In many ways, building your eCommerce website is like designing your dream home. You want the stained glass windows, vaulted ceilings, and the bathrooms with heated floor tiles—but before you get to that, you need to make sure the roof doesn’t leak. The same philosophy holds true when creating a website that’s built to sell: you need a sturdy foundation of eCommerce website features before you chase the fancy stuff.
It can be tempting to start looking at website themes, designs, and header images first, but when you’re getting started, it’s best to build from the ground up. A stable foundation starts with the following collection of non-negotiable eCommerce web design features.
Absolutely, 100% Necessary eCommerce Website Features You Cannot Skip
The following three online store website features are vital to get right no matter what product or service you sell online, period. Think of them as the plumbing, electrical, and walls of your dream house. You probably take them for granted, until they’re not there, and it’s possible they haven’t even made your “features I want” list. But they deserve a front-and-center spot, as you’ll soon see.
Make sure your customers are protected.
No matter what you sell, you need to protect the data your customers give you. Their contact info, their credit card numbers, their email addresses; all of these data points need to be locked down by, at minimum, an HTTPS security feature. If you’re in the dark about what that is, we’ve got an article here for you that explains it and gives pointers on how to set it up.
Beyond that, you need to protect your own data, the bank accounts that store your funds, the logins for employees to access back-end services, and so on. Knowing that you’ve protected yourself from malicious forces needs to be checked off of the to-do list before you start considering colors and whether or not to use a header video.
If you get hacked and have to send the dreaded “unfortunately, you need to get a new debit card” email, your customers are going to evaporate like morning dew in Death Valley.
Make sure your customers have access.
If you decided to forgo a staircase in your dream house because a rock wall sounded cooler, great grandma is going to have a rough time visiting for Christmas. In the same way, you need to make your site accessible to every potential customer, regardless of the device they’re using or their level of accessibility.
Again, this may not be something you’d initially consider when setting your business up, but making sure your eCommerce site is compatible with the devices used by your customers is critical if you want to succeed. If your site only works on desktop, you’re missing out on millions of potential customers who use their phones and tablets to shop. You’ve got the same problem if you only design for iPhones and not Android devices. You’re basically telling your customers they can only pay by mailing you a check or a money order. Eugh.
You need to make sure your eCommerce website delivers the optimum user experience, regardless of the device your customer has. Just like you’d need to adhere to Americans with Disabilities Act requirements for having wheelchair access if you had a brick-and-mortar store, you need to adhere to the unwritten law of the internet: every site needs to be compatible with every device. Focusing on mobile-first web design solves a lot of the accessibility headaches that eCommerce businesses can have. Table stakes here is responsive design—but make sure any agency building your site goes well beyond the minimum.
Make sure your customers can get where they want to go.
Unless your last name is Winchester, you probably don’t want your dream house to feel like a maze, full of dead ends and staircases to nowhere. And when you’re designing an eCommerce website, the same rule applies: don’t build a maze. You want to get a customer from the home page to the product they’re interested in, to check out in as few clicks as possible. Conventional wisdom (at least from when this writer was in college) says that a customer should be able to get anywhere they want in three clicks or less.
Simple and easy-to-use navigation doesn’t just mean having a simple header and only one or two links; it means that everything from a product page to the ‘about us’ section is connected with links. You don’t want a customer to be confused about anything on your site, especially not about how to move around and find information. If they want to get your contact information, it should be easy to find. If they’re interested in learning more about your company’s history, that shouldn’t be buried under a dozen other pages. If they want to get to a product page and add it to their cart, that process needs to feel seamless.
Navigation design and information systems management are huge, intimidating subjects for the untrained; which is why we wrote this helpful primer for you if you want more information.
Beyond the Foundation: eCommerce Website Features You Need to Succeed
Beyond the three absolute essentials of security, compatibility, and navigation, which comprise the bones of our eCommerce dream house, there are three more features that, while not strictly necessary, are extraordinarily important for success in online business. In the same way that you could live in a house that has no furniture and no light fixtures, you can run an eCommerce business without the following—but we wouldn’t recommend it.
Data Collection and Analysis
A huge advantage of an eCommerce business is that you have access to a massive amount of data on your customers and the paths they took to arrive at your store. You can actively track their search history, which ads worked to get them to your site if they are connected with you on social media or not, and so on, all from the comfort of your couch. When somebody strolls into a Macy’s and buys some perfume, the company has no clue what brought that person in for that purchase. An online store, however, has access to a ton of data and can infer the answer, if not outright discover it.
Shopping Cart Design and Checkout
Cashflow is the blood that keeps an eCommerce store alive, and if customers aren’t buying, you’re not going to be in business long. The absolute worst thing that can happen is for a customer to decide to make a purchase, and then to become confused or frustrated by the checkout process. If they lose trust in the site’s security, become frustrated with the forms they have to fill out, or even if it takes too long to load, you can lose them completely.
As an eCommerce business, you should be dedicating some time to studying both the checkout process and the design of your shopping cart, focusing on the user’s interface and what the user experiences when they are trying to do a certain thing. Practice adding something to a card, then adding a duplicate; removing that duplicate, then changing the quantity, and write down where potential pain points are. Or, better yet, have a friend who doesn’t know your site well do it, and watch them and see where they struggle. While you know the ideal path for adding a product, setting a quantity, and finishing up a purchase observing someone not familiar with the process can provide valuable insights. Sometimes, those fresh pairs of eyes and actions can identify a new—perhaps even better—way of helping customers get to the checkout and thank you pages.
Product Pages and SEO
How your product pages are designed and the content that is on them has a huge impact not just on whether or not your customers buy your products, but on whether or not your customers even see them when using a search engine like Google or Bing. If your analytics (another reason why they’re so important!) is telling you that customers are arriving at a product page and then bouncing, it means you need to spend some time analyzing the pages and improving them. Product pages are your salespeople; they are pitching your item or service and trying to convince a customer to say yes and click “add to cart.” Their design, layout, the images used on them, and the copy on the page all work together to make this pitch, and if any of those elements are out of balance, it can spell disaster.
If you don’t have a clue about SEO beyond “you should do it,” we’ve got a breakdown for you right here.