eCommerce UI Part 3: Navigation

directional signOver the past couple of weeks we have looked at a small handful of 2009s top 100 e-commerce sites. We looked at product detail pages and examined the good and the bad, we looked at footers and how best to organize some of its content and now we will look at navigation.

The size of the product catalog of your online store will decide how to lay out your site’s nav. Generally speaking, there isn’t much difference from one site to another. Looking at a handful of the sites from the top 100 list has shown that most sites with similar competitors will use the same style of navigation. Furthermore, we discover a good percentage of the top sites use a horizontal nav bar with drop down menus broken down by store front and then broken down further into various departments, brands, and so on.

This is neither a comparison nor a showcase, but rather a case study, or the philosophy behind how e-tailers use user interface design to (hopefully) get you where you need to go in as few clicks as possible.

1. The Home Page

qvc homepage
Navigation starts at ground zero, the home page. Sites like QVC, Overstock or Amazon start their top nav differently than specialized retailers like BestBuy. Where the aforementioned sites may have an Electronics section, BestBuy’s subject is electronics so they break their top nav into “Departments” from the beginning. Sites like QVC and Amazon will take one step back and start their navigation presenting you with “Store Fronts”.

This is a basic hierarchy that tries to emulate how brick and mortar stores are physically presented. Next time your in a store like Target or Wal-Mart, look at how the store is layed out and then compare it to their online presence. See how they are similar and also how they differ.


  • Horizontal navigation across the top of the page with drop down menus letting the user “jump ahead” to specific areas of the site related to that specific category. Moving from the home page directly to a specific brand is a big time saver. Less clicks equals happier customer. This is the primary means of navigation and because of this, it is persistent across the entire site. Nothing surprising here, sites have employed this type of navigation for a long time and this isn’t limited to e-commerce sites. Nevertheless, for the purposes of this study it is still a noticeable “trend”
  • Large promotional advertisements, usually using “lifestyle” imagery. Often times there are multiple promotions that cycle through, one after the other. We also notice that some of these promotions aren’t static, but allow the customer to interact with them without clicking through to it. Using this type of progressive disclosure gives the user more information and helps them decide whether this is the correct path to take. It Cleans up the design by not forcing context without it being asked for.

2. The Storefront

Like we mentioned before, this is how sites like BestBuy will start their navigation. You’ll find departments like TVs, Cameras, and Computers presented to you up front, where a site like QVC will store all these under an Electronics storefront. The reason for this is real estate. may have more laptops than BestBuy, but because they sell so many other products, to make the UI more usable they break it down one step further.

The Storefront will also be one of your higher traffic areas and where you’ll find more targeted promotion. Next to the Home Page, Storefronts are where retailers target customers with offers and deals to persuade them to buy a specific item, or browse deeper into a department.

By this point we find the navigation will normally switch from the horizontal top nav to a vertical navigation on the left. Since now we aren’t limited by real estate, we start to realize this is where things can get confusing. We want to help the consumer narrow down their choice, so we see keeping relevant information at the top and reserving secondary options below. This secondary information varies from site to site, and range anywhere from “Buying Guides” and “Community Links” like blogs and forums to “Clearance”, “Best Sellers” and other promotional messaging.


  • Again we see large promotional space, obviously now targeted depending on which storefront you’ve entered. We also noticed that products being promoted typically have a seasonal influence behind the messaging. Taking the Electronics storefront as an example, you may see cameras being promoted to capture your child’s graduation moments in the Fall and perhaps a Father taking pictures of his son at his first baseball game in the Spring. All used to evoke an emotional response to persuade the consumer to make a purchase.
  • We also see secondary promotions that might promote high-rated products, or even target a specific brand if it has a promotion that entices the user to dive deeper into the site. An example would be Free Shipping on select Asus laptops, taking the user directly to the Asus Brand Page.

