How to design a perfect online furniture shopping experience
By Vu Nguyen
June 29, 2017
Recently we had a client contacted us to design and develop a new website platform for their Furniture business. This is a very prestigious company in Vietnam that carries only top of the line, high-end furniture, and home accessories brands from Italy. While their current website is not badly designed, they wanted something higher-end that can reflect their product quality and brand image. In this article, we will describe our full working process with the client and share what we did and what we found out to be useful for furniture websites.
I. The project goals
The main goal of the project was to revamp the current website design to reflect the company and products high-end quality.
As usual, we started the process with meetings and lots of researches online and offline. When someone needs a website, it's because she/he wants to sell something online which can be a physical product/service or intangible values such as the brand's image. Normally, a client does not expose all his/her intentions in the initial meeting and information collection form, it's the job of the experienced business analyst to question and discover the needs and the hidden requirements of the client by asking questions such as:
What are the purposes of the website?
Why do you want to have a new website? (current pain points)?
Who are your main visitors (target audience)?
How do your visitors usually browse the website? (users behaviors)
One hint for you if you plan to create a new website or revamp your current website is that you should first sit down with all the stakeholders (including some of your end-users if possible) to identify all the pain points that you hope the new website can solve for you. If you can give the digital agencies a very clear list of requirements and goals for the project they can give you detailed plans for implementation and suggestion that can save everyone's time and cost down the line. We have had cases with clients gave us very vague requirements with huge scope then later scrapped everything and demanded a complete change in scope of work. These are usually what we call "lost-cause" projects which more often than not will never meet the goals of any stakeholder involved in the project (assuming that the projects can ever start at all).
After the initial meeting with the client and lots of emails and phone calls back and forth to capture as much information as we can, we came up with several important notes:
The client carries lots of furniture brands, each is a high-end brand that needs its own custom designed landing page that reflects the brand's true identity.
The current web design cannot help the client to highlight important events (which they hold or attend monthly).
The current website offers very limited ways to discover products.
While half of the visitors are end-buyers, the other half are architects who help their clients to pick and choose products for their projects.
The client has many showrooms, each with its own products and showroom managers, they want the showrooms to operate independently and manage their own products.
II. Project Analysis & implementation plan
We have no issue with the technical parts for point 1 and 5. In fact, our Nilead Platform is powerful enough to allow us to configure a unique layout for each brand. It's even powerful enough to allow non-technical end-users with little web knowledge to edit the content and style of these layouts in the future when they want to.
To be able to design a custom landing page for each brand, we went to the website of each brand the client carries, checked their websites and the products they have online to understand the brand and to look for ideas that we can use. Interestingly, most of these very high-end brands do not have websites that match the quality and image of the brands; we had to resort to using the printed media (catalogs, brochures) which were actually of higher quality than the online media. I guess most of these brands are still very traditional with little care about their online presence.
Initial design we made for Baldi landing page
After visiting the client's showrooms, however, we felt the design for Baldi was falling short of something, so we came back and did another rough design for MAXALTO landing page.
Maxalto landing page concept design
Obviously, it's still not our final design yet but we have shown the client the direction we are trying to go for the project. One thing to note is that after so many projects, we still find face-to-face or at least phone calls work a thousand times better than email or text message. It's highly recommended that you as the website owner dedicate as much time as possible (and request your digital service provider to the same) for communicating directly via meetings or e-meetings with voice and video to ensure a deep understanding of both parties regarding the project scope and possible technical issues.
This is not our first website project for furniture retailers, but the number of items and the shopping experience our client wants to have for this project is quite different from the ones we did before. The most challenging task for this project was to figure out the browsing and buying behaviors of the people who shop for furniture online and try to develop a better navigation flow for the new website. There are many furniture website designs out there, we find many of them inspiring. We looked for furniture websites both in Vietnam as well as in other countries, categorized them and noted the best features and design inspiration we found on each site. During our research, we browsed through these sites (and more)
The common design pattern of many furniture websites is listing product by brands or type (chair, table, lamp, etc). A few examples:
Shopping by furniture brand
Shopping by type of furniture
We then asked ourselves, is this the navigation flow that we want to do for our client's website. Obviously, we still want to provide the traditional browsing and filtering methods that many buyers are already familiar with them, but we wondered if there were different ways to assist the potential buyers in finding and choosing the products they want. Our goals for the navigation are:
Allow the potential buyers to navigate to the exact products they want as quickly as possible
Upsell other products to the buyers by suggesting related products that they may need
Assist the buyers with visual hints to help them find the products they need if they haven't had the exact items they want in mind
After further discussion with our furniture retailer client, we found out that a large number of their online buyers purchase the furniture to furnish the whole room or whole project while others purchase piece by piece. It's very interesting to note that the purchase behavior depends heavily on the product line (and the buyer's budget).
Mid-income buyers (who are usually younger in age) tend to choose more modern furniture pieces from mid-end brands. They are the ones who will buy piece by piece instead of a whole set (in fact these brands also do not focus on selling in sets). These buyers are also the ones who tend to re-visit the showroom and the online store more often to look for new, inspiring product.
High-income buyers (who are usually older in age) tend to prefer classic, high-end products come from the top of the line manufacturers and designers. They tend to rely more on the architects to design and select the items for them and tend to buy in full sets to furnish their houses or offices.
This finding led us to come up with new ideas:
1. More relevant filtering system
Say if you already picked a new green chair you really love for your living room and now you need to look for the table that goes with it, do you look for a table of any style and color? Obviously, you need a table that can match the look and feel of your selected chair, would it be super cool to simply search and filter for all the tables that can go with the selected chair?
