Why Aren’t More Large eCommerce Sites Investing in Responsive Design?

by Andrew Rivera, Director of User Experience @WalmartLabs

Is Responsive Design Right for eCommerce?

Most fully responsive sites have one thing in common: they aren’t selling anything. If they are ecommerce sites, they’re small: Indochino and Skinny Ties are both examples of niche retailers that have responsive sites.

Some large ecommerce sites are slowly adopting responsive capabilities. Amazon has tablet-specific features, and Land’s End is responsive, but most other large-scale retailers are not. Some of it is due to the size of the undertaking—to go responsive, you have to rebuild your site from scratch. They may also have more pressing issues to contend with. After all, customers aren’t beating down doors demanding responsive sites. They want retailers to get better at more fundamental things: faster delivery and lower prices.

So, we’ve taken a different approach to answering the question of whether or not we should develop a responsive site. We know that customers come to our site with specific tasks in mind, and they want to accomplish those tasks as quickly and efficiently as possible. We need to deliver an experience that is fast, contextual, consistent, and easy to use, and if responsive design helps us do that, so much the better.

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Speed matters

Customers are short on time and have small windows of opportunity to get things done. They demand a fast-loading experience on smartphone, desktop and tablet.

According to recent end-user research by Gomez and Akamai, the majority of smartphone users expect a page to load in 3 seconds or less.  That’s hard enough on a code base that is optimized for mobile, let alone a responsive code base.

Context: Anticipating customer needs

Customers expect us to know what they’re trying to accomplish. We know from our research that customers use multiple devices to buy. A typical customer journey can begin with rigorous spec-driven research on a desktop, or relaxed browsing on a tablet, or just-in-time pricing confirmation on a smartphone. Their context can be based on the device, but can include physical location, preferences, and other factors.

Consistency: Creating a seamless experience

Customers don’t want to learn a completely different system for desktop, tablet, or phone. We’ve seen users open the full site on their mobile, and pinch and zoom to navigate because they’re familiar with the interactions and want to be sure they’re getting the same content and access to products.

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Ease of use: More than simple, intuitive interaction

Easy to use means more than just a simple interaction; it means that we’re solving customer needs. Our customers aren’t interested in our org charts—they want to get something done and move on to the next task.

How can responsive design help us build a fast, consistent, easy to use site?

Many responsive design advocates also argue for a “mobile first” approach—when you design for a mobile site first, the constraints of the small screen force you to prioritize and make hard choices about what you show the user. If you design for mobile first on a responsive site, you’ll get the benefits of prioritization and clarity on larger devices.

Responsive sites are built on a single codebase, which should help foster consistency, because features are released simultaneously across devices. And the experience will be similar across devices—the item page on the phone will be the same item page on the tablet or desktop.

That leaves “fast,” and this can be of concern in responsive sites—on a mobile device, users may download unnecessary code or images that are not optimized for lower bandwidths and smaller screens. There are methods, such as conditional loading, to optimize responsive sites for mobile, but design, technology, and business will need to collaborate to ensure that a fast experience remains a priority.

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Our approach: Plan for the future, without leaving current customers behind

Our approach is to solve for our largest sources of traffic and revenue, while developing a flexible foundation to support smartphone going forward. Using traffic and revenue as our guideposts, we are taking a tablet first approach to ensure we provide customers with an excellent tablet experience that translates well to desktop.

But there are some fundamental questions we need to answer to ensure responsive is the right approach for us:

We need to offer a fast experience on smaller devices that have less processing power and access lower bandwidth networks. This is primarily a task for engineering, but design, product and business can help.

We need to gain insight into how customers convert on the different platforms and think through how responsive design can help improve conversion.

Finally, we know that customers can move from device to device during a typical shopping trip. We need to do more investigation into how this impacts the user experience.

The good news is that we’re learning more about responsive from our fellow associates. Walmart.ca launched a responsive site almost a year ago, and Walmart To Go is in the process of building a responsive site now. The lessons they’ve learned will help us build a site that meets our customers’ needs.