Introduction to ecommerce concepts

Considering the newness of the internet and world wide web, it’s safe to say that nearly everyone who has purchased online gained their understanding of commerce offline. “Dirt-side” commerce transactions have structural, schematic, and semantic orders that don’t fully map to the different medium of the web, and it’s this gap in mapping that causes the problems users experience trying to shop online, whether the problems stem directly from usability flaws or unmet expectations.

My experience shopping online and working on a major online commerce site — Borders.com — has shown me that most people involved in the design, creation, marketing, implementation, hyping and analysis of ecommerce sites haven’t thought about the basic relationship that commerce is based on. A quality online shopping experience must be designed from a firm understanding of this basic relationship.

Essays in this ecommerce series:

Most people have an understanding of commerce based on their experience as shoppers and buyers, and they bring this experience with them when they start shopping online. In order to meet the user’s needs, then, we must understand the typical user’s experience of traditional commerce.

Most problems with commerce sites are due to misunderstandings on the part of the site creators about how users understand the structure and elements of typical commerce transactions. Users have formed schemas to understand commerce, but commerce sites routinely ignore these schemas.

Commerce is a communicative transaction between two parties playing very familiar roles: buyer and seller. For commerce to occur, somebody must do the selling, and somebody must do the buying, and these two somebodies must share a basic understanding of how the transaction is generally supposed to flow. Ecommerce web sites can’t simply make products available to be bought (surface it, they will buy…); these sites must hold up their part of role-playing the commerce transaction.

Branding serves as a marker of corporate identity, and so has some value to the user, but the hubbub over branding misses some very important concerns that users have.

Ecommerce web sites must pay attention to how they communicate to users. Ecommerce sites play their role of seller by trying to broadcast two messages to potential buyers: “buy from us” and “trust us”. The impact of these explicit messages, though, is often corrupted by contradictory or distracting messages implicit in the site’s implementation of navigation flow, page layout, visual continuity, and information space.

Ecommerce sites seem to shout the message that they are trustworthy, that users need have no trepidation over purchasing from these sites, but trust derives not from assertions but rather from experience and judgment. People interact, and they make judgments and form expectations of others based on what they experience and what they surmise; it’s a lot easier to decide to trust a merchant when you can speak to them face-to-face and shake their hand. Trusting a web site to deal with you fairly and deliver your merchandise, though, well, that’s harder to do when you realize that anyone can build a commerce site. Ecommerce sites must work hard to build the impression of trustworthiness.

A note on terminology: I use the terms ecommerce, electronic commerce and online commerce interchangeably, even though it can be argued they are not strictly describing the same concept. I use the shortened ecommerce instead of the hyphenated e-commerce because I believe the hyphen will be dropped from usage over time.

[ Read the next essay in this ecommerce series, Online vs "Traditional" Commerce.]