Why context is king in m-commerce design

A photograph of a hand holding up a smartphone in the foreground, livestreaming their surroundings at an event of some kind.

Mobile responsive. Mobile first. Mobile only…

Whatever approach you take to your m-commerce project, one thing is certain: if you want it to deliver the results you’re expecting, context should be front and centre of your design.

Across all industries, mobile traffic is eating into PC web traffic in a big way, even in economies which have a large installed base of consumer PCs.

But ecommerce sites aren’t seeing mobile web visitors, particularly those who use smartphones, converting to mobile web shoppers with the same success as PC shoppers.

“It is fair to conclude that conversions would be higher if the m-commerce experience on the web was better designed with smartphone users in mind,” writes Andy Favell in ClickZ Intelligence’s new report, ‘The DNA of a Great M-Commerce Site Part 2: The 12 Pillars of Mobile Design’. “M-commerce sites that crack this will sell more.”

One of the most consistent mistakes made with mobile site design is a failure to take into account the differing circumstances, needs and intentions of smartphone users; in other words, their unique context.

The difference between smartphone and PC users isn’t just a smaller screen size – it’s a whole new set of variables.

An image of a stick person holding a mobile phone with the words "I want to..." underneath. To the right is a list of 16 options for things the mobile user might do, such as "Send a text message", "Watch a video", "Check the weather", "Call Mom" and "Listen to a song." At the bottom is a credit to Google Search Quality Guidelines.

Google’s guidelines for its search quality evaluators emphasise the importance of taking context into account for mobile users.

So how does context impact the way you cater for m-commerce customers, and what can you do to tailor your design to their needs?

Why design for context?

A customer using a PC to access your website is likely to be doing so in a limited number of settings. Most often they’ll be at home or at work, possibly in an internet café, or using a laptop somewhere like an airport or coffee shop.

Even if you imagine that they might be out and about, there are still relatively few plausible scenarios in which they could be logging in, and they don’t differ from one another that wildly.

But with mobile, and particularly smartphones, the number of possible scenarios suddenly increases exponentially. Your customer could be travelling, working, moving around the house and multi-tasking, walking to your location, walking to a rival’s location…

In each case, the context drastically alters the way in which this customer might be approaching and interacting with your site.

Andy Favell explained in a recent article for ClickZ, ‘When will responsive websites respond to user context?’ why cross-platform homogeneity – taking the same approach to design across differing platforms – doesn’t make sense.

“Cross platform homogeneity forgets two massive things:

  • The requirements of the desktop and mobile user are often different
  • The requirements of the same mobile user (more importantly) vary depending on whether they are at home, at work, commuting, on route to the location, on site, in a rival’s location and so on.

And that’s just the start of it. Now consider:

  • How context varies by time of day, day of week, time of year.
  • What about the trigger that causes the visit to the site e.g. something on TV, snapping QR code in a print ad, tapping through from an email, social media etc.?”

Taking a user’s context into account is considered to be a no-brainer for targeted advertising, and the conversions it delivers prove that targeting works.

Facebook has achieved great success from advertising thanks to its ability to fine-tune its adverts according to who a user is and what they might be doing.

Three smartphone screens displaying Facebook mobile advertisements in a user's news feed.Image by Bablu bit, available via CC BY-SA 4.0

Google is increasingly using the data it collects on users and their search histories to contextualise the results it provides them and make them more relevant. And programmatic advertising is currently making waves with the promise of being able to determine at high speed who to target based on digital cues received about the user.

The online world is increasingly trending towards high levels of personalisation as our ability to gather and interpret data about users improves. And for m-commerce, this also seems like the logical next step.

As Favell writes in ‘The DNA of a Great M-Commerce Site Part 2’:

“If adtech has the ability to target ads on mobile websites at visitors, surely m-commerce sites should use the same types of technology and listen to the same digital signals in order to prioritise the most appropriate content, offers and services, and make the user journey as easy and frictionless as possible?”

How to design for context in m-commerce

In part two of the ‘DNA of a Great M-Commerce Site’ report, Andy Favell gives a series of tips on how to personalise your mobile offering to users whilst not over-targeting to the point that users find it irritating. He advises:

  • Prioritising content, rather than selecting which content to show to the exclusion of others
  • Suggesting entries in search or form fields, such as postcode or ZIP code in a search box
  • If your website defaults to departments based on previous behaviour – for example, ASOS will open the men’s or women’s store homepage based on what the user has browsed previously – make sure it is clear how to return to the general homepage
  • Facilitating the buying process with options to save for later, save a favourite address, save a favourite meal
  • Encouraging a trust relationship by explaining how personalisation works and how it benefits the user
  • Making it easy to opt in or out of personalisation

The epitome of a personalised m-commerce experience is a site that adapts fully to user context, based on signals such as who a person is, where they are, what device they are using, what they like and what they are doing.

While there are very few examples of websites who are doing this well at the moment, the concept isn’t too far-fetched.

A handful of retailers in the US have already invested in developing native apps which deliver a different experience to the user when they are away from a store versus when they are in-store.

The most innovative of these will switch to “Store mode” as the shopper enters a store location, activated by geotechnologies like bluetooth beacons.

A person uses their smartphone to scan a number of barcodes on the side of a green file folder.

A number of US retailers have personalised their m-commerce offerings with a dedicated “store mode”, which includes features such as scanning products to check pricing and availability | Image by Intel Free Press, available via CC BY-SA 2.0

DMI’s 2015 ‘In-store Mobile Experiences’ report sets out why a properly personalised in-store mobile experience can be so beneficial to retailers.

According to the report, 82% of high-income shoppers said that an improved mobile in-store experience would make the shopping experience better. And 74% of young people aged 18-35 said that they would spend more money at a store that provided an improved in-store mobile experience.

Standout performers in the US – which included Walgreens, Home Depot, Nordstrom, Walmart, Target and American Eagle among other brands – offered in-store features such as scanning products to unlock information on pricing and product availability; integrating loyalty programs into the in-store experience; in-store mapping; product recommendations; and reserving a dressing room.

These are all location-dependent personalisation features, but there are other mobile signals you can use to divine information about your user’s context and tailor your m-commerce site to them in subtle ways.

In ‘The DNA of a Great M-Commerce Site Part 2’, Ronan Cremin, CTO of DeviceAtlas, writes:

“Apart from the really obvious one (location) there are other possibilities like detecting if a user is literally on the move or not (accelerometer), is the battery low etc. etc.

One important point about all of these contextual cues is to use them as hints rather than hard deciding factors because the cost of getting things wrong based on an incorrect assumption is high.

It’s really dangerous to make assumptions about what a user wants, so I think that the best thing to do is make prioritization decisions over ordering of features rather than adding/removing features entirely.”

A picture of a smartphone tucked into someone's jeans pocket with its screen showing a low battery symbol.Subtle cues about a user’s state like battery level can be used to personalise your m-commerce site | Image by Martin Abegglen, available via CC BY-SA 2.0

As both Favell and Cremin point out, it’s important not to go overboard with personalisation, as too much can risk alienating the user, especially if wrong assumptions are made.

But don’t let this put you off trying altogether. Context is everything in mobile design, and even small adjustments can go a long way towards creating a frictionless user experience and improving your m-commerce sales and conversions.

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