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Design

Amazon Got Rich on These 4 Design Principles and You Could Too

At their core all great shopping experiences are helpful, transparent, tangible and trustworthy.
Amazon Got Rich on These 4 Design Principles and You Could Too
Image credit: Jaap Arriens | Getty Images
9 min read

Amazon’s domination reinforces a theory that is sometimes difficult to digest in the design community: successful design experiences do not always have to be beautiful. Design is subjective, of course. Ecommerce entrepreneurs should understand the following shopping experience design principles.

Amazon is by far the most influential player when it comes to forces driving the most impactful and important alterations made in the arena of commerce and its digital transformation. An estimated 44 percent of all online sales take place on Amazon, and more than one-third of American adults are estimated to be members of Amazon Prime. The ecommerce behemoth made over $5.6 billion in profits last year, with a big growth focus on increasing their subscription revenue. According to a recent analysis by Consumer Intelligence Research Partners (CIRP) “95 percent of Prime members reported that they would “definitely” or “probably” renew their Prime membership.”

Despite such profitable numbers, very few experts credit the immense role that design has contributed to the company’s massive success. If you take a look at Amazon’s famous leadership principles, there are only two principles which mention the “designerly” way of developing products and services: “Customer Obsession” and “Invent and Simplify. These two guidelines are focused on simplicity of experience, process and functionality. For many designers, even the idea of an experience in which Amazon’s visual complexity succeeds is perplexing. So, how might a user interface software or how might a graphic designer view Amazon in a fashion which helps them understand why it Amazon’s process works despite a lack in visual aesthetic area?

Amazon’s design works because it makes use of four key principles that of all good shopping experiences, regardless if they are digital or physical, luxury or low-cost. At their core all great shopping experiences are helpful, transparent, tangible, and trustworthy. Read on for more detail.

Related: 10 Tips for Web Design That Drives Sales

1. Helpful

Consumers do not always know what they want, or how to get what they need. Great shopping experiences anticipate their challenges and anticipate people’s questions. Just as the product description or detail page is able to accommodate a diversity of product info, Amazon’s faceted search interface (the left column of filters and category navigation) scales and seamlessly adapts to give users contextual choices, so those users can find just what is being searched for.

Like the product display page, the faceted search experience hurts itself in certain moments by not being perfectly tailored to category-specific needs, such as comparing the tools provided by Amazon to search for shoes compared to (Amazon-owned) Zappo’s shoe-specific navigation. Amazon compensates for these inadequacies with a consistency of experience that allows users to move easily through the system to find what they are looking for without needing to learn new interaction patterns.

Related: Why It's Nearly Impossible To Stop This Amazon and eBay Scheme

2. Transparent

A good shopping experience makes pricing and the purchase process clear and simple to understand. At first glance, an experience on Amazon does not appear to be transparent.

However, If you consider its dynamic pricing model, it is similar to Uber’s infamous surge pricing, or the more familiar dynamic pricing of booking a flight and hotels, that afflict travelers. Amazon has been criticized for a lack of transparency and, in the past, ramifications due to lack of transparency led to fines. Now while most consumers are not big fans of dynamic pricing, they have also become accustomed to conducting their own research to make sure they get the best price available; this way of dynamic pricing is not unique to Amazon.

So, why might users give Amazon a free pass on its dynamic pricing? One possible reason is that Amazon, with the launch of its Prime service, has solved two important obstacles of shopping online: eliminating the hidden cost of shipping and the perception that shopping online is slower than shopping in a brick-and-mortar retail store. Prime succeeds because it is designed to be mentally effortless: pay a yearly fee and get free two-day shipping (with Oscar-worthy movies included).

The transparency of Prime’s mental model is what empowers Amazon’s most notable interaction design achievements for shopping: the simplicity and elegance of Amazon’s recently expired patent on one-click purchases, which laid the groundwork for shopping by voice on Alexa, as well as the interactive design of Amazon’s dash buttons.

Related: How to Go Green With Carbon-Neutral Shipping

3. Tangible

When shoppers have a choice between many product options or variations of a product, successful shopping experiences make those product choices tangible and immediate. Hence, consumers appreciate this trend as it allows for them to be more confident and educated when making choices.

