According to Nielsen Norman Group ‘User experience (UX), includes all the aspects of the interaction between the end-user with the company, its services and its products.’ So, we can see how UX design can be fundamental in making it easy for consumers to find and purchase products and services that are more sustainable. You may think that it is delivery and returns where we can make the biggest impact, but we will show that you can make a difference throughout the entire purchase flow.
We care about the environment!
When a user arrives at your site, be upfront about your green credentials. Customers are actively seeking environmentally friendly brands and make very quick assumptions about your business and products. If it is not easy to see your returns or delivery options or how your goods are produced, they will look elsewhere. The Swedish Sportswear brand Houdini features a category called ‘Miljöarbete (Environmental work)’ in their main menu. The category includes links to their environmental strategy, their production process and what materials they use, and even a guide for how to wash and care for your clothes to ensure a longer lifespan. It is important to use clear language for these categories, make it easy to understand, avoid industry jargon or brand-specific names. If you must use these terms, explain what it means. The Swedish pharmaceutical chain Kronans Apotek has a USP (Unique Selling Point) for ‘Hållbar frakt (Sustainable delivery)’ at the top of their website. It is a simple statement that is a strong signal for consumers looking for environmentally conscious companies.
Browsing and search
Make it easy for your customers to find products that are ecological. Cleary label product cards on the product listing page that they are eco products. Ideally, you shouldn’t rely solely on a symbol, that can be ambiguous. For example, Swedish online fashion company NA-KD uses a symbol and text to highlight their second-hand clothes and uses the text badge ‘More sustainable’ to label products that are made from ecological materials. Using text also means that screen readers can read the content for partially sighted or blind users.
If you have ecological products make it easy to find them using search. Make sure ecological products are mapped to a wide range of sustainable search terms like eco, ecological, recycled, organic, responsible, sustainable, etc… Zalando and the Swedish pharmacy chain Apoteket do a good job with this, returning search results on most of these search terms and clearly labeling the products. You could also consider using search to make sustainable products more visible to the customer. For example, if a customer searched for ‘Hand cream’ you could show the results for creams that are made of organic raw materials on the top of the list, which would help to nudge customers in making an ecological purchase.
The alternative to searching for products is browsing, with the main menu being the common starting point for many users. Here you could have a category for sustainability that collects all sustainable products within that section. The Danish fashion brand Ganni has categories for ‘Responsible material’ within its main clothing category and ‘Responsible dresses’ within the main dresses category. You could even consider making sustainable a top-level category that will put your brand's green profile front and center.
After your customer has found a category they wish to explore further they will find themselves on the product listing page. A sub-category listing can have hundreds of products. Product filters help the user to sort through these choices. Several websites now have a filter dedicated to ecological attributes. Zalando has a filter for ‘Sustainability’ on its product listing pages and the Swedish clothing and beauty brand Lindex also has a filter for ‘Hållbarhet (Sustainability)’ for most of its clothing product listings. With this function, customers can quickly find products that are sustainable. Use terms for sustainable filters that customers are familiar with, avoid brand or industry-specific names. If you must use such terminology, then provide a tooltip next to the filter selection.
Most online retailers actively encourage customers to ‘Buy more,’ which can be questionable, do consumers really need these extra purchases? Websites commonly feature related products on the product details page or in the shopping cart. Like search, a company could choose to prioritize sustainable options in the products that are featured. ‘Buy more,’ can also be turned into an eco-friendly purchase option. To reduce the number of deliveries there can be a minimum order total set like Swedish food retailer Coop. You will only qualify for home delivery if your order total is 500 kr or more. Companies could also highlight low-cost frequently purchased items if only one item has been added to the cart and encourage customers to ‘Buy more,’ or save the item for later when they have more products to order. This will help reduce the frequency of deliveries.
Probably two of the most controversial areas when it comes to e-commerce and sustainability are delivery and returns. According to Anna-Maria Petisme, an industrial doctoral student at the University of Borås, on average in Swedish e-commerce, there are between 30–40 percent of items returned. This of course has an environmental impact caused by carbon emissions, but there are many ways we can use UX to reduce this number. A high percentage of returns come from the fashion industry, customers order multiple sizes to try on and then return the items that don’t fit. It can also be a factor that the item wasn’t what they expected, based on what they saw online. To help the customer you should always include at least 3–5 product images for all products on the product details page. This should show a variety of angles and for accessory, apparel and cosmetic products you should include images worn by a model. It is also good to have images where the user can judge the scale of the product compared to other items or show it in a contextual environment and feature images of product details, for example, the inside of a backpack, showing the pockets and what type of content it can hold. Houdini features a wide range of products, models, lifestyles, and close-up detail images of their clothing and products. If they wanted a perfect score, they should also consider adding videos of their products. Seeing an item in use gives an even deeper perception of what the product actually is.
