By Jared M. Spool
Originally published: Jan 21, 2009
In the early days of e-commerce, we studied how seasoned hiking customers bought hiking boots online. Two sites in our study, L.L. Bean and REI, both sold virtually identical boots at the same price with practically the same marketing copy. Yet the customers we studied were far more likely to buy the boots on the REI site than on the L.L. Bean site. Why? Because the product pictures on the REI site showed the bottoms of the boots, whereas the L.L. Bean imagery only showed the boots standing upright. For people experienced with buying hiking boots, the tread on the bottom is important. Choosing a tread, for some hikers, can be a matter of life or death. The experienced hikers were more comfortable buying their boots from the site that clearly featured the tread design. We were very curious how the REI design team knew to tip one boot over to highlight the tread. We figured it was because they'd done extensive research on which pictures sold best, settling on the configuration with the best performance. We called them and asked if our theory about their research was correct. They laughed. Loudly! Once the laughing stopped and they recomposed themselves, one of them volunteered no such research had been done. Instead, the idea came from their photographer who, they revealed, had previously worked in the footwear department at one of their stores. He just instinctively knew to tip over the boots because, in the stores, he watched the customers pick up the boots to look at the tread. Had he not worked there, the team never would've thought to tip the boots over. (Apparently, the laughing was because they constantly teased him about this, not knowing his idiosyncrasy was the key to their success.)
Design Decision Styles
The photographer on the REI team was making design decisions, not based on thorough, conclusive user research, but from his own experience working in...