It’s quite remarkable what Amazon’s product display pages aim to achieve: helping consumers understand the benefits or attributes of any type of product for purchase. If you go to an ecommerce website that only sells a single type of product --  think shoes, clothing, automotive parts, pet supplies -- that site has the luxury of tailoring its experience to the particular attributes of the products it sells. In contrast, Amazon is designed to sell nearly every product imaginable. This means that product display pages and result listings are not as streamlined, elegant or as closely fit for a purpose as a category specific or brand website.

Amazon turns this seeming disadvantage into an asset: every single product display page uses the same modules and underlying structure. This creates a consistency of experience that makes it easy for users to quickly understand the features of any product.

Related: This Small Business Saturday, I'm Shopping at Amazon

4. Trustworthy     

Consumers want to be confident the store they do business with is upfront. As a storefront that manages not only first party sales ( meaning things Amazon sells itself) but also manages third-party sales (Amazon’s marketplace stake makes up nearly half of its sales), Amazon has a never-ending challenge in designing a consistent user experience that delivers on its promises. One of the things that especially annoying with Amazon’s shopping experience is when a search produces results of an item available from multiple sellers (which is not unusual): which seller is most reliable or trustworthy? Which one includes shipping, which does not? Which is rated by users as reliable? It sometimes takes a lot of work to sort through all the options to make an informed choice.

There is gripping logic at play here: Amazon has conscientiously avoided giving those sellers or vendors clear storefronts of their own. By contrast, Etsy and eBay actually help its vendors set up unique ecommerce storefronts. On Amazon, the user is always just shopping on Amazon; the marketplace sellers might only be seen as Mechanical Turk workers for the procurement and delivery of goods that Amazon has not (yet) cornered. It is similar to how uber and Lyft drivers might be viewed as transitional labor force, while companies wait for self-driving cars to be available at a sustainable and feasible scale.

Amazon is betting that the potential confusion and additional burden placed on users presented by Marketplace goods integrated with first-party offers will allow a consistent experience in other areas where user challenges present a much larger risk: delivery and returns. When you buy something through Amazon, whether directly or through the Marketplace, you feel as though you have bought from Amazon directly. That enables Amazon to extend Prime’s two-day shipping to third parties, as well as unify the returns process, both of which are designed to build fundamental trust with the user around whatever they purchase on Amazon. This would be much harder for them to accomplish if Amazon allowed third-party sellers to curate the experience with greater control.      

The famous German industrial designer Dieter Rams once said “Good design makes a product less useful.” Amazon’s visual interface design may not be beautiful, streamlined, minimal or engage users on an emotional level, but it is tremendously useful. Its core functionality and corresponding aesthetic are designed expressly to support key features of an efficient shopping experience.

Indeed, Amazon could almost be thought of as a sort of digital brutalism: it is direct and efficient, with a near-utopian aspiration to meet people’s needs in the least fussy way possible. Amazon’s unbelievable success brings into relief a principle that is occasionally difficult to swallow in the design community: successful design is not always considered beautiful.

Of course, the belief that design is simply an aesthetic exercise was debunked years ago, with the canonization of research design thinking as a widely adopted design practice. Yet it can still be a challenge to accept that a good design "user experience" may not be aesthetic. To examine Amazon’s success through the lens of design requires looking at the design of the backend systems below the interface as much as its surface. Though Anazon does get much credit or recognition, its design ethos has undoubtedly made as much of an impact on the world as Apple or IKEA, which are more famous for their design.

It would be foolish to look at Amazon and think that design does not matter. IThe design principles Amazon has relied on to craft its (UX) experience are also areas of opportunity for competitors. Each of the principles mentioned in this article describes what people value in a shopping experience.

Amazon keeps barreling into new sectors. Can it stick to its principles as the company keeps on growing with no foreseeable slowdown? Now is the perfect time for other ecommerce and retail companies (we're talking about you, Walmart) to innovate and create a better and more satisfying experience.

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