2. Furniture shopping by purpose
Sometimes, people don't just search for a single chair or table; they shop for an entire room. Other times, they may shop for a table, but a dining table, not a work table. In other words, what we can do to help the buyers to find the products they want faster and easier is by grouping items into what we call "purpose groups" and provide a navigation and filtering system that fits this buying behavior.
3. Furniture shopping by concept
I don't know about you, but I'm your average buyer when it comes to furniture. I know what I want, but I don't know exactly what I want until I see it. I need hints, inspiration, ideas. I'm the type who always go to Pinterest first, to search for bright ideas and that silver lightning in the clouds before I know what I want. I find IKEA does this the best at their huge malls. I can always step into a real living room, put myself in the environment and question myself if I like it or not. That shopping experience was a bliss because it helped me to make the decision quicker and easier.
I don't see a lot of online furniture websites do that, I wonder why. Giving the shoppers the same experience offline can be difficult for many furniture retailers due to the lack of space but you have unlimited space online at fraction of the cost. Then I found out about Houzz, it offers the exact shopping experience I wanted to see online. Houzz offers a huge list of design photos (concepts) with all the furniture pieces neatly arranged, and once you find a concept you fall in love with you can simply click on each item to check their price and related information.
4. Wishlist & Product Comparison
One thing that I find inconvenient when shopping at the huge malls that carry tons of products like IKEA is that I usually go through sections and sections of items, made mental note of the items I may want then later forget where they are. Another thing that keeps annoying me is the inability to instantly compare similar items. Whenever I go to IKEA, I find myself making difficult decisions and compromises choosing different items (or sets) based on the design and price. I usually have to take photos and notes of the pieces I want then later go through these on my tiny phone to compare them. With online furniture shopping, you can make it so much easier for the buyers to save their favorite items and do a side-by-side comparison.
Wishlist or favorite list is a simple, straightforward way for buyers to save the items they are interested in but may not want to add to cart yet. You can also allow the buyers to tag the items they saved for easier navigation and filtering in the future when their wishlist grows. Another potential use of the wishlist is integrating with the CRM system to learn what each individual client likes and push personalized marketing and promotion message to the clients.
Product comparison allows the buyers to put products side-by-side to compare the design, price and various other attributes before making the final purchase decision. A more advanced usage of product comparison is to collect the list of products that have been grouped and compared together by the users to create a list of similar items for cross-selling and/or up-selling purpose.
5. Mobile friendly shopping experience is a must
According to this research from Mississippi State University, most users will search and browse online furniture websites for the items they are interested in then come to the physical showrooms to make the final purchases. To see if this is really the case in the market the client operates, we did a very simple survey with 20 random persons from the age of 25 - 50. While we could not do a bigger and proper research (due to the lack of time and budget), it has shown us that people normally check for products on their phones (not a surprise, since we have 150+ mil registered phone number in this 100+ mil population country), then bookmark the items they like and come to the shops for physical look, touch, and feel. Most people do this bookmark by simply leaving the browser tab with the items they want open which can prove to be a disaster if they accidentally close these tabs later. A favorite list would be hugely appreciated in this case.
6. How about the architects?
According to our discussion with the client, up to 50% of the website users are architects who find and select furniture pieces for their clients. The architects usually utilize email, cloud folders such as google drive to share the items they want to suggest to the clients, and this communication usually takes a long time through many and many emails. Once the decision is final, the architects will have to compose a final list of selected products to re-confirm with the clients then send to the sales department of the retailer to get the price quote and place the order. This whole project is lengthy, complicated, and error-prone. What if we can make it easier for the architects who are big influencer in the final purchase decision? While in some cases, the architects may not want to expose the source of the products they purchase the furniture pieces but in most cases we find this to be a big problem.
Using what we learned from other furniture websites and our experience with other projects, we came up with a simple rough proposal for a project management system that serves the architects.
Project Manager Dashboard - Concept Design
Project Manager Comments - Concept Design
Our idea is that the architects can easily create projects, add items to the projects, invite their clients to join and comment on each item. The project management system allows to architects and their clients to keep track of the progress and all the discussion and feedbacks at one single place without having to dig through a huge and messy list of emails. Each item can be commented on, marked as selected or not selected, and put together for easy comparison before making the final decision. At the end of the project, the final selected list could be sent to the sales department with 1 single click.
III. Interesting ideas that we could not implement within this project
Virtual reality is a rising trend that can work wonder for home and furniture websites and apps to enhance the virtual shopping experience. Once the users can "step" into a real room, pick the products they like, and "feel" the atmosphere we believe it can become the ultimate "killer feature" that will immediately capture users attention. We could not implement this in our project for several technical reasons:
Creating a perfect VR experience is still rather complicated and lengthy project. Our client's products come and go very fast and mostly each item they have one 1 single piece so it did not make lots of sense to create VR materials for these items.
Normal users are not familiar with VR yet, and most of them do not have the equipment (VR glasses) to enjoy a full and perfect VR experience.
In a few years later, however, we imagine this technology could hugely improve the shopping experience for furniture buyers. If you operate a furniture store or chain, watch out for it.
about the author
Vu Nguyen is an entrepreneur, a developer, and a founder of nilead.com. While his love is in the backend website development work, his experience covers eCommerce (being both a real online store owner and a developer), Search Engine Optimization, UX Design and Content Strategy.
Since 2005, Vu Nguyen has led and directed UX design, full-stack development teams on projects large and small for corporations, start-ups, individuals and more. He was involved in every task of each project, from idea to concept and vision, prototype, detailed design, build and deployment.
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