UX Design

By Tom Deutsch, VP Creative Services at InteractOne

As if being in the relatively brand-new field of eCommerce weren’t enough of a “brave new world” for retail businesses, the rise of mobile has left us all scrambling to keep up and stay relevant.

Responsive eCommerce has charged to the forefront in the last couple years as the dominant approach to present full content and capability to customers anytime, anywhere. The reality of having one site and one database to administer, plus the powerful stamp of approval Google has given to the technology, has launched a thousand well-intentioned responsive theme installations. Unfortunately, these rapid adoptions of responsive means a lot of merchants are walking barefoot along the cutting edge.

The problem is, responsive has forced a change in the way we build websites, but not yet in how we conceive, design or manage them.

Sure, there are opinions and assertions about mobile-first design, which is a start, but the business case for re-tooling design and development of responsive eCommerce has been largely ignored. We all need to be talking and thinking about design in a different way. We need to stop planning our eCommerce sites the way we plan our living rooms: “this matches that” and “such and such looks nice over here.”

Modular design begins to approach a solution. The problem is that every element in modular design is nothing but a smaller page. And do we really want our sites looking like a bunch of multi-colored post-it notes or a stack of pancakes? Too often, using the “modular” approach has resulted in mediocrity – at least from a design and UX perspective.

Where do we go from here?

We’re all obviously managing to order socks and sunglasses, auto parts and movies from our desktops, tablets, phones and phablets. But there is no debating that “we all”  (meaning everyone from the merchant to the designer to the platform and theme developers) still have a lot to learn about how to conceive, design, build and serve responsive (or adaptive) eCommerce sites.

Expectations have to be adjusted – not only with the fudging that goes on between mockups and code, but also regarding the flexibility of displayed elements. Changes that would have been relatively simple on a non-responsive site, like moving a button “just a bit to the right or left” of another element, will provoke a symphony of sighs, hems and haws from a front-end responsive programmer. It seems so simple, but when you look at how responsive code treats design elements – percentages and grids vs pixel measurements – the dilemma clears up.

Planning is Paramount

So how do you plan a responsive site … um … responsibly? The days of showing a developer a couple of flat-file designs or your “brand assets guide” are gone. Building a responsive Magento site, for instance, requires earlier and much more extensive wire-framing and collaboration among the business requirement folks, the design team and especially the front- and back-end developers. Clean code is more important than ever and yet hacking – as a shortcut – is more tempting than ever.

Neglect the planning and end up with a slow, expensive website you can’t update.

Designers need to understand how their specifications will translate into code, and the peculiarities of the platform or theme they are using. They can’t do that in a vacuum and it won’t happen during one or two meetings. Responsive first, yes. Second, move quickly to mapping out the UX and the likely pathways to that ideal experience, making sure your design has a natural place for each of these steps, on every device. Third: the details are more important than ever – consistency in font choice and use, isolation areas and insets are some of the most neglected and most important responsive design guidelines you have.

Bottom Line

Responsive and adaptive design, as we know it today, is still in relative infancy. The platforms and themes will improve. The designers will innovate. The developers will streamline. The enormous cross-browser issues will come to a head and resolve somehow. We’ve definitely not arrived at responsive Nirvana yet, and getting there should be a blast.