nicolas leroy

Browsing through products: how could shopping engines innovate?

March 08, 2010

This article is part of a series discussing what could be the perfect CSE for 2010. In a previous article, I discussed the opportunity for CSEs to implement a true product search, using product clustering for both hard and soft goods. Among the benefits of this approach is the ability to attach content to those products in far easier and more intuitive way than onto merchant offers. In this follow-up article, I will discuss what content I’m thinking about, and what improvements could be imagined to better navigate across those products and attached content.

Current state of product navigation

There are so many user behaviors when it comes to shopping: those who know precisely what to buy, those who take months to do product research, those who are impulsive, those who are eco-conscious… Still, CSEs often provide pretty “static” navigation to browse products whatever the user goal can be, relying on the commonly-accepted pattern that is faceted navigation.

Faceted navigation is indeed a convenient way to filter down a result set, considering the facets are correctly defined and the number of facets remain acceptable (there are obviously other aspects to think about, but let’s consider those two for the sake of argument :) ). This leads most CSEs to implement a static and small list of facets per category; and this can lead to a pretty frustrating product research for those users who don’t find the filters they need

Another limit in the way CSEs implement faceted navigation is that they tend to only provides descriptive or technical facets. That implies to find a camera by brand, megapixels, optical zoom ; or a pair of pants by brand, color, material… While those facets are obviously mandatory, I feel they become too restrictive especially on fashion or home decoration where people are more impulsive than on electronics or computing universes.

CSEs have then developed other ways (but not as efficient as faceted navigation) to go beyond descriptive facets:

Beyond those classic patterns to product navigation, there are also some new types of navigation that are emerging, i.e:

PriceRunner providing shortcuts to its faceted navigation, using Q&A style:

PriceRunner shortcut to faceted navigation

Moving from descriptive features to usages

This is a topic I’ve discussed several times: I believe it’s time to enrich faceted navigation with filters related to product usage. Buzzillions and WisdomTap use the potential of user reviews to enhance product navigation with usage-related filters: a clever way that requires advanced text mining algorithms to be relevant.

Buzzillions has “Pros” and “Use” filters:

Buzzillios usage filters

Without the need for such advanced algorithms, CSEs could rely on the “ratings per feature” to enhance faceted navigation. Wouldn’t it be nice for a user looking for his/her first digital camera to be able to choose a “type:compact” camera that is easy to use (“pros:ease of use”)?

Yahoo! Shopping US and ratings per feature:

Yahoo! Shopping US review

Hunch uses another approach to provide usage-related attributes to products: its community creates shopping assistants with, obviously, a human touch that is very interesting.

Adjusting faceted navigation to the level of expertise of users

Talking about Hunch: Hunch doesn’t use faceted navigation, but an assistant-like approach relying on questions & answers. I think it’s an interesting way to quickly understand what is the goal of the user (product research, quick finding…). I imagine a user interface where assistant-like approach and faceted navigation would be mixed. Such interface could embed and replace buying guides, and quickly adjust itself to the user. It should be able to support any number of facets in such a way only facets useful for the user are displayed.

For buying a camera, this interface would be able to answer uneasy questions such as: “I want an easy-to-use compact camera, what are my choices?” (beginner, product research), “Should I buy an advanced Bridge camera or a SLR?” (intermediate, product research), “I want a Canon EOS for any weather – which model should I get?” (intermediate, narrowed product research), “Nikon 3D, Nikon 3Ds, Canon EOS 1D Mark III, Canon EOS 1D Mark IV – which one?” (expert, precise product search).

Choosing the facets to be displayed using YouTellMe and its very precise product database:

YouTellMe - Filter selection (Mar'10)

Aggregating expert content

There are now so many relevant data sources that provide facts, ratings, reviews on products that I foresee big CSEs will become more and more content aggregators to enrich their browse / search experience and meet user expectations. Today, such partnerships between content providers and CSEs are frequent; but usually the integration on the CSE side remains limited, mainly consisting on link exchange, when this content could be used to enrich filtering options. Some examples of such content providers:

Summary / Final thoughts

If product browsing cannot be limited to faceted navigation (a good integration between browse and search is mandatory; cross-linking modules are important…), faceted navigation remains the right pattern to refine and filter down a result set; and an area where CSEs could innovate to better address user’s goals. Among those evolutions, I’ve discussed:

The challenge is of course to mix all those “requirements” while supporting search / browse integration and advanced filtering options like geographic search or visual search through one interface. An exciting challenge in terms of user experience and data management I would love to work on :)

4 commentaires

Dan Barbata
on Mar 09, 2010 / 7am
I really like the idea of presenting different users with different facets depending on their level of expertise or shopping strategy. Of course, this requires much more work to be done on developing the right facets and converting technical specifications into end user benefits. Many of our blog topics are along these lines.

on Mar 09, 2010 / 11am
Nicolas i agree with you but are the users ready to move on forward? from my experience the more option given the most puzzled the visitors feel... why dont we start questioning needs and wants?

i believe its time that the industry -sector- should start more catering to the basics of what users really need and not what is thought they...want

on Mar 09, 2010 / 12pm
@Constantine - That's a really good question! Rather than adding more and more filtering options, we need to show the options relevant to the user... And that's the challenge: how to understand user's intent and adjust the UI for him...

And as you suggest, it needs to be done and validated through user research. Still, going from needs/wants to a user interface will require a lot of various guesses and trials...

on Mar 12, 2010 / 1pm
dont take it wrong... but dont the industry have almost 10 years of data? we need more tests to test the tests already done?(!)

i believe the user should be shown the basics and the basics only, any extra info should be shown only when clearly "requested" and here is the issue... how you make "clear" that there is more "info" and how to present it... but this is an issue that needs to be addressed after we ensure what the basics are, which means what the visitors needs are when they visit a CSE and then start working to "accomodate" the wants.