How online retailers can use AR to improve UX

Bridge the gap between online and in-store retail.

Online retailers have been experimenting with AR (augmented reality) for a few years now, but I think we’re finally reaching the point where it can genuinely enhance the user experience.

Augmented reality allows retailers to show virtually rendered objects and images in real world situations, most often through a smartphone.

When used well, it offers the chance to bridge the gap between online and in-store retail, by allowing people to try before they buy and visualise products as they will look.

How AR can help to improve the user experience

By making it easier for shoppers to visualise products and understand how they will work, AR can improve the user experience.

Nielsen Norman Group has outlined three areas in which augmented reality helps to improve the user experience:

  • By reducing the effort required from users to complete a task. AR can minimise the number of steps a user needs to take. By automatically presenting the information relevant to the product, it reduces the need to take action to find this information. For example, by displaying a product in the context of a user’s home, there’s less need to seek information about size and dimensions.
  • Reducing the user’s cognitive load. As AR displays useful information automatically, less mental effort is required by the shopper.
  • AR can increase confidence in a decision. AR gathers information from multiple sources, thereby reducing the complexity of the task.

In other words, if AR can make interactions with ecommerce sites require less effort, and convey information easily, then this is great from a UX perspective.

As well as the UX benefits, it can also help reduce returns rates, as customer are buying goods armed with more of the key information they need to make a decision.

AR in ecommerce can be used to improve the mobile shopping experience, which is clearly a key area of focus now that mobile traffic is overtaking desktop in many areas.

Anything which can improve the mobile user experience, and reduce the effort required to find and purchase products on a smaller screen has the potential to improve mobile conversion rates.

In addition, while AR has been principally offered through mobile apps in the past, tech such as 8thwall and ARQuick now means that AR can be used through mobile browsers, so customers don’t need to download apps and retailers can offer AR experiences to a broader range of customers.

How to get ahead of changing consumer behavior, whatever the future holds

Examples of augmented reality in retail

IKEA Place 

IKEA Place is an AR app for iOS and Android which helps people to visualise how the furniture and other items they’re browsing through will look at home.

It answers key questions about the products with shoppers needing to make little effort, beyond downloading the app in the first place.

It tells customers how items will look in their homes and whether it will match their current colour scheme.

The app also addresses questions about whether furniture will fit in rooms, as it is accurate down to the millimetre.

Used in this way, AR is speeding up the shopping process for shoppers, providing detailed information at the cost of minimal effort for users.

Home Depot’s Project Color app

Choosing the right paint colour can be a slow process of trial and error, and its AR app aims to solve a problem that affects both online and in store shoppers, how a paint colour will look like in the room or area you want to paint.

The app performs two functions – helping customers to see how colours work in their room, and providing colour suggestions that match the existing decor in the room.

Once colours are selected, users can buy online through the app, or find the nearest store to them.

As with IKEA’s app, it effectively communicates key information about a product with minimal user effort.


Rather than using an app, Nomatic’s AR technology works in browsers, so customer are spared the hassle of downloading an extra app.

Shoppers can see a 3D virtual model of the products, spin them round to check out the various zips and pockets, and try them for size.

Making this accessible to browser users means it’s easier to find and use. The 3D cube symbol indicates products that can be viewed using AR:

Users can then manipulate a 3D model of the product, or view it in a real life situation:

Treat a Dog

Treat a Dog is using in-browser AR to show its range of Pup Lounge dog beds.

It works in the same way as Nomadic, which is also on Shopify, by presenting the cube icon next to product images.

One criticism here is that, though the tech is great, not every shopper will know what this symbol indicates, so maybe some explanatory text would help.

Here, AR helps shoppers to easily see whether the dog bed fits in the designated corner of the lounge, and whether their dog will fit in it. It’s a great way to help customers find answers to key questions about products.

In summary

AR has been used in various ways by retailers, some of which veer towards gimmickry rather than practicality. To improve the shopping experience, retailers must integrate AR with ecommerce product pages, and other relevant areas of the site.

It should streamline the process of customer decision making, and provide quick answers to key customer questions about products, how they’ll look where they’ll be used, and will they fit being two of the most obvious.

I’d also argue that, to encourage greater use of AR product displays, retailers need to move away from AR apps into web-based AR. This means retailers can integrate AR onto the products pages which customers are using for research and purchase.

AR has great potential to improve the user experience for shoppers, and to boost conversion rates for retailers. I expect we’ll see much more uses like this in the near future.