3. The Department Page

target cameras department
Depending on we’re lead through the experience, a Department Page is where the consumer really starts to make tougher decisions. They’ve made it from the Home page on through the Electronics Storefront and into the Computer Department, but do they want a Desktop or a Laptop? Perhaps a Netbook or a Tablet PC? Decisions, decisions… OH THE HUMANITY!

The Grid

Generally speaking the Department Page is also where we see grids of product show up. These product grids show us product top-line description (headline), prices, ratings, and the ability to add the product to our cart or bag. In most cases the grid page will also give us the ability to sort the grid by specific relevance. Price low to high, rating, new products, or featured items are some of the more common sorting options as well as letting the user choose how many products to display per page.


quick look

  • We see some interesting trends on a few sites that offer an overview of an individual product without going to that particular product detail page, keeping the visitor from yet another click off the path. This “quick look” is like a mini product detail page giving the customer color swatches, alternate images, size choice and even sometimes sharing options posting items to Facebook and Twitter. Sites like QVC even offer video at the grid level which is “easy” for them to do since they are also a 24 hour television shopping network, giving them mountains of video to work with, and video is already playing a huge part in online commerce.
  • The grid itself is getting some attention, sometimes allowing the user to switch between types of views. From the standard grid to a larger version and even list view. Whenever possible allowing the consumer to tailor or personalize their experience, even if there isn’t a lift in conversion it shows the customer you care enough about them by giving them the choice, which reinforces their loyalty to your sites brand.

4. The Brand Page

crutchfeild polk brand
Drilling down to a sites Brand Page the customer is ultimately at a decision-making stage. Sites like will consume you with their brand because thats who they are and that’s what they sell. When you take a site like BestBuy who has their own brand, brand pages take on a duality which can sometimes be difficult to convey. BestBuy sells Dell computers yet still needs to represent themselves to the user for a consistent experience. They also need to embrace the consumer will the Dell brand. This is acomplished with either subtly or with obvious in-your-face promotion depending on how each brands needs are met. It is as simple as brand-familiar top-line descriptions, logo usage and product images to, in some cases, creating a brand specific experience.

Factors that come into play when deciding between a heavy brand representation are many. Customer demographics, promotional appeal and strength of brand are but a few. The one thing to never lose sight of is the user experience. Never assume you know what the customer wants. Good user experience offers the customer options but doesn’t trap them into an experience they may not want. We see it offered as an alternative, but always see a clear path to where they want to go.


  • We mostly see simple grids with not a lot of whiz-bang promotional elements unless that particular brand is promoting something like free shipping, buy-one-get-one, or spend $X save $Y.
  • Bigger promotional space will vary based on stickiness or popularity of the brand. Brands that offer interactivity or promotions that take the focus away are usually reserved for the specific demographic. It’s the, “Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.” mentality. For example, a Levis department page may offer a simple grid, where the Electronic Arts department page may offer some animation or video game trailer for the latest EA Game. This is ok since the video game consumer could be persuaded to “commit” with a flashy promotion or some other interactive element.

Wrap Up

This concludes our series on eCommerce UI design. From PD pages, to Footers and a Navigation study we hope you enjoyed reading them as much as we did writing them.

It’s no coincidence that we see many similarities between sites. But it’s nice to see some of them exploring new alternatives to the way it’s been done. With new technologies and the number of tech-savvy of consumers increasing, I’m sure we will start to see this happen more and more.

What do you think the future of e-commerce holds? Will it be virtual like Microsoft’s Project Natal? or will it be a marriage between the internet and television where we buy products right from our remotes based on the show were watching? Imagine watching the season premiere of House, and just as you would a DVD or Blu-Ray, pause the show, scroll through what Hugh Laurie is wearing, and buy the entire outfit he has on. There’s no telling what the future holds. But Fuel Your Interface will be sure to let you know when it does!

Jeff is a Sr. Art Director at When he isn’t being an evangelist of User Experience, UI Design and Best Usability Practices you can find him floating around the Twittersphere or perpetually tweaking his WordPress Blog.
Follow on Twitter: @fuelinterface | @inetwebguy


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