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Books and Mortar:
The Science of Web Shopping

(interactions magazine September/October 2003)

One of the web’s best-known booksellers appears to have become bored with the idea. The trickle of other products has burgeoned into a torrent flooding from its pages. In the early days paddling among CDs and DVDs when trying to find books was not a particular problem. Overlap between the categories was not that great, so searching for a few words from the title usually found what you were looking for. But no more. Entering the words ‘easy RUP’* gets me the following product offerings (in order of appearance):

  • Safety cans under Scientific Supplies
  • Stirrups under Pet Toys and Supplies (horses are pets?)
  • More stirrups under Lifestyle and Gifts
  • Air beds and pumps under Lifestyle and Gifts

But no books. Okay, I did not say I was looking for a book, so I will give the site the benefit of the doubt. However, searching Books for ‘easy RUP’* yields

  • Three Magazine Subscriptions: Quick and Easy Painting, Quick
    and Easy Crochet and Easy Home Cooking (apparently not quick)
  • Three Toys: 24 pc puzzle bundle pack, a 10’ x 30” Pool (it is bigger
    than it sounds) plus a sand and water table
  • Three Books including the one I was after

By now I am pretty annoyed. I specifically said I was looking for a book and I am still being offered products that fail to qualify even by the most generous definition. When I mention my indignation to friends and colleagues they relate it to the experience of being made to walk around supermarkets looking for the things you need to buy as opposed to the things the store wants to sell you. A resigned sigh usually follows.

But hang on; there are some problems with this line of thought. The first is that I was not just browsing or being asked to walk past shelves containing irrelevant products. I asked one of the world’s foremost book retailers for a title that they could easily find if they felt inclined (other sites I have tried find it first time). Instead, they chose to offer me very weak matches based on a few letters from the words I entered. Secondly, the ‘e’ in e-commerce is there for a reason. Web sites are not real stores and I know that I should not have to endure clumsy attempts at cross-selling before I have even become a customer. As readers of Paco Underhill ’s excellent Why We Buy will know, bricks-and-mortar retailing is a pretty complex business. Not surprisingly, there are many parallels in e-commerce, with a few techniques that web sites really excel at: adjacencies, add-ons and point-of-purchase sales have much more dynamic and relevant equivalents on the web; product information can be much more detailed than any printed carton while shopper recommendations and feature comparison facilities have almost no real-world equivalents. Notice that there is one important point these techniques have in common. They are passive (or can be). In most cases customers will have found a product they are interested in and can then choose whether to explore the myriad additional opportunities to part with their money that we are offering them. Customers who know exactly what they want or who are in a hurry can ignore these extra sections or links.

In contrast, techniques that actively prevent customers from finding what they are looking for are an electronic form of ‘bait-and-switch’: the site holds out the promise of providing a product they are interested in, but tries hard to sell them something else instead. This is a bad premise for improving customer loyalty. Customers’ confidence wanes with each irrelevant item that is offered and their frustration mounts with every unnecessary mouse click or key stroke. With so many passive e-commerce tools to choose from it is surprising that such a high-risk strategy has found its way to an e-commerce pioneer. I hope it does not catch on as a trend, or I will be buying my books at the butchers in future.


*For The Rational Unified Process Made Easy, Per Kroll and Philippe Kruchten, 2003 (Addison-Wesley). The Rational Unified Process is almost always referred to as ‘RUP’. It is not a book I would recommend from a usability or user-centered design point of view, but RUP is becoming increasing popular as a software development method. (Also at Amazon.co.uk)


Paco Underhill (2000), Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping, Touchstone Books, Carmichael, CA (also at Amazon.co.uk)

The Author

William Hudson is principal consultant for Syntagm Ltd, based near Oxford in the UK. His experience ranges from firmware to desktop applications, but he started by writing interactive software in the early 1970's. For the past ten years his focus has been user interface design, object-oriented design and HCI.

Other free articles on user-centred design: www.syntagm.co.uk/design/articles.htm

© 2001-2005 ACM. This is the author's version of the work. It is posted here by permission of ACM for your personal use. Not for redistribution. The definitive version was published in interactions, {Volume 10, Issue 5, September-October 2003} http://doi.acm.org/10.1145/889692.889707

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