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How to build an ecommerce website from brief to launch

How to build an ecommerce website from brief to launch

By Steve McGrath, Big Dot Media

E-commerce is currently enjoying outstanding success, with 2011 getting off to a sensational start for e-tailers.  According to IMRG Capgemini Sales Index, UK shoppers spent an estimated £5.1bn online during January.  This compares to an estimated e-tail spend of £4.2bn in the same month last year.

Transactional websites used to be limited to large e-tailers with big resources for custom websites and enterprise internet merchant accounts, but with the advent of many free shopping cart platforms such as Magento and Cubecart as well as cheap third party payment gateways such as Google Checkout and Paypal, e-commerce websites are available to the masses.

While there are some impressive examples of e-commerce campaigns scattered across the internet, there are also some which, in all honesty, leave much to be desired.  An e-commerce website is highly visible, it lays a brand bare for all to see, so it’s critical to do it right. Doing it badly has the potential to cripple a company through missed sales and a bad reputation, can you really take that risk?

The good news is that in this digital age, there have never before been so many tools at our disposal for creating an e-commerce strategy.  Here we highlight five highly important, but commonly missed areas, which have the potential to make a positive difference to your e-commerce campaign.

Planning is absolutely vital to the success of an e-commerce strategy, with thought processes and strategies laid out for all to have an input on.  Everybody will have their own ideas on how an e-commerce website should work and, with this collective knowledge, the foundations can be put into place to create an e-commerce strategy that works.

Digital personas are teams of people (they could be employees or an external agency) who will view and use the website as a consumer, in order to test the site structure.  Usually they will not have been involved in the planning process so will be seeing the website with fresh eyes, rather than having a biased opinion.

This is the path a user takes from the point they land on your website to the point they exit.  You need to map lots of journeys to your website to see if there are any bottlenecks or problems that could occur at any stage in the user journey.  

You also need to be aware of what your conversion point is, whether it be a sale, a brochure enquiry or a phone call, and make it as easy as possible for those conversion points to be reached.

This is where people who are not part of the project get to try and break your website.  The best bet is if user groups consist of the demographic of people using your site.  For instance, if your site is aimed primarily at females aged between 18 – 24 years old, then they should form the bulk of your user groups.  

User groups should be given set task lists.  For instance, find information on a particular product, download a brochure or buy a particular product in a particular colour.  The feedback of this user group testing should be used to tweak various aspects of your site before it goes live.  Ideally, the user testing should be carried out by the agency rather than the client, and there are special usability testing companies to call upon if any agency doesn’t have the time or resource to manage it themselves.

In the same way that split testing is used in email marketing, you can use the same theory to test the effectiveness of your website.  For instance, you could direct half of web users to one home page and half to another, or direct half to one shopping cart process and half to a different one.

This enables you to test small or large changes to your users’ web journey and accurately track the result of those changes.  A good example of this would be to test the simplification of your shopping cart process to see whether it resulted in less shopping cart abandonment.  Using a call to action is another good way of split testing results.  For example, you could see whether better conversion rates are gained by changing something as simple as your buy button.  This should not be just a process that occurs when your site goes live, but a continually evolving process to improve conversion metrics.


You should constantly check your web usage metrics to see whether users are getting stuck at certain stages of their user journey.  In particular, monitor your top exit pages, where a user leaves your website, and identify any problems with those pages that stopped a user completing their journey.

If your top exit page is also your conversion page, you know you’re doing something right.  Make it as easy as possible for conversions to occur from any page of your website.  Remember that users can enter your site from any page, not just home, so it’s important you give the same consideration to your inner pages, as well as your homepage.  As with A/B testing, again user journey analysis should be monitored, analysed and actioned on a regular basis.

One other point to consider with e-commerce websites is that if you process your credit card transaction on your site, your website and server need to be PCI compliant. PCI compliance is a standard set by the Payment Card Industry and requires you, at the very least, to complete a self assessment questionnaire annually and have your website and server scanned on a regular basis. More information on PCI compliance can be found here.

In summary, if you want your e-commerce website to perform, ideally you need to think about some or all of the above points. There are over 22 million websites available on the internet and the days of ‘if you build it, they will come’ are over. Unless you are a well known brand, the hard part is to get traffic to come to you, when you have enticed them in, don’t loose them by making it hard to buy from your website.

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