Last year, a study found that Americans spend about 26 minutes a day texting and 6 minutes a day on voice calls. And a trends report showed that 6 of the top 10 most used apps globally were messaging apps.
Messaging is now our go-to form of communication.
It’s natural to send a message whenever we want to interact with friends, family, and even companies. Picking up the phone? That’s a last resort—especially when you’re shopping for products.
The shopper’s dilemma
Most of us no longer want a sales associates to help us make a decision about what to buy. They’re just around to show us where we can find what we’ve already researched and are ready to buy.
We’ve done this because it’s difficult to find a person we trust to help us with our purchasing needs. Often, we don’t trust the advice of the person in the store. We’ll ask our friends for advice and search online for any information we can find about the thing we need to buy.
Related: Celebrating exceptional ecommerce design
Expert conversation coupled with commerce
What if there were a person we could chat with when we’re researching products? What if they knew what they were talking about, actually owned the product we’re interested in, and could answer our questions while we look at the product online?
That exists—it’s called live chat.
Many websites and apps have integrated chat into their ecommerce stores—it’s a great way to answer shoppers’ final questions before they check out by connecting them with product experts.
The problem, though, is that chat was originally built around the need for customer service after someone makes a purchase.
Social media messaging tools are quickly advancing—they’re integrating photos, videos, audio, location, stickers, GIFs, and even flight information. The features are far ahead of anything ecommerce chat offers.
At Needle, we’re trying to raise the bar for the ecommerce chat experience and catch up with what users now expect from any messaging service.
“A shopper’s experience doesn’t usually start with chat—it starts with research.”
Problems with conversational commerce
One of the biggest challenges of creating the best experience in online ecommerce chat is that it’s tied to an existing website. This is the big difference between chat and messaging apps. A shopper’s experience doesn’t usually start with chat—it starts with the shopper researching existing content about products. Chat enters the picture when shoppers can’t find information they need online before they make a purchase decision.
So how do you introduce chat as a solution to help the shopper find what they’re looking for? Here’s what we’ve found works:
So chat doesn’t feel like an afterthought to shoppers, we invite them to have a conversation with a product expert. We’ve created smart configuration options to display this invite at the times we feel (and know based off experience and data) are the most appropriate for when a user would feel ready to start their conversation.
Usually this happens after someone stays on a page for a certain period of time. Tracking this allows us to make some assumptions, like thinking the shopper might have a question or their level of interest in the product is enough that they’re taking the time to decide whether it’s what they need.
A lot of the decisions we’ve made about when and where to present these invites comes from real-life experiences you get in a brick-and-mortar retail stores. When was the last time you walked into a physical store and a worker immediately asked what they could help you with? It’s an immediate turnoff, even if they’re an expert. The same feeling can happen to someone shopping online, and we solve this issue by creating an opportunity for the product experts to have conversations with the shoppers who are more likely to be ready to have a conversation rather than just brush them off.
“Chat shouldn’t feel like an afterthought to shoppers.”
Once the shopper opens the door to a conversation, there are some other challenges in providing a good chat experience.
One of those challenges is chat tools covering up store content. An in-real-life example: dropping a huge sign in front of the product I’m looking at right as an employee walks up to ask if I have any questions.
To solve this problem online, we designed our new conversations console to be a full sidebar integration that slides in without covering up any content. This allows the shopper to interact with the product expert while still being able to browse the site without conflict. Responsive ecommerce sites will provide the most optimal experiences.
Allowing the chat to better utilize the space provides a better experience through the product expert, and it helps the chat feel more integrated into the store.
We’ve designed and tested multiple features for the product expert within the chat tool: previewing a product, product recommendations, and the ability to purchase a product. We’re learning from these tests and we’ve found the best solution is to provide these tools directly inline within the conversation. One of the largest benefits of our console is the ability to have inline product information in context within the conversation tied directly to an online store catalog.
“Chat tools need to make it clear who the shopper is talking to.”
Inline widgets allow us to add additional tools in a scalable way without introducing added complex user navigation and organization. For example, we have multiple widgets that can be integrated into your chat depending on your needs. Say you were a clothing brand and shoppers aren’t just there to buy a single item—they’re looking for an outfit. Giving the product experts the tools to create a collection of items and recommend an outfit would create a richer experience for the shopper. We’re taking a lot of cues from the aforementioned rich features of current messaging apps today.
Ultimate shopping assistant solution
Widgets coupled with a full sidebar create the best shopping assistant experience in existence.
Trusting the product advice
Another big challenge in designing a sales chat solution is helping the shopper know they can trust the advice they’re getting. Our goal is to help the shopper learn as much as they can about the product expert as quickly as possible and with progressive disclosure. Given our short attention span these days, establishing credibility quickly is key.
Product expert bio
We do this by providing a quick bio right as the chat opens so the shopper immediately knows who they’re talking to. We know people are quick to judge—first impressions matter. So we put this front and center.
We also know people are more inclined to trust third-party verified experts, so quickly making it clear that these are verified product experts outside the walls of the brand adds value and credibility.
“First impressions matter.”
The new conversations console will provide the tools a product expert needs—and one of those is a rich product recommendation tool. Recommendations help a shopper find the best product that suits them. Since this is core to the whole shopping experience, we’ve focused a lot of our attention to making this a delightful experience. Here are a few ways we’ve optimized the Needle chat to facilitate the delivery of quality product recommendations:
1. Inline product recommendations cards
When a product expert recommends a product, it’s displayed inline within the conversation—in context to what the shopper is asking about.
2. Expandable recommendations
Shoppers like recommendations, but they also want to see the most detailed product image possible so they can verify it’s right for them. They like to see a product up close as if they’re holding it, but not in a way that complicates their experience. To facilitate better product visibility, we’ve created a product recommendation widget that’s expandable. When a recommendation is first sent to a shopper, it displays at its default size—an optimal size that doesn’t take up too much vertical space in the chat experience but still provides a rich inline card with product imagery. If a shopper wants to see a larger image, they can expand it and even pinch and zoom right within the chat console.
3. Pinning a recommendation
Inspired by Instagram, we added a similar functionality where widgets are pinned to the top of the screen as they scroll so they can quickly return to it within the conversation with just a simple tap.
Product outfit recommendations
Given our product is used across a wide range of product categories—sporting goods, apparel, footwear, electronics, home, and more—we’ve created tools that help shoppers when they need to buy a set of products. We created the product outfit recommendation widget to allow the product experts to select a set of products to recommend to the shopper.
An example: A shopper is looking for a new outfit to wear to a party. A product expert could recommend one set of products at a time until they get a sense of what the person is looking for and then create an “outfit” they could purchase all together. This widget provides a way to better communicate with a shopper and allows them to create a collection that fits the style of the shopper.
Meet user expectations
Messaging apps and conversational commerce are becoming more and more common, and our expectations for those experiences are rising. Until ecommerce chat services catch up with messaging apps, they’re missing a huge opportunity to influence purchasing decisions and increase sales.
I believe we’re doing this at Needle. We’re excited to get our new chat tool rolled out to our current customers. See it in action or request a demo.
by Ben Peck
Ben Peck is the Principal Product Designer at Needle, a personal shopping assistant chat tool used by brands such as Nike, Sonos, Taylormade, Stance, and more. Ben is also the co-founder of the Front Conference, a product design and management conference held in Utah, as well as the director of the Product Design Association, which has over 1,900 product designers and product managers.