Covid-19 has put online retailers under huge and unexpected pressure. Some have seen demand drop off dramatically while others have experienced spikes in traffic normally only seen during major annual events like Christmas and Black Friday.
In response to this demand, retailers have had to rethink operations, supply chains, and the entire online experience. Some have struggled to keep websites up and running, others to continue to match customer expectations around delivery and stock availability.
So how can businesses carry out their usual UX research and testing before making website changes and launching new products to meet fast-changing consumer demand?
Covid-19 has impacted user experience in a number of ways. First of all, the sheer volume of traffic for some retailers presents challenges for website performance.
This may be in terms of site stability and performance – slow load times can mean a poor experience that can deter users. It’s also about usability – if you have any areas of friction during the checkout, these problems are amplified when more people are shopping on the site.
There’s also the impact on the user research process. Common techniques like usability testing in physical labs have been impossible under the circumstances, while it’s hard to benchmark performance when traffic and customer behavior isn’t normal.
For this reason, the usual research process has been impacted for some retailers.
As Matt Curry, Head of Ecommerce at a major UK retailer, points out, in ‘unusual’ situations in terms of traffic and behavior, it isn’t always possible for retailers to test as normal:
“We are using this time to get through as much development as possible – we can’t do any A/B or multivariate testing as the traffic isn’t usual”
It helps if retailers have carried out plenty of testing in the past, as this can help to inform new developments. For example, Matt has a backlog of won test variants that can be implemented based on what they’ve already learned.
Another positive is there’s an opportunity to carry out different research, as Matt points out:
One issue for retailers is that, with a greater shift to online meaning extra demand, and with variable stock availability, this can make good UX even more important.
The sites that have been working on smooth user experiences, and already excel in terms of clear information and customer messaging, are best placed to withstand this extra demand and to retain newly acquired customers in the long term.
By contrast, poor UX will be even more apparent, as James Gurd points out:
“I don’t think Covid-19 has fundamentally changed UX challenges for online, simply amplified poor UX because more people are online and for longer.”
This current situation may also accelerate the learning process for some retailers. This will hopefully produce long-term UX gains for consumers, as extra demand reveals areas where improvement is necessary.
The effects on offline retail channels mean that online becomes ever more important for multichannel retailers, as James Gurd points out:
“I know several companies that have reprioritize internal development resources to improve core site speed and performance, now that their sole revenue channel is online. It shouldn’t necessitate a global pandemic to take performance seriously, but at least there will be some UX gains for consumers out of this.”
Another interesting result is a spike in desktop traffic in some categories. Less commuting and fewer people going out has reduced mobile shopping to some extent. This trend may be temporary, but is a reminder that desktop UX remains important, especially in sectors such as travel and finance where checkout and form completion can be easier on a larger screen.
The pandemic has also led retailers to design solutions for problems that were previously unforeseen. For example, dealing with customer service when call centers are harder to staff, or allowing limited numbers of customers into stores.
Some retailers will look to quickly design solutions for this, while others may opt for third party solutions, as Matt Curry explains:
“One thing I’m looking at this week is an online appointment booking system for the stores so that they can be open by appointment only and only have one customer in at a time. We’re looking at a third party system for this, one that gives sales assistants the opportunity to provide a remote shopping experience via video.“
As more businesses shift online, and existing online businesses scale up or adapt to changing customer behavior, the digital experience has never been more vital – it’s what enables businesses to retain their new customers and will underpin their future growth.
Around the world, many countries are easing lockdowns and loosening measures to control Covid-19. As physical stores reopen, this may ease the ‘pressure’ on online channels to some degree, but many of the changes in customer behavior we’ve seen over the past few months will have long-term effects.
There are several reasons for this:
Until it dies down to very low levels or effective treatments and vaccines are
found, then its effects will be seen. It will continue to affect supply chains, stock levels, delivery methods and in-store pickup for some time to come.
Consumer confidence about safety means that online channels will still be preferred by many. With social distance queue systems and occupancy controls in place, many will see online as both low-risk and significantly quicker.
Some shoppers who have been reluctant to shop online have been forced to try it out. There will be many long-term converts to the choice and convenience of online grocery shopping, long after the pandemic is over.