A Conversation on Designing for Commerce

Illustration for "A Conversation on Designing for Commerce" by Misa Yamamoto.
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By Randy Hunt, MFA, and Magera Holton, BFA

Two graphic designers turned software designers worked together for years at Etsy, where they helped build and scale the online marketplace that connects millions of buyers and sellers from nearly every country in the world today. In this dialogue, these two designers discuss their own career journeys and what they’ve learned about creating compelling shopping experiences online.

​Magera Holton is a University of Texas Design alumna (BFA 2008) and is the co-founder of Related Works. Randy J. Hunt co-founded Supermarket, an e-commerce platform for designers, and today leads design at Artsy. They sat down to examine what role brand plays in defining a successful business and customer experience and some recurring themes that have popped up over the years for them.

MH:  What’s the relationship between following common UI or UX conventions for an ecommerce platform and its brand? Are those things separate or are they interconnected? 

RH:  If, for example, you pull on the thread of a checkout experience long enough, you’re going to find broader economic trends of your supply chain. For example: the ability of your logistics operation to deliver fast shipping at a good price affects whether or not you can say on a page “ships free, arrives tomorrow.” Being able to communicate that and present it in a compelling way in the right part of the user experience can help take someone from not buying to buying. The ability to say that sits atop a deep stack of business decisions. You pull those threads long enough, and every little thing is connected. 

I think the brand, similarly, is connected to everything. If someone says, “People like that brand” or, “They have a strong brand,” in part it means people trust it. Things that create or break trust are everywhere in the experience. They’re typos in the copy. There’s the symbolism that communicates we do trustworthy things like protect your data or ship quickly, or that you can call us on the telephone. Or they are things like “The site loads quickly so they clearly must be professional.” Even though no one actively thinks that, if the thing is slow, it just seems kind of unreliable. And if the thing is unreliable, I trust it less. If I trust it less, I have a lower perception of the brand.

MH:  I read this post recently by Alex Taussig, a partner at the Lightspeed Venture Partners, who defined brand as “a set of promises that you make to your customer to deliver a safe and effective product or service, at a fair price, through a convenient channel, and with salient marketing that explains how the product should be used most effectively.”

I really love this definition, but I think the one thing that’s missing is a clear sense of the business’s mission and purpose in the world. But it feels very similar to what you’re talking about, that the brand is not simply a coat of paint, but rather what informs every business and product decision you make.

RH:  I like that framework a lot. I’m thinking about when you were saying “a greater purpose.” The greater purpose to me would be the difference between a strong, trusted, valuable brand, and a brand people love. When you love the brand and what it stands for, its purpose, you become loyal to it almost in a religious way. 

When a brand is so good and the trust is so high, the product or service can fail sometimes, and you are willing to forgive it. Which to me is why I think Apple remains such an incredible brand. They have misses a lot, but in aggregate are pretty darn great. And if you’re even remotely passionate for them, you give them a pass on stuff. You’ll actively think, “Wow, I paid a lot for this product. It’s not that different from the one before, but I still love Apple.” It’s amazing. 

MH:  That’s a really good point. There are definitely brands I can think of that I buy from, but that I wouldn’t say I’m loyal to them because of a specific purpose or reason to exist. 

Going back to the topic of brand equaling trust, it’s interesting to think about how that plays out on platforms like Etsy or Amazon where there’s the platform brand and the individual seller’s brand in play. I wonder how much trust you can gain or lose for the simple fact that for individual sellers, you can put a literal face to the brand versus that of the platform as this larger institution. It’s like, “Margaret—she sells surfboard bags. I could probably call her up if I have a question. I’ll give her 40 trust points right off the bat because of that.” 

RH:  What’s amazing is that I think it can move in both directions. Maybe it’s like, “I see Margaret; she seems cool. But does she make a good quality product that is going to get to me? Well, I’ve heard of this Etsy thing. Or Amazon. I know Amazon will get it to me. Well, at least there’s someone I can go to if it doesn’t work out.” But then the opposite direction of this is, “Actually I trust that individual more, because I asked a question and they responded to my question themselves, just for me.” 