Ensure a consistently high level of detail in the product descriptions. To cover the needs of most users you should include information about basic functionality, explain feature highlights, and list product details such as technical specifications, materials, ingredients, and dimensions. For some products, linear dimensions (width, length, height) are vital, like clothing and furniture whereas capacity can be important for suitcases and refrigerators. Always include the unit of measure and for international sites, provide both metric and imperial units. For clothing, you should include detailed dimensions for standard measures like shoulder, breast and length, including a table to compare international sizes and a guide on how you should measure yourself, Ganni is a good example of this. Tom Greenwood co-founder of Wholegrain Digital and sustainability advocate had an idea for highlighting multiple sizes of the same product that have been added to the shopping cart. You could highlight those items in the cart and have a prompt asking the customer if they meant to add multiple sizes and a link to the size guide which they may not have considered using. Certain behaviours are ingrained, so we can nudge customers to adopt a new practice that is beneficial for them, the business and the environment.
For clothing, there are many services like Fit Predictor that help you find the right size based on other brands that fit you well and combine that information with what other shoppers like you like. There are also services like Volumental that enable you to scan your feet with a mobile app to get personalised shoe recommendations. For household items like furniture or electronics, there are services like Size. Link that allows you to visualize how an item will look in a physical space using AR (Augmented reality) direct in the browser. The Nordic electronics retailer Elgiganten uses an AR feature on some of its product pages. In the product details, point out if an item is unusually small or large and if it’s compatible with other products e.g., accessories for mobile phones. It is also good practice to include care instructions, especially for clothing. Customer reviews can also be very helpful for shoppers to find the right product, did it match their expectations, was it a good fit? All these practices help the customer to make a more informed purchase and hopefully avoid the necessity to make a return.
In the next blog post, we will look more at the variety of solutions that are available for delivery, but there are of course eco-friendly practices we can employ directly on the website. Many customers still feel it is important to see the physical product before they buy. The internet is a great resource for doing research, using platforms like PriceRunner and PriceSpy (Prisjakt) you can see other consumers' ratings and reviews and compare prices. You may also browse a variety of e-commerce brand sites before deciding, but then feel that you would like to see the actual product, test it or try it on. Therefore you should make it easy to find a physical store, have a store locator link in the site’s header and consider providing functionality that shows if a product is in stock in one of your stores on the product details page. If this information is not easy to find, the user may make an online purchase or order multiple variants that they will very likely need to return. It is also good practice if you have physical stores to allow the customer to collect in-store, also known as BOPIS (buy online and pick up in-store). By doing so, you don’t need to make a delivery and a customer can return the item if they are not satisfied when they collect the item. You could also consider, like Lindex does, prioritising BOPIS as the first choice for delivery in the checkout, which is one of the greenest options if the store is close by or somewhere you will be passing.
If you are serious about sustainability, then you should prioritise any delivery option that is better for the environment like collecting your order at a packet box such as Instabox or Budbee. Also, for the delivery options clearly mark, with a symbol, text and colour which options are more sustainable or if they are climate compensated. Apoteket does a good job of this and has Instabox as the first choice. It is also more sustainable to make one delivery of many items rather than many separate deliveries. Amazon has introduced Amazon Day Delivery, which means you can make orders throughout the week and then have them all delivered on the same day. CEO of Customer Carewords Gerry McGovern and the host of the World Wide Waste podcast had an idea to offer slow delivery. This option would be selected by default and to motivate your customers to keep it selected, call it ‘Green Delivery.’ The order will be consolidated with many other orders which will reduce the number of trips the delivery company has to make.
Sustainability is a mindset
By introducing just a few of these practices you can make a huge impact if you consider the thousands, perhaps millions of users who use e-commerce services daily. The effect of these more sustainable strategies is multiplied through their engagement. Sustainable practice is now, not the future and customers want to be more responsible with their consumption, so we need to provide the services that enable them to do so. Companies are taking action as we have shown and the ones that do will be the winners of a better tomorrow.
Please get in touch if you would like to know more or have a specific case. Sustainability is a complex issue, we must discuss and develop our approach together with multiple perspectives. Watch out for the next post in this series where we will be looking at logistics, packaging, and other third-party solutions.