E-Commerce Site Structures – A Design Perspective

We recently had a discussion about changing some aspects of the