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The Design Theory Behind Amazon’s $5.6 Billion Success

Amazon’s success brings into relief a principle that is sometimes hard to swallow in the design community: Successful design is not necessarily beautiful.

The Design Theory Behind Amazon’s $5.6 Billion Success
[Screenshot: Amazon]

Amazon is undoubtedly the most significant force in the digital transformation of commerce: an estimated 44% of all online sales are on Amazon, and more than one in three U.S. adults are estimated to be Amazon Prime members. The company had $5.6 billion in income last year (none of which went to the federal government, controversially), and 95% of current Prime subscribers say they’ll either “definitely” or “probably” renew.  Yet few credit the role design has played in the company’s success. If you read Amazon’s famous leadership principles, only two—”Customer Obsession” and “Invent and Simplify”—are correlated with a designerly way of developing products and services And they don’t even explicitly talk about design.

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From an aesthetic point of view, Amazon’s web store is neither simple nor  beautiful–two things we expect of good design. Instead, it focuses on simplicity of experience, process, and functionality. For many designers, the idea that an experience with Amazon’s visual complexity succeeds is somewhat confounding. So, how might a designer look at Amazon to understand why it works, despite—if not because of—its aesthetic?

Amazon’s design succeeds because it makes use of four key principles that all great shopping experiences embody—whether digital or physical, luxury, or low-cost. At their heart, all great shopping experiences are:

[Screenshot: Amazon]

1. Transparent

Great shopping experiences make pricing and the purchase process clear and easily understood.

At first glance, the Amazon experience doesn’t appear to be especially transparent. Consider its dynamic pricing model: Similar to Uber’s loathed surge pricing or the familiar dynamic pricing of airfares and hotels that bedevils travelers, Amazon has been rightly criticized for a lack of transparency, leading to fines. While consumers don’t care for dynamic pricing, they are also accustomed to doing their own research to make sure they’re getting the best price; dynamic shopping is not unique to Amazon.

So why might users give Amazon a pass on its dynamic pricing? One possible reason is that Amazon has, with its Prime service, solved two key obstacles of online shopping: eliminating both the hidden cost of shipping and the perception that shopping online is slower than shopping at retail. Prime succeeds because of the design of its effortless mental model: pay a yearly fee and get free two-day shipping (with Oscar-worthy movies included!). The transparency of Prime’s mental model is what enables Amazon’s most notable interaction design achievements for shopping: the simplicity and elegance of Amazon’s patent (recently expired) for one-click purchases, which laid the groundwork for shopping by voice on Alexa as well as the interaction design of Amazon’s Dash buttons.

[Screenshot: Amazon]

2. Tangible

When people have a choice between different products, or variations of a product, great shopping experiences make those product choices tangible and immediate, so that people can make confident, informed choices.

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Amazon’s product display page aims to achieve the remarkable: helping people understand the attributes of any type of product for sale. If you go to a commerce website that only sells a single type of product—clothing, or shoes, or automotive parts—it has the luxury of tailoring its experience to the particular attributes of the products it sells.

In contrast, Amazon is designed to sell nearly every product imaginable. This means product display pages and result listings are not as streamlined, elegant, nor necessarily as fit for purpose as a category-specific or brand site. Amazon turns this seeming disadvantage into an asset: Every product display page uses the same modules and underlying structure. This creates a consistency of experience that makes it easy for users to quickly understand the attributes of any product.

[Screenshot: Amazon]

3. Trustworthy

People want to know the store they’re doing business with is up front.

As a storefront that manages not only first-party sales (i.e., things Amazon sells itself) but also third-party sales (Amazon’s “Marketplace” comprises roughly half of its sales), Amazon has a remarkable challenge in designing a consistent experience that delivers on its promises.

One thing that’s especially frustrating with Amazon’s shopping experience is when a search produces results of an item available from multiple sellers (not uncommon): Which seller is most reliable? Which includes shipping, which doesn’t? Which is rated by users as being reliable? It sometimes takes a lot of work to sort through all the options to make a confident choice.

There’s a compelling logic at play: Amazon has assiduously avoided giving those vendors clear storefronts of their own—unlike Etsy and eBay, which help vendors create unique storefronts. In Amazon, the user is always just shopping on Amazon; the Marketplace vendors might only be seen as Mechanical Turk workers for the procurement and delivery of goods that Amazon does not (yet) itself have a corner on, much like Uber and Lyft drivers might be seen as a transitional labor force, while those companies wait for self-driving cars to be available at a sustainable, feasible scale.

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Amazon bets that the potential confusion and additional burden placed on users presented by Marketplace goods intermingling with first-party offers will enable a consistent experience in other areas where user challenges present a much greater risk: delivery and returns. When you buy something through Amazon, whether directly or through the Marketplace, you still feel like you’ve bought it from Amazon—this entitles Amazon to extend the Prime’s two-day shipping to third parties, as well as unify the returns process, both of which aim to build fundamental trust with the user around whatever they buy on Amazon. Were Amazon a platform that enabled third-party sellers to curate the experience with more control, this would be harder to achieve.

[Screenshot: Amazon]

4. Helpful

People don’t always know what they want, or how to get what they need. Great shopping experiences anticipate their challenges and proactively answer people’s questions.

Just as the product detail page is able to accommodate a diversity of product information, Amazon’s faceted search interface—the left column of filters and category navigation—scales and seamlessly adapts to give users contextual choices, so you can find just what you’re looking for.

Like the product display page, the faceted search experience suffers in certain instances by not being perfectly tailored to category-specific needs. For instance, compare the tools provided by Amazon to search for shoes compared with (Amazon-owned) Zappos’s shoe-specific navigation. It compensates for these shortcomings with a consistency of experience that enables users to move quickly through the system to find what they’re searching for without needing to learn new interaction patterns.

As Dieter Rams Said, Good Design Makes A Product Useful

Amazon’s visual design might not be streamlined, minimal, beautiful, or engage people on an emotional level, but it is immensely useful. Its functionality and corresponding aesthetic are tailored expressly to support the core attributes of an efficient shopping experience. Indeed, Amazon could almost be described as a sort digital Brutalism: it is straightforward and efficient, with a near-utopian aspiration to meet people’s needs in the least fussy way possible.

Amazon’s success brings into relief a principle that is sometimes hard to swallow in the design community–successful design is not necessarily beautiful. Of course, the notion that design is merely an aesthetic exercise was debunked long ago, with the canonization of research-led design thinking as a widely adopted design practice. Yet it can still be a challenge to accept that a well-designed experience may not be aesthetic. To examine Amazon’s success through the lens of design requires looking at the design of the systems below the interface as much as its surface. Amazon’s design ethos has undoubtedly made as much of an impact on the world as companies more famous for their design, such as Apple or Ikea, though it gets little credit. It would be a mistake to look at Amazon and think that design doesn’t matter.

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It’s worth noting that the design principles Amazon has leaned on to craft its experience are also areas of opportunity for competitors—each of these principles describes what people value in a shopping experience.  Will Amazon be able to adhere to its principles as the company grows (and grows and grows)? The time is ripe for others to innovate and create a better, more satisfying experience. Looking at you, Walmart.

Jason Brush is executive vice president of Creative and UX at POSSIBLE, where he oversees creative and user experience design in the agency’s Los Angeles branch, and user experience design globally. In addition to his award-winning work at POSSIBLE, he teaches courses at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena and at UCLA.  @jasonbrush / Linkedin

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