect that your regular face moisturizer is just fine for your eye area, who are you to fight the French skin care establishment? You put it in your cart too.

Online, we buy what we buy by design — that is, because designers organize shoppers’ experience in a particular way, to make it as easy and delightful for customers as possible, but also to optimize it for their employers’ bottom line.

User experience (UX) design is about improving users’ interaction with a given product. In the spring and early summer of 2015, word got out that a 64-year-old woman named Pam Allen was giving web designers feedback on the usability of their sites for $75 a pop. “The User Is My Mom,” facilitated by Pam’s son Scotty and his friend Richard Littauer (previously the creator and guinea pig of “The User Is Drunk”), was intended to help developers design for people of all tech abilities.

As Scotty Allen wrote on the venture’s website, “My mom tutors high school students and likes quilting and hiking. She yells at her computer, doesn’t know what a twitter is, and struggles to find windows she’s minimized.” In other words, she’s like users everywhere.

Because the world of e-commerce is rapidly evolving — have you heard that Amazon is delivering live Christmas trees now? — I decided to take a tour of the internet with Allen, who is now 68, to hear what she appreciates and hates. Over the course of nearly two hours, we visited the websites of Whole Foods, Amazon, Walmart, Ikea, and REI — REI simply because it’s one of her regular haunts. Littauer was also on the Google Hangout, to give occasional pointers and offer his own feedback on the sites’ design.

The e-commerce pain points that arose during our conversation are not unique to Allen, of course, nor are they exclusive to the websites we looked at. To help provide some context about why these features are the way they are, I also called up Randy Gregory II, a former e-commerce designer for U-Haul who now works as a senior designer at IBM Watson Health.

From moving carousels to sidebar filters, here’s the good and the annoying of online shopping, according to Pam Allen.

Scrolling isn’t intuitive for everyone

When Allen started reviewing websites, she focused on navigating via clickable product categories, as there are at the top of REI’s website. If there wasn’t much to click on, however, she’d be stymied because she didn’t know to scroll down the page. Today, scrolling is much more intuitive for her.

“I totally understand her,” says Gregory. “If a company doesn’t give you enough reason to scroll, then that’s a big problem.”

Designers can do a few things to ensure that customers scroll to look at what’s “below the fold,” to put it in newspaper terms. Just above the scroll, REI has placed a small graphic — an upside-down version of its mountain logo — which, like an arrow, draws the eye downward. Designers can also slice a photograph or word laterally so that a portion of it peeks out above the scroll.

“That’s done on purpose. You’d think it’s a mistake, but it makes you realize that there’s more stuff because it’s an unfinished word,” says Gregory.

Videos on product pages can be great, as long as they don’t autoplay

As someone who buys technical outdoors equipment, Allen enjoys watching product videos that show off an item’s features.

“I also like when clothing stores have videos. I know Soft Surroundings does videos sometimes, so you can see people wearing it and you can see how the clothes move,” she says. “Because, I mean, when you’re looking at a static picture, I can’t understand how it might wear.”

When it comes to e-commerce, it’s rarely a bad idea to provide a product video, Gregory says, simply because there will always be a shopper who wants it. But it should never autoplay.

“You want the user to have choice,” he says. “I’m all about giving people as much power as possible because people are way smarter than we think they are.”

Reviews: maybe not to be trusted?

For technical products, Allen will often read reviews on third-party sites. She doesn’t trust that stores don’t screen their reviews and bury the negative comments.

“I just bought a sewing machine for my son and daughter-in-law — they are traveling in a truck and trailer and living full-time there. They wanted to be able to repair their clothes because they don’t own very many. I didn’t want one that was going to break, so I went on sort of a generic review site to try and get that, rather than [on a website] that’s trying to push a particular brand,” she says.

Gregory says there may be some weight to that. On Amazon, he’s come across tech reviewers who say they received a given product as a promotion from the company, which is something to be wary of.

Moving carousels are the worst

If there is a moving carousel or ad on an e-commerce site, Allen will literally take Post-it notes and cover up those portions of the screen. She hates busy, animated design: “It’s so distracting, and I’m completely distractible.”

It’s easy to see why companies think rotating carousels are a splendid idea: Many of them have hundreds or thousands of items for sale, and they want to make visitors aware of them. While that logic probably made sense at one time, Gregory suspects that online shoppers have evolved past that point.

“I don’t think we need [carousels] anymore, to be honest,” he says. “I feel like as purchasers, we know what we want, and we know how to try to look for it. I can’t remember the last time I clicked on an animated sliding widget, and I used to put those on client websites.”

Carousels that the user can spin through at their leisure are probably a better idea (Pam, for one, doesn’t mind those at all). Amazon has a non-automated sliding feature on its homepage for items “Trending near you” that shoppers can toggle to the left or right. As with product videos that don’t start playing automatically, this signals a degree of respect for the user.

“Once again, it puts the power in my hands, and it treats me as a responsible adult,” says Gregory of Amazon’s slider. “I think that’s way nicer.”

Product filtering is necessary

While Allen was perusing Walmart’s site, she noted that she appreciated the left-hand sidebar sorting products by specs like price and color.

“I like that because you’re not looking at everything. You’re not looking at gray towels if you don’t want gray towels,” she says, adding that she might not think to scroll down to see all of the sorting options but would probably notice them while looking at the products themselves. “So good enough.”

As you might expect, this feature is a result of the sheer volume of product on online, says Gregory. Users need to be able to winnow it down.

There are good and bad ways to upsell a shopper

Despite the fact that Allen doesn’t do a ton of shopping, she wants e-commerce sites to keep trying to sell her stuff after she’s put something in her shopping cart.

“[One] thing I’ve run into is you put something in your cart and then they assume you’re going to check out,” Allen says. “I think it’s the dumbest thing to not say ‘Continue shopping’ as an option. Some do and some don’t, and when they don’t, that’s the stupidest thing because, you know, it’s a lot of work to get back where [I was], and you just lost an opportunity to sell me something more.”

Amazon, for example, isn’t about to waste that opportunity. If you add a book to your cart, the page will refresh with a host of recommendations for other books you may like and items that other people bought in conjunction with the same product.

This raises the related question of how best to upsell a shopper online. According to Gregory, there are good ways to do it and scummy alternatives. The latter are known as “dark patterns,” which trick shoppers into buying things they didn’t mean to — by, say, asking if they want to add upgrades to a plane ticket they just purchased and making “Yes” a big green button and “No” a small gray button.

In e-commerce, as in life, it is far better to be upfront about your business. That’s a matter of respect for the customer, which is in turn one of the key takeaways from my conversation with Gregory. For UX designers, it’s wise to remember that users are smart, thinking people, and to offer them as much control over their e-commerce experience as possible. Our taste in consumer products may be algorithmically dictated, but we still want to feel like we’re in charge of our shopping destiny.

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