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Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping

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“Experience design,” as it’s often used in the online world, refers to everything a customer comes in contact with when having experience with a brand-what the colors are, what emotions the design conveys, how the text is written, ease of interaction with the web site, how the content is structured, and much more. Information architects and designers sometimes forget that there is an offline experience as well; Paco Underhill’s “Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping” explores customer experience and consumer behavior as they affect retail and offline environments.

Overall, the book is a lively read, chock full of interesting stories, research data, and case studies. There are sections dealing with product usability, environmental graphics and navigation, demographic issues, location, marketing and promotion. Obviously a seasoned professional, Underhill presents business issues in a straightforward manner, backing up his claims and suggestions with anecdotal and statistical evidence.

Though the majority of the book focuses on “traditional” retailing, Chapter 17 specifically talks about online retailing. Much has changed about ecommerce since this book was first published (May 1999), but many of Underhill’s predictions about online retailing have come to fruition, and his bottom-line insistence on “you needa reason to start a web site” rings true in today’s economic environment.

One neglected aspect of ecommerce he mentions on the first page of the chapter has already been addressed by many retailers: “Few web sites will permit you to see if a particular item is in stock in a store near you, order it, pay for it and then go in person to retrieve it.” It would be interesting to hear the author’s feelings on the current state of online retailing three years after this was written and see what advances he feels have been made and what problems still need to be addressed.

Another brilliant aspect of this book is its universal appeal. While those interested in usability and ecommerce have snapped it up, it is not limited to those limited audiences. (In fact, those who lament “I can’t explain to my Mom what I do all day” might benefit from suggesting a read of “Why We Buy” and then adding, “It’s like that but with web sites.”)

If there’s any downfall of the book, it would be the sometimes-meandering text. The reader may expect a more of a textbook-like approach to physical experience design, but Underhill’s writing style mixes case studies with anecdotes, business, psychology, and opinions.

Though divided up into four sections and 19 chapters that purport to focus on specific topics, the end results often diverge from their intended subject. This is not necessarily a bad thing; it feels as though Underhill is leading the reader on a walking tour of a business, pointing out issues during the journey and recalling anecdotes whenever appropriate. However, those looking for a tome on the design of physical commerce spaces need look elsewhere.

There are dozens of lessons in “Why We Buy” that can be learned by those involved in web development, whether in ecommerce or brochureware. One is that, even after decades of running tests, Underhill and his staff are still learning new things and uncovering problems they’ve never noticed before, showing that continual learning is essential.

The author also talks about the importance of evaluating elements in the environment in which the customer will interact with them. (“Showing me a sign in a conference room, while ideal from the graphic designer’s point of view, is the absolute worst way to see if it’s any good. To say whether a sign or any in-store media works or not, there’s only one way to assess it-in place.”)

He devotes a good deal of printed space to the differences in the shopping habits of men and women, as well as the growing aging population and children, which suggests that these demographically-influenced habits (and others) could carry over to the online world.

However, two main messages permeate throughout, and they should be familiar, since those involved in designing the user experience online have been focused on them all along.
First, understand your customer and make things easy for them. Don’t make them feel uncomfortable, don’t confuse them, don’t make them do more work than they should. Structure things so that they make sense to your customer, for their actions will determine whether or not what you have done is successful.

Secondly, understand the business goals and design your changes to work towards those goals. Aesthetics, navigation, and structure are of no use if they don’t support the business objectives. And, of course, designing with your shopper/user in mind will help you reach these goals.

This review first appeared in Boxes and Arrows: the online IA journal.

Jeff Lash is a Usability Specialist and Information Architect at MasterCard
International and writes the IAnything Goes column
for Digital Web Magazine. He is also on the Leadership Council for the Asilomar Institute
for Information Architecture
and is co-founder of the
St.Louis Group for Information Architecture. He can be reached at jeff@jefflash.com.

Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping
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