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(A)head of the competition.

. Iga

What is the purpose of an e-commerce header? If God created a header - not corporations - what would it be? What would it look like? What has it been and what will it become?

I have been pondering this topic for about 10 months now, as I have been lucky to work on projects that involved header design, both the functional aspects and visual design. I have to admit, my first attempts were a product of my personal taste and what I thought a header should look like. I guess every designer starts there. But quickly enough, I reached new depths on the subject pondering: what would be an optimal header height, branding, color systems, navigation and other business objectives.

I looked at our competitors’ headers to assess and compare the current state of things. It didn’t take me long to notice header patterns across all major web retailers: they were static, corporate, logos on the left, text links on the upper right with an icon of a shopping cart somewhere in the mix. That was all underlined by a massive color bar with search function and departmental navigation in it. The same fonts, the same visual treatment for tabs, similar colors – nothing really stood out.

Here is my question and problem: if we, as UX designers and business people think of our header as something unique to our audience, if it speaks our brand message, why on earth do all headers look nearly identical? Why do we copy each other? Because it works, or because it works on a acceptable level and it’s safe to stay within a standard?

Shopping tools have changed in the past two years. What influences the purchase now is not what it used to be. We used to rely on promotions and advertising to close the sale, now we have Facebook and consumer reviews. This shift is not evident in our global elements where it is still easier for me to locate a tab for Gifts or a Weekly Circular than to access social shopping tools, or a call to action for Sign in – a gateway to personalization and relevance. A successful retailer needs to focus on consumers, not simply on selling stuff. What pieces of content need to be immediately and globally noticeable to create better action (clicking on links, subscribing, sharing, UGC, etc)? Can those elements respond dynamically to what the user is doing on the site (modes), reflect or adapt to individual voices and content? It is a question of real estate -- a representation of a highly valued area parceled out to different business units vs. architecture -- a dynamic, multi-pane mode reacting to a state of engagement.

I believe our task is to create environments (digital, or augmented) that facilitate and encourage participation, build trust with the consumer, and change gracefully over time while retaining their unique identity. Infusing some personality to the experience doesn’t mean arbitrary design executions. It is about picking the right direction and sticking with it.


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