Ecommerce UX best practice is like the world’s worst Kinder Egg. It’s delicious and attractive on the outside but a nasty surprise is what you get in the centre – half-truths that love to assassinate conversion rates.

Considering how many best practice guides are regularly published and read, this is not a popular thing to say – even if it is entirely justifiable.

I’ll explain the reasons behind my views and show the amazing ecommerce results you can achieve when you drop the quick-fix approach that best practice promotes.

The term ‘best practice’ is dangerously misleading… and sometimes a flat out lie

Best practice isn’t a list of the best possible decisions you can make for your website. It’s an aggregation of the practices that were most positively received by a cross-section of users, out of the ones they most popularly encountered, during a period of time.

So. Many. Caveats.

Best practice is more like “Popularly Good Practice” or “Probably-Good Trends”. Or, if we’re being really blunt, “What worked for that guy but may not work for you”. Rarely (if ever?) is it a summary of the best possible approach for any single business to adopt.

Also, most recommendations are based on popular or typical businesses. So, if your company and its audience are unusual or novel in ways that aren’t reflected by mainstream business models, you’ll be seriously let down by best practice.

Why does this misnomer matter? Because many people think best practice is literally a summary of the best practices for conversion optimisation. Then they get confused when it doesn’t work or achieves the opposite of desired results and crashes conversion.

To many non-UX professionals, following best practice is what good UX means – which is obviously wrong. As Jakob Nielsen said, “UX without research isn’t UX”.

Best practice illustrates what you can achieve with good user research – it doesn’t legislate what good UX is.

Ecommerce best practice yields inconsistent results… even in the best of cases

“Even a stopped clock is correct twice every day.”

That saying might as well have been written about best practice recommendations. They’re only true in certain settings, for certain businesses and then wrong the rest of time.

It’s almost impossible to offer a solution that has zero probability of working for someone, somewhere. Even what we call “worst practice” will work for some people. Just check out Ling Valentine’s acid trip of an e-commerce site (warning: may have loud music in the background), then read the overwhelmingly positive reviews she gets from customers and respected experts like Econsultancy.

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Does that mean we should all go and litter our websites with dancing chickens and questionable grammar? Of course not. Every single business operates with a unique set of variables – the individuals who make up the customer and employee bases, the product or service offerings and the buying conditions are never all identical for two businesses.

So don’t be surprised to hear that security badges increase conversion – and also that security badges decrease conversion.

Instead of relying on a broken clock because it was right twice that day, you should first and foremost rely on the sun – the only universally consistent (even if “archaic”) tool of measurement.

In the world of business, your customers are like the sun – take your cues from them.

Even the people writing best practice guides know they’re almost useless on their own

If you hadn’t spotted them before, you might now start noticing the subtle disclaimers in best practice guides, like those below:

UserTesting: Why Your Customers Are Abandoning Their Carts
Usabilla: Combat Shopping Cart Abandonment (Essential Strategies to Convert Lost Customers)

Now, I’m not just being mean to Usabilla and UserTesting – they at least acknowledge this fact, whereas many don’t. But even their acknowledgements are understated and easy to miss, and they aren’t discussed in any depth.

Everyone who uses best practice guides should be made blatantly aware of what they are and aren’t good for. Kinda like the approach we take with gambling ads and cigarette packets.

You might say:

“If you’re giving me a list of recommendations that you don’t entirely recommend, what the hell am I supposed to do?”

Well, the point is you should view everything you read in best practice guides through the lens of more objective criteria like:

  • Insights about what needs fixing and why, discovered through UX testing your site
  • Solutions validated through A/B and multivariate tests on your site
  • Usability heuristics (general principles) that are at the core of UX logic

There are a few ways of applying healthy prejudice to best practice and it’s obvious which one we recommend.

But even if you’re not convinced about remote UX testing or think we smell funny… for the love of hash browns, use something else to qualify your application of best practice.

Breaking best practice ‘rules’ can create a better user experience and make you more money – like… 50% more money

Best practice says:

  • Use as few steps in your ecommerce checkout flow as possible
  • Make your checkout linear by removing steps within steps – hidden steps that don’t appear on the progress bar, for example

Well, good thing Andrew Jervis, founder of ClickMechanic, didn’t listen. His company lets you access an online network of freelance mobile mechanics. You get a quote, book a repair, then a vetted mechanic comes over to fix your car. 

When the time came to redesign his website, Andrew wanted to weed out as many conversion blockers as possible. So, naturally, he ran remote UX tests with us 😉

While watching users on the site, he noticed there was a checkout stage that they found tricky. And the solution customers seemed to want – an extra step that was non-linear – violated the two popular recommendations above.

Regardless, Andrew and his team introduced a walkthrough that helped customers diagnose what was wrong with their cars. This change contributed to a whopping 50% increase in online sales, among other benefits.

If you’re in ecommerce and want to reduce checkout abandonment, or if you offer a niche product or service, you should read the full ClickMechanic case study. It’s a real eye-opener.

If the best solution to a problem doesn’t exist yet, you won’t find it in best practice guidelines

Best practice grabs innovation by the throat and slowly chokes the life out of it.

Technology and the market evolve quicker than anyone runs studies and publishes guides. In fact, guides on new trends or behaviours can be created only after these trends emerge. You’ll always be following way behind the pack but never leading it.

You may be in a fantastic position to innovate – to utterly dominate the competition – by helping customers in a way no one else does. But instead of revealing that fact, best practice lures you into thinking just like everyone else – to be less worse off than you were but not actually the best you can be. Best practice cannot see beyond the limitations of your competitors.

Part of the problem is that many of us will take a clear-cut solution of questionable effectiveness over a nuanced one with surefire results. That’s our attitude when it comes to simply aping the actions of another business vs. learning about our customers and coming up with fitting solutions.

That’s the difference between best practice and effective practice.

What can you do better, as far as best practice goes?

Being a realist, I know not all readers will abandon or even reduce how frequently they use best practice guides, just because some guy on the interwebz says to.

With that in mind, here are some ways to lessen the damage they can do to your business.

  1. Understand that best practice isn’t “The Gospel According to Experts” – it’s an illustrative tool to help you understand the kinds of factors that affect the success of your site.
  2. Use best practice to identify the recommendations you are or aren’t breaking, then check whether this has a positive or negative effect on your customers (not just on conversions).
  3. Learn the principles that guide our understanding of what is and isn’t best practice – Jakob Nielsen’s usability heuristics are a great place to start.
  4. Don’t focus on what best practice says you should do… focus on why it tells you to do so.
  5. Unless you have a serious masochistic streak, please run some kind of UX test on your site. How can you possibly cook up a site for customers without first finding out their allergies?

Now that you understand the real UX mandate, go… be fruitful and multiply your profits. Even better, share this article if you think more people need to be aware of what it says.