It feels like it changes probably for different customers or even different product types. Maybe it was very unique, or it was a good value for what it was at a good price. I’d spend my money with this person to make a leather belt in North Carolina rather than going to Bloomingdale’s that has one that is similar. In other cases, it’s more core to the product: “Please let a human being talk to me because I’m trying to have something made at this size, and I need to know if it can actually be made.” It’s like those are two very different experiences, but all in the same platform.

MH:  Are there problems that you’ve solved over and over again over the years? Any broad themes or key differences? 

RH:  There are a few broad themes in these shopping experiences. Searching and checkout on the buying side; order management and order processing on the selling side. Those are pretty tangible experiences. I can say them, and you can picture what they mean. Within them, though, there’s more nuance around trust signals and expectation setting. Those are true in those few examples I gave, but also tend to be problems that I’ve found come up almost every time. I used to not realize they were part of the problem, and now I think of them as maybe the main part of the problem each time. 

What feels more difficult and more unique each time now is the approach to solving them, or these meta questions such as, “What are the motivations of the person at that time?” Or, “Are there several different experiences or use cases that pass through this part of the process?” That feels like it’s changed as I’ve cycled over some of those key areas several times. 

MH:  Talking about gaining or building customer trust, have there been similar hurdles across the different marketplaces you’ve worked on?

RH:  I think they are different. There are some similar themes like providing information when you’d expect it, or the right information at the right time. If you can get good at identifying what information is needed when and where, you might be able to answer those questions—not by making them available, but rather expressing them before the questions ever come up. 

I think the other is expectations-setting, which often happens before they’re using this experience, whether it’s how something is branded or marketed, or what the reputation of it is. If someone says it’s easy and then actually it’s kind of complicated, then I think that is a barrier to people’s trust. If we intentionally build a reputation around a product being unique, not the process being easy, then at least when people come, they’re expecting unique products, they’re not explicitly expecting an easy process. So that’s another one of those thematic kinds of trust signal areas. It’s like setting expectations to match what you can deliver, and then delivering on the expectations you set.

MH:  Riffing on that, how do you solve for those trust hurdles for people who haven’t made a purchase yet versus repeat customers?

RH:  Yeah, that’s interesting. There’s an expectation-setting part of it that I think is real. I don’t know if I’ve cycled through it enough times to actually get to that level of nuance. I think an example of something that we did at Etsy, which I think you were quite close to, would have been things like remembering the most recent payment method used. That signals continuity in the experience. We know you’ve been here before, we acknowledge your preferences, and we’ve defaulted toward something we think is easier for you. That has a level of customer care in it, which is something you can only do with a repeat buyer. 

Are there others that come to mind?

MH:  Definitely. When we were working on the signed-out homepage, we talked to prospective buyers who didn’t really know much about Etsy. Even after the first couple interviews, it was very obvious how unclear some of the nuances are between the relationship and responsibilities of the individual sellers versus Etsy as the platform. It was a good reminder that answers to very basic questions like, “Who am I sharing my credit card information with?” or “What happens if this item is never delivered?” are not obvious, and to gain their trust we needed to make it crystal-clear up front. 

RH:  I wonder how Amazon frames or handles the idea of a first-time buyer, because they have so many repeat customers, right? I wonder how, from a software experience standpoint, they design for a new customer. So much of the experience has been informed by your past behavior. If you’re a designer trying to solve those problems, where do you start when trying to empathize with a first-time experience? 

MH:  Oh totally. The more you become immersed in the nuances of the experiences you’re working on, it’s harder to remember it from the perspective of someone who knows nothing—you know, being able to understand where people have concerns, or knowing what information they need to have enough confidence to make their first purchase. Going full circle, I think that’s where taking the time to truly unpack what the problem is, is so important. Curiosity and research must drive the design.


Randy Hunt is the Head of Design at Artsy.

Magera Holton is the Co-founder of Related Worlds.