The Influence of the Digital Interface: Spotlight on User Experience

Ever wonder whyou like to visit some websites over another? How some have features that are more intuitive or enjoyable to read? This isn’t the result of a guessing game, it’s the hard work of people like Billy Carlson, the Director of User Experience at Threadless.com.

What is Threadless?

Threadless is an online retailer. We sell mostly t-shirts, but other products like iPhone cases, wall art. But our unique business model is that we are crowd sourced design. So, anyone in the world can submit their design to our website, and then our community of over three million users will go on the site and vote for their favorite design with a score between 1-5. Each week, there’s a new set of submissions up for seven days, and then at the end of each cycle, the top vote-getting design gets printed and sold on our website.

You're being watched. Billy analyzes user experience on Threadless.com, to make your experience more seamless.
You’re being watched. Billy analyzes user experience on Threadless.com, to make your experience more seamless.

We are very community-focused, and we’re focused on not only our customers, but our artist base. And we’re very unique in the way that we try to do as much as we can to promote our artists and find the best way for them to monetize their artwork. For example, we currently have a whole line of greeting cards at Target. So we’re trying to branch away from not only Threadless.com, but trying to find great outlets for independent artists to monetize their artwork.

As we all know, a website is really the digital storefront for an organization in the e-commerce industry. Therefore, ease of use, the customer experience, and usability have to be really on point. What are your tips for improving these features to increase the pleasure experienced by your customers, so that they keep coming back and will be loyal and satisfied with their experience?

We’re very lucky, because we have a very vocal fan base of customers and artists. We hear a lot of feedback from them through our social media channels and they also email us. We have a huge forum on our website that gets so much use; there are so many users on there discussing what we do.

But on top of that, we also like to do usability tests; A/B tests for ideas. For example, we redesigned our homepage because we found that we had a promotional slider at the front and center, like many sites do, but users were not waiting to see the other slides, so it was sort of a waste. It was also very engineering-heavy. So we had the idea of the slider, we were taking a lot of time to support it with graphics and more and then when we redesigned it, we listened to our analytics from Google and also what our customers were telling us and we totally redesigned the homepage to be more effective. There are a lot of different areas that explain different parts of the website so it’s not just commerce-focused, it tells the customer about the artist and it gives the artist a chance to shine and hopefully to give them a little more promotion.

We try to listen and then learn. I think it’s pretty simple, but I think it’s also important to never stop iterating on a design. You should work on a design, analyze it, keep tweaking it and don’t stop. Don’t feel like it’s ever finished, I guess.

That leads me into my follow-up question, which is: how do you know when it’s time to update your user interface? And with these updates or these changes, and you mentioned that it was kind of engineering-heavy, how do you not throw off the functionality or what people are used to?

Yeah, that’s interesting. I think we’re always involved in a part of our site. And so, we worked heavily on the homepage for a while at the beginning of this year, and we’ve moved to other parts. And what we like to do is kind of cycle through.

So for instance, we spend a lot of time focusing on a section of the site and will continually do so. We will cycle through the entire site once annually to do major overhauls, but not every eighteen months. It’s typically, again, not only is it us determining if we would like to redesign something, maybe we don’t like the interface anymore. But we’ll listen to our customers and watch what their behavior is, and see if a design is the solution to fixing a usability. Sometimes it’s text-based, Using the proper words can really help change how a page is viewed by a user. A good example of that is that we redesigned our main navigation and titles of our sections our website in the fall of 2012. It was really marketing-heavy and called “make, pick, play, and shop.” But we found that a lot of our users didn’t really understand the difference between picking and shopping. The lesson learned was that sometimes, using clear, actionable copy is the best way to go. Sometimes you want to be a little fun, and sometimes you just need to get right to the point.

How important is the design of the interface to sales?

I think it’s very important to design a layout that properly guides the user into what; the purpose of a page is to learn about a product, and then hopefully select your sizes and options and buy it. You don’t want to bury anything. You want to make sure that you first think of the user’s experience, and then you try to layer on all the design layouts to match that.

I think it’s really important nowadays to be conscious of the different types of devices that people use to access your site and the different screen sizes. So you know, we’ve been moving slowly towards a responsive or adaptive website that, any type of device could view our website much easier than they could even like a year ago. But I think design, not only visual design, but the user experience design, is extremely important to making a great interface. It really helps guide your customers and your users to like, you know, what to do.

And we’re still always tweaking. Our product pages aren’t perfect yet. There’s still more we’d like to do. We’re getting there soon. But again, I think it’s always, think of your customers first. Think of making the actions that need to be put on the page very simple and clear. And then continue to iterate on that.

So I just want to switch gears a little bit, because this is what you’ll also be addressing at the conference, is the differences between marketing research and usability testing. So, could tell us maybe the benefits of usability testing if it’s executed correctly? And maybe explain what the correct way of implementing it?

Sure, we definitely like to test our new features to make sure that any assumptions are correct. So we’ll design an interface or a user experience in a certain way, and we’ll probably A/B test that with the current version to make sure that there is improvement in our users’ thought process while they’re using our product.

We are planning on redesigning our product page and we’ve made some assumptions and changed a lot of things. Our plan is to test each of these pages and make sure that we didn’t change something fundamentally that would confuse our users to buy it. I think it’s really important and it’s really easy nowadays to do usability testing. So I really don’t think there’s an excuse to not.

Could you give us an example of how leveraging insights from consumer behavior on Threadless and/or your mobile app could inform new features or streamline your existing features?

Yeah, that’s a great question! It happens a lot here at Threadless, because we really listen to what people tell us. So, one of the things that I mentioned earlier is that we used to have a promotional marketing slider on the homepage, but we noticed that it wasn’t getting a lot of clicks or attention.

We listened to our analytics and a lot of people told us that they don’t ever even notice it. So we actually redesigned the homepage based on this feedback, took those slides out and made more of a promotional area that was longer and with more content. That definitely increased visibility into what we were doing. We were able to tell a better story of that week’s artist, because we didn’t have one area moving and then everything else below it that not even being noticed.

We really want to focus on our artists. So making this change allowed us to do that. It allows us to spotlight our favorite design of the week, the artist who designed it, and where they’re from.

Again, I want to talk about the navigation. We found from research that the navigation was confusing, so we reverted back to the previous language. At Threadless I am also the Mobile Product Owner. We do a lot of testing and listen to a lot of consumer insights for mobile apps. So, it’s the same thing. We’re currently developing a new navigation system in our mobile app because we’ve heard from a lot of people and in analytics that they just don’t use this feature we built. So we’re going to come up with a new version that we feel is better.

And I think that’s just kind of how it goes. You have to listen to everyone’s opinions and then sort of step back from what you made and really think about it. A lot of the time we get great insights and we’re able to act on them quickly, so it’s nice.

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