The Most Overlooked Cause of E-commerce Website Failure

Sally still had $372 available on her store gift card when she decided to give up.  After spending the last fifteen minutes fighting with the website, she finally threw in the towel and quit, even though she knew that in doing so she would lose the remaining balance on the gift card.  Amazingly, Sally’s experience is not unusual.  Studies have repeatedly found that it is not uncommon for people to leave a website before they bought what they came there to buy.  The underlying issue at the core of this e-commerce failure may surprise you and it certainly has implications for non e-commerce websites as well.

Website Navigation

Although website navigation is often overlooked, it is one of the more critical pieces of the puzzle.


Misplaced Attention

Usually when a new website is being evaluated, the primary attention is focused on how the site looks.  Next, the wording on the page is fussed over just a bit.  Often overlooked is the elephant in the room – the website’s navigation.

Although website navigation is often overlooked, it is one of the more critical pieces of the puzzle.  It’s easy to see why: if you can’t find what you’re looking for on a website, you’ll go elsewhere.  Frequently, what gets the most attention during the design of a site is the aesthetics, and as important as the look and feel of a site are, the ability for people to do what they are supposed to do on the website is tied very closely to the navigation structure.

Most Desired Action

What is the action that you most desire for people to take on your website?  The most desired action is a very important thing to keep in mind.  Often, this action will vary across different pages.  There are actions on a page level that you want people to take, and then there are actions on a site-wide level.  Those site-wide actions should be a part of the global navigation for your website.  The page level actions should be clearly laid out on the appropriate pages.

Your visitors aren’t mind readers – once you are clear on what action you most desire for people to take on your website, you’ve got to make sure it is clearly laid out for them.

Accommodate Different Ways of Thinking

Not everyone thinks the way you do.  This is something that has to be kept in mind when considering your website and how it should be tweaked to improve the leads or sales that it is generating for your business.

Website usability studies have shown that website usage is often idiosyncratic.  In other words, the people on your website don’t all navigate around your site in exactly the same way.  If you were plotting on paper the route that a person takes through the different pages on your website, the resulting diagram may look a lot like spaghetti.  What this means is that your site must be laid out so that getting around on it is drop-dead simple, no matter what page a person is on or what they want to see or do next.

Based On Use Cases

Even though website usability (often abbreviated as UX) on an individual level is idiosyncratic – all this really means in practical terms is that when it comes to an individual, you can’t really predict how that person will travel through your site.  This means that listening to every suggestion about how your site should be laid out is like going down a rabbit hole.

The navigation for your site is easy to map out to accommodate different people and their different ways of thinking when you use website use cases.   These are helpful tools that allow you to gain a great deal of insight into how people with different issues or in different situations approach your website.

Accommodating different use cases in your navigational layout will mean facilitating the top four different ways of finding things and taking action.

Search for a Known Item

Searching for a known item is one of the top four ways people look for something on your website.  For example, if a person is in the market for a camera – they may attempt to locate it on your site by searching for the model name or the model number.  This type of technical exact search had better bring the results that they are looking for, or they’ll quickly leave and find what they’re looking for on a competitor’s site.

To accommodate this way of locating things on your site, a site search feature is needed.  When was the last time that you searched for something specific on your website?  Were you pleased with the results?  You’d be surprised at how often this feature doesn’t work quite right on big shopping websites.


Exploring is what happens when people are looking for a solution, but aren’t exactly sure which solution will be the right one.  Going back to our camera shopper, the person knows they want a camera and they want it to have certain features, but they don’t yet know which camera will be the best fit for their situation.  Perhaps they’re looking for a digital camera that they can use on an upcoming underwater dive.

To accommodate this way of locating things, clear hierarchical navigation is very helpful.  Think category, sub-category, etc.  If something fits into more than one category, go ahead and put it in multiple categories.  Be careful, though, not to dilute the efficiency of your navigation by putting things in too many categories.  People often quickly scan for the information they are looking for and then once it is located, they slow down to read it.  Putting things in too many categories is a quick way to turn-off visitors and have them running to competitor websites.

Looking For Confidence

Some decisions can easily be made quickly and have little perceived risk.  For example, consider the purchase of a toothbrush or toothpaste.  Is there really such a thing as a bad choice?  Nobody really expects that one brand is super effective while all others are woefully lacking.

However, decisions that have a higher perceived risk – the purchasing of a camera for example – are often carefully considered.  Even non-photo enthusiasts spend time researching different pieces of information, in order to gain the confidence to make the right decision.

This audience is best served, just like the one before, by a very clear category, sub-category driven navigation structure.  Providing lots of details and rich information is especially helpful, as is social proof in the form of testimonials, reviews, and ratings.

Find Again

Some of the visitors on your site are looking for something that they previously found there.  Perhaps it was something they remembered seeing the last time they were on your website.  What often happens in this kind of situation is that someone will know what they want to re-find, but they won’t remember exactly how they found it the first time.

People in this situation can be best helped by the availability of a site search feature, as well as associative navigation.  Associative navigation is usually not the primary navigation on the site, but is very helpful in certain contexts such as this.  Think related to / similar to.

Yes, people could bookmark or favorite what they found on your site, but more often than not, they won’t and will simply try to find it again.  Site search and associative navigation help these folks find what they’re looking for.

Inside the Mind

When it comes to making notes, some people put thoughts and ideas down in outline format, others in mind-maps, still others in paragraph form and other methods.  What it comes down to is that there are multiple ways to document thoughts and ideas for later review or action.  What this means for your website navigation is that the best way of making all the pages of your website easy to find, regardless of how the visitor’s mind works, is to ensure that there are multiple ways of finding everything on your site.

Hierarchical navigation, with its categories and subcategories, is ideally suited for the primary navigation on the website.  This primary navigation usually appears in two different places on the website – the top (or in a vertical column on the side), and the bottom.

Associative navigation, with its suggestions about what is similar to or related to your search, is best interwoven through the site on a page by page basis, where applicable.

In addition to a good site search, a visitor friendly site-map is helpful in making all the pages on your site easy to find, not only on Google and the other search engines, but also for the people who are on your website, regardless of how their mind works.

Robust Navigation

The importance of a well thought out, robust navigation can’t be over stressed.  This is frequently an area to which too little attention is given, and this is a leading cause why Sally and countless others like her are frustrated online.  Putting together a navigational layout that accommodates the idiosyncrasies of your audience and allows people to find what they are looking for in the way that is most convenient for them, is a competitive advantage.  It is an advantage that will result in an immediate increase in the number of leads and sales that your website is generating for your business.

  • Roberto Canonigo May 23, 2013, 12:38 pm

    Another cause of e – commerce website failure is lack of a workable strategy plan.

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