This e-commerce redesign was my final project in a 12 week UX class from General Assembly in Washington, DC.

About AlterNatives

A mockup for AlterNatives' website.
A mockup for AlterNatives’ website.

AlterNatives is a small brick and mortar store. It acts as a retail outlet for Pixan Productions which provides job opportunities, education, and skill development to indigenous women in the Guatemala highlands.

The women at Pixan Productions produce handicrafts like woven bags, and AlterNatives sells those crafts in their store. Procedes from the sales go back into education and support at Pixan, completing the cycle of awesomeness.

AlterNatives also sells clothing, accessories, jewelry, and home decor items sourced from suppliers with similar dedication to social responsibility.

If you’re familiar with the store Ten Thousand Villages, they’re something like that. AlterNatives is smaller though, with just one retail store and virtually no online presence at the time of my research.

My Role

In the spring of 2014 I was studying UX through General Assembly’s twelve week on site User Experience Design course in Washington, DC. I volunteered to do some UX research for Alternatives as the subject of my final class project.

My plan was to create documentation that the owners could use to make a website that would really serve their users and help convert browsers into buyers.

This documentation included:

  • personas of online customers
  • user flows from landing on the site to checkout
  • two sitemaps (one for the organization of the main nav, and another for the footer nav)
  • a competitive analysis of Novica.com and Sevenly.org
  • a prototype of a checkout process and a report on the testing sessions that confirmed the success of that design

The Strategy

I met with AlterNatives owner to assess his needs and pain points.

To get a better understanding of the problem space, I did a competitive analysis of three online stores with similar social missions.

To better understand existing AlterNatives customers, I chatted with sales associates (I wasn’t able to speak with customers directly). Since there wasn’t really an existing online customer base, decided to learn about their potential online customers by interviewing people who shop online for socially or ecologically responsible goods.

Using these interviews, I created four user personas highlighting ways they might access the site, what their motivations for shopping at a place like AlterNatives might be, and how they might be reached through social media and other marketing strategies.

Business Goals and Pain Points

AlterNatives had two big pain points, and these were their main motivators for setting up a successful online store.

First, as a single retail outlet they were subject to unpredictable changes to foot traffic. Things like sidewalk construction, bad weather, and road closings could cut into their bottom line without warning.

Second, finding customers who would evangelize their store was a difficult process. Getting the word out and finding people who would become repeat customers involved setting up booths at art fairs or similar events. They had success talking with people and telling them about their mission, but the whole process it involved a lot of leg work and they might not actually get many sales out of it. They hoped an online store would give them a platform to let people know about their mission and develop relationships with people without all of the effort.

I made it my mission to find ways to foster relationships and online word of mouth evangelism. I wanted to find ways AlterNatives could get users to join the family so to speak, and spread the word through their own volition.

Interviews and Personas

UserPersona-PrivateSchool

To convey essential ideas about what an online customer base would need and what they wouldn’t, I developed four personas like the one you see above. These were based on my discussions with store employees about their current brick and mortar customers, and my interviews with potential online customers.

I found those customers by creating a screener survey, and interviewing people who matched criteria like being comfortable shopping online, and specifically choosing socially or ecologically responsible goods.

In researching the problem space for online stores with a social or environmental mission, I had read reports that people were becoming weary of “green-washing”. I wanted to know what kinds of symbols and indications might help users trust that AlterNatives was genuine.

I learned from my interviews that terms like “organic” and “fair trade” didn’t mean much to these shoppers. Neither did badges or certifications. They were either skeptical that these words and certifications meant anything at all, or they thought they didn’t prove enough. The absence of words like Fair Trade might be conspicuous, but their presence wasn’t enough to convince someone that a site was legitimately helping people.

What really made users trust a brand were photos, testimonials, and video of the people being helped.

Competitive Analysis

AlterNativesCompetativeAnalysis_Page_02

I took a look at other online stores with similar humanitarian missions including TenThousandVilliages.com Novica.com, and Sevenly.org to see how they addressed the kinds of issues I uncovered in my user research.

My first step was to go through a complete purchase process for each store. I wanted to make note of any delightful touches, or pain points during the purchase flow.

Unfortunately, TenThousandVillages.com was such a difficult process I couldn’t complete the purchase. I made notes about serious issues to avoid, but ultimately decided to remove TenThousandVilliages.com from my analysis. I thought the negative critique of their store would be less helpful than positive findings at the other two.

Next up was Novica.com. Novica.com is a National Geographic company that is very similar to AlterNatives in their offerings and demographic. Like AlterNatives, the products at Novica are in large part made by artisans in developing countries. Novica did things right on a lot of fronts, and I especially appreciated their navigation architecture. Novica offers multiple ways to locate the same items, and really good product filtering options.

Sevenly excelled with their social media presence and the way they fostered a feeling of membership among their customers. The T shirts they sell literally say something about that week’s charity in the design itself. By wearing an advertisement for a charity people are inviting questions about getting involved and making their own purchases.

Recommendations

Many of their brick and mortar customers weren’t aware of AlterNative’s social mission or their outreach to women in Guatemala. But the online marketplace was already full of similar products – many made without regard to working conditions or fair compensation for workers – that were sold at lower prices.

I hypothesized that AlterNatives could stand out in the crowd with their mission of responsible fashion and in the process foster customer engagement and loyalty. I knew from interviews that people were willing to pay more for responsible fashion over cheaper items from sweat shops. Testimonials and photos from women in Guatemala would help users trust AlterNative’s intentions.

AlterNatives didn’t have an advertising budget, and I thought social media could be a way to create a grass roots campaign around the store’s mission. The users I interviewed almost never used social share buttons on product pages. They weren’t against sharing, but they often didn’t see the point.

To give users a reason to share, I suggested AlterNatives use more specific calls to action. I suggested exploring things like a custom hashtag, recommended tweets, and the ability to share not only an image of their purchase but one of the people they helped with specific stats about the good that AlterNatives does.

Something like “I helped empower someone like Marta by buying this shirt! #lookgreatdogood” with a photo of Marta and share-this buttons should be much more compelling than a generic “like” button.

Prototypes

To bring it all together, I made a few clickable mockups for Alternatives to demonstrate how a website based on my research might look.

Option One

I was a fan of this design, but the owners thought it looked too “country”. I think that was at least in part because of the photo I used as an example full page background. I realized this is a huge pitfall when delivering mockups – while I can visualize the site with lots of different kinds of images – it was understandably hard for the owner to get past the image right in front of him.

AlterNativesPrototype1

Option Two

AlterNatives didn’t have any of their own photography that would work for an image heavy design, but they assured me they could create some. So I tried again with a design that was more bold and colorful. Ultimately, they liked this design a lot more.

AlterNativesPrototype

Final Thoughts

I really enjoyed working on such a worthwhile project!

My expectations about what users would want were violated along the way – and that’s a good thing. It really drove home the message “I am not my user”, and it made crystal clear the advantages of doing UX research before designing.

For example, I assumed people who wanted sweat shop free clothing would care about the term “fair trade” but in my interviews I discovered they didn’t. They either didn’t know enough about what the term signified, or they didn’t trust that it was being used properly. If I hadn’t realized this, I might have missed out on other really interesting design opportunities to connect with customers and build their trust.