Amazon’s Web Design – the good, the bad, and the ugly

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Amazon knows how to sell anything online and is one of leaders of ecommerce. Despite their success, designers argue the quality of Amazon’s design and user experience.

Most of the time I am a large advocate for following the “big guys”. The large companies spend thousands of dollars per year into doing research and testing. They should know what works and what does not.

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After being the model of design to follow for years, they have fallen behind. Amazon’s usability has been decreasing as web functions increase. Though the design appears to work for Amazon, it is downright ugly.

How is a site, that many believe to have terrible usability and design, a leading giant in ecommerce? What makes the website good and bad?

I am going to share with you aspects of Amazon’s design that are good, bad and ugly. How these aspects work for them and why you should not copy their model.

The Good

I thought I might make this article into a criticism sandwich.

You know those days when when your mom and teacher told you to be polite in giving negative criticism?

You would have to say one nice thing about the person, then give them the criticism. But be sure to follow up with a positive aspect about the person so you do not hurt their feelings.

I never listened to my teacher or mom well. I am just going to be forward and blunt by talking about the good all the way down to the ugly. So what aspects of Amazon’s site do designers and I consider good?

Tailored Content

I love to shop on Amazon because of their ability to display relevant products I am interested in. When I visit Amazon’s homepage, I am greeted with a custom page filled with products that are a good fit for me.

I can scroll-down the homepage and see all the books I know I would enjoy.

This idea of showing content that is relevant to the user is a shift consumers will continue to see on the web. The idea is to deliver relevant content to the user at exactly the time they need it, I call it tailoring content.

Aside from the homepage, you can see tailored content when you click on a product and go to check out. Amazon is a good model for creating plenty of  relevant opportunities to up-sell or cross-sell to the user.

Comprehensive Product Selection

One aspect that makes Amazon successful is their ability to sell almost anything online. Later, I will discuss how this is also a negative aspect of their design.

Amazon sells books to unicorn meat. No I am not kidding about the unicorn meat. There are some strange and unique items for sale on Amazon. Go look them up yourself.

Many ecommerce sites claim to have an abundant selection, but they almost never do. At least, not when compared to Amazon.

The Bad

Enough with the good. It is time for the punches and hateful words. We are going to examine some of the bad aspects of Amazon’s design and user experience.

Terrible Information Hierarchy

When I read a product page on Amazon, I feel as if my eyes are walking through a subway system in New York during rush hour.

My eyes bump into different words without apologizing because the content is too crowded. They get lost trying to find a sense of flow, but are never able to follow a simple path.

The cluttered information creates a lack of focus for users. The ability to lead your customers is critical in your ability to sell.

The overwhelming information on Amazon’s pages makes you ask, “What should I read first? The reviews? The summary? Something else?”

The moment your customer has to ask is the moment you lost them. Most users will exit your site and go elsewhere for a more convenient experience.

Amazon can get away with this because they have a large selection of products and are a well-known brand.

But for any other website, your customers will close the page if they are not led to their intended actions.

Lousy User Interface

Amazon found its success in selling books. They have become a retail behemoth by selling millions of products to a generic audience.

As a result, Amazon’s user interface has suffered. Their specialized products and selling platform are ugly.

If you check out any specialized product like a TV, the interface does not allow you to learn much about the TV. You have to pull out a measuring tape to get an idea of the TV’s dimensions. You have to somehow visualize the picture and sound quality.

Unless you know what the TV already looks like, you are going to have a hard time purchasing the TV through Amazon. Yet, that does not stop them from trying to sell everything.

This problem is not exclusive to Amazon, but I mentioned it because it does affect their design. Their lack of interface does not allow users to know much about specialized products.

The other lousy aspect of their user interface is their generic selling platform. It does not cater to a specific audience, it is plain, and it is often times boring. Since Amazon has a wide range of customers they have to make their user interface generic.

So I am sure this generic interface and design works for them. For most ecommerce stores this is not recommended.

For example, Nike sells athletic clothing and shoes.  Their site’s design and user interface is all about being active, physical, and sports.

The models and people on the website are all athletic, in good shape, and young. There is a sense of pride, commitment, and victory as you browse their website. These are feelings that are often associated with sports and athletic competitions.

Amazon does not have anything even close to that. They do not have a site optimized for selling books, electronics, or clothes. It is generic and if it was not for their big name, users would be less likely to buy from them.

The Ugly

Some aspects of Amazon’s user experience and design leave me scratching my head.

One of those aspects is their use of sponsored links and ads on their site.

Ads to Cannibalize its Sales

Browse through Amazon’s site and I am sure you will see an ad for something. You will find ads for the exact product you are on Amazon buying. For example, if you want to buy fountain pens, it is not uncommon to see an ad for a fountain pen on the product page.

Amazon created a business model that could cannibalize their sales. The ads draw customers from their site and send them to a competitor’s site.

They end up getting paid for the ads rather than selling the product.

I do not recommend this for anyone’s site design, but I see it all too often.

Summary

Amazon is a leader in retail and they spend millions of dollars per year testing their site. Even though I have some negative feelings about their site design, it must be working well for them.

There are several rules of web design that Amazon does not follow, but when you are a large brand, you can bend the rules.

For most websites though, they are not the best site to copy. You have a different audience and likely sell different products. It is important to test your site design.

What do you think about Amazon’s site design? Is it good or bad?

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