The Swiftype Blog / Browsing vs. buying: UX design considerations for mobile shoppers

Browsing vs. buying: UX design considerations for mobile shoppers

In 2015, it is not surprising to online retailers that mobile users comprise a major portion of online shopping. Phones are becoming bigger, faster, and more user friendly; kids who have grown up using smartphones and tablets are entering the consumer market in a major way; and ecommerce websites are quickly adapting by building responsive, mobile optimized websites and apps. All of this has contributed to the significant rise in mobile traffic and sales over the past several years, with nearly half of all online traffic and almost a quarter of sales in the 2014 holiday season taking place on smartphones or tablets, according to a recent study by IBM. The takeaway is clear: today’s consumers expect seamless mobile shopping experiences, and online retailers need to adapt quickly to keep pace with industry leaders.

Mobile traffic is growing, but desktop still dominates in sales.

However, a closer look at this data suggests that the division between mobile and desktop shopping is not so black and white. After splitting mobile traffic and sales data between tablets and smartphones, it seems clear that many users have different preferences for what device they browse with vs. what device they actually complete a purchase on. For instance, IBM’s data reveals that although smartphone traffic more than doubled that of tablets, sales on tablets were over four percent higher. This contrast, coupled with the relative swell in desktop sales vs. desktop traffic, suggests that smartphones are primarily used for research and browsing, while tablets and desktops are favored for completing transactions.

What can site owners learn from this behavioral trend, and how can they optimize their mobile shopping experience(s) to satisfy these browsers? The answer to this question revolves around two main topics of discussion:

  1. What elements of the user experience are most important for researching and browsing?
  2. Should site owners focus on building apps or creating mobile optimized web browsing experiences?

Let’s explore these two questions independently before returning to a discussion of where mobile shopping UX design might go in the future.

User Experience: how to build for browsers

Compared to desktops, mobile phones do not offer nearly as much space on the page to place navigational elements, such as product categories. These elements could be placed in a dropdown menu activated by a single “menu” link, but these can be difficult to design and clunky for smartphone users. A better alternative is to feature a prominent search bar that persists across all subdomains, allowing shoppers to search, browse, and re-search without having to go back at any point in the process. Amazon is a leader in this respect, with a large search bar that provides autocomplete suggestions for users as they type. Statistics clearly demonstrate the importance of search for mobile browsers. A recent survey by Harris and IAB of over 2,000 smartphone users revealed that search is the primary portal through which users find new content on their mobile devices.

Furthermore, product thumbnails should be enlarged to compensate for the reduced screen size—basic responsive design is not enough if your search results are still displayed in a 4×4 product grid on a small phone screen. Additionally, users should be able to zoom in on high resolution product images so that they can look closely before adding them to their cart. These UX changes are relatively simple but important principles that should inform both mobile optimized and application UX design.

Prioritization: creating apps or optimizing for smartphones

In an ideal world, site owners would not need to make a decision on this issue, instead allocating engineering resources to simultaneously build an app and mobile optimized browsing experience independently. However, most websites lack the resources to move so quickly on this front, and are forced to adopt a strategy for developing one before the other. Internet Retailer’s 2015 Mobile 500 report presents a key statistic in this debate, revealing that 80% of online shopping takes place within an app, and that users within an app are 30% more likely to convert. This means that more traffic and sales flow through apps, making a seemingly clear case for focusing on app development.

Still, mobile browsing experiences should not be overlooked. As we touched upon earlier, many online shoppers begin by browsing on their phone even though they often won’t ultimately complete a purchase through this channel, making this mobile browsing experience a critical first impression. Furthermore, Internet Retailer admits that the 80% of traffic in apps statistic is, “surely skewed by large numbers of loyal users of apps from big players such as and eBay.” Taking these caveats into consideration, mobile browsing remains an important UX priority.

Looking forward

Though desktop remains the dominant platform for shopping research and sales, its share of online sales and traffic has been on a steady decline for years. Today, a failure to address mobile design translates to lost opportunities, especially when mobile browsing is considered as the “first impression” that modern shoppers have of an online retailer. For details on how Swiftype helps websites deliver superior mobile browsing and in-app search experiences, check out our mobile solutions page today.

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