Just as brick-and-mortar stores need to worry about floor plans and visual merchandising, online retailers need to worry about their eCommerce website design and how it affects the user experience.

As we’re about to explain, design decisions—both site appearance and functionality—have a huge impact on revenue. For serious eCommerce brands that want to utilize every possible advantage, template sites just don’t cut it. Only custom web design can tailor your online shopping experience specifically to your customer base.

This article will kick off our series on custom eCommerce web design. To start, let’s explain precisely why custom eCommerce design is a must for serious brands. 

Why Web Design for eCommerce Matters

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Let’s take a look at some of the major ways your site’s design affects business.

  • Credibility — Beauty is more than skin-deep when it comes to web design. A Stanford study revealed that 46% of users judged a site’s credibility on looks alone, especially  “the appeal of the overall visual design… including layout, typography, font size, and color schemes.”  
  • Atmosphere — The visual style of your site affects the atmosphere and overall shopping experience, from the image content to color choices. For example, if you sell a fashion line that’s edgy and on the radical side, a site with a heavy use of black and avant-garde photo choices makes shopping more enjoyable to your target customers.
  • Bounce Rates — Your user will decide whether or not they want to buy on your site before they really even start shopping. A Microsoft research study shows that users take only 10 seconds to decide whether or not they want to invest more time on a site before bouncing. First impressions matter.
  • Navigation — No matter what kind of site you have, your user will always have to navigate where they want to go. Econsultancy cites that only 30% of users navigate by the search bar, meaning the majority are going to use the navigation menus that you offer them. (Read the article for 13 tips on the best navigation practices for eCommerce.)

Design decisions like layout, navigation, typography, content, and color scheme all have a wide range of possibilities. Even if you optimize them according to the base requirements, there’s still so much gray area that’s determined by individual preference and your brand. That’s why it’s crucial to customize your site to your own users, and why templates tend to fall short.

When Templates Aren’t Enough

As Shanelle Mullen puts it, templates are useful for situations in which “done is better than perfect.” Templates or off the shelf themes aren’t going to result in an optimal shopping experience, but on some occasions, they are the best option:

  • Experiments and minimum viable products — Because the cost is lower for templates, any risky venture is better started on a template before too much money is sunk into a fully custom site design. If you’re not sure if a product or brand can grow into a great business, starting with a template can be a less risky proposition.

While templates are useful in the above situations, they still come with a lot of drawbacks: there could be other sites using your exact same template making your store look generic, the design won’t be made specifically for your customer base, it won’t be custom-tailored to your brand’s personality and often times templates are poorly coded resulting in slower load times, bad SEO and contain lots of superfluous elements that hurt the user experience and aren’t easy to remove.

If you’re not careful, you can spend more time and money modifying and fixing a template than you would working with an experienced web design agency, studio or even a skilled freelancer.

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That said, if you have the time and money for a custom site, the payoff is almost always better:  

  • Adapted to specific shopper trends and preferences (best possible UX)
  • Ranks better in search engines
  • More distinguished appearance that’ll stand out against competition
  • Complete control over brand identity
  • More hands-on tech support

Keep in mind that you can start with a theme framework or a barebones theme to get a head start and save some time and cost. Many web professionals are happy to do this or already do so by default because it’s efficient. This can eliminate some of the repetitive tasks with custom web design and provide a solid baseline to build off of.

For example, Bones is an open-source theme for LemonStand that’s aimed at web developers and designers. It’s a great way for brands to get a head start on a custom web design project.

In the end, the most important thing is to create a website that’ll strengthen your brand, and lead your customers through a buttery-smooth shopping experience.

Business author Michael LeBoeuf once wrote “A satisfied customer is the best business strategy of all.”

Will an off the shelf template be the most effective way to satisfy your customers?

Web Design Agencies vs. Hiring In-House

If you believe that a custom web design will provide the best customer shopping experience, you’ll need to decide whether to hire an in-house design team or outsource the project to an agency (a studio or freelancer is also an option). Just like the template/custom design debate, there are different situations in which one is preferable over the other. Let’s start with design agencies, a topic we discussed in our previous article, The Agency Is Not Dead.

Advantages of a Design Agency:

  • Specialized skills — If you require a special task, you can outsource the project to a verified expert. For example, if you want to focus exclusively on a graphics upgrade, or maybe you’re initiating a pay-per-click campaign, you can contract a specialist. Your in-house team might lack the experience you need, and there’s no planning for what types of expertise you’ll require in the future.
  • No concern about equipment or space — If you’re hiring in-house, you’ll need to provide your team with the resources they need. Agencies take care of all that, so you don’t need to worry about it.
  • Hire as needed — Depending on how involved your site’s upkeep is, you may only need a design team for projects that come up periodically: the initial site build and subsequent upgrades. If little maintenance is required, hiring in-house staff may be a waste.

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Advantages of In-House Staff

  • Easier to manage — By developing a long-term working relationship with your designers, you’ll be able to collaborate and communicate with them easier. This facilitates things like progress updates, last-minute modifications, and changes to your overall strategy.
  • Better for ongoing work – eCommerce websites often require ongoing work, such as designing banners for promotions, coordinating marketing newsletters, creating and publishing content and more. If your business has repetitive work that needs doing, hiring someone in-house specific to that role can be a great choice. They can even help you interface with an agency that you use for larger or more specialized projects.

Unfortunately, it’s difficult to compare the cost of contracting an agency or hiring in-house. Both are highly scalable depending on project size and requirements and the designer’s skill level.

There are also other variables like equipment that impact the final price tag. The points above should help you decide the best path for your business.

If you decide to hire a design agency, Felicia Savage of digitalrelevance gives these tips:

  • Shop around before choosing — Do your research, in other words. If you’re looking for a particular skill or specialty, know who’s who in that field to make sure you get your money’s worth.
  • Get to know the people  — Don’t just fire off an RFP to a bunch of agencies (the best ones won’t respond to unexpected RFPs anyways). That won’t give you many insights into how they work with clients. Shortlist some agencies based on their portfolio, then speak to them in person or over the phone before requesting a proposal from the ones that look to be a good fit for your business.
  • Express your needs well — Your designers are most likely unfamiliar with your project, so it’s up to you to explain to them what you want and need. Without telling them how to do their job (that’s why you’re hiring them!), communicate what goals you would like them to accomplish. This means, first and foremost, that you yourself must be aware of what you want from the project.
  • Don’t be afraid to push back — Remember that you hired them. If you’re not satisfied with their work, respectfully explain to them why. Moreover, don’t expect them to get it right the first time. Design work often takes a lot of back-and-forth, so be patient and open-minded, but don’t settle.
  • Give productive feedback — A lot of the friction between designers and their clients comes from miscommunication and ineffective feedback. One quick tip for better communication is to phrase feedback as a problem, not a solution. State what you want changed, not how to change it — that’s their job.

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Whichever route you take to customize your site design, make sure you weigh your options and consider your site’s specific needs before finalizing a decision.

Conclusion

Templates are not a bad choice for every situation, but they can only take you so far. As your eCommerce store becomes more and more successful, there will come a time when a custom design made by an expert will be required.

Keep checking back here at LemonStand for more articles on our custom web design series, including hands-on advice for web design visuals, improving your UX, and conducting the right tests to learn what your customers want even better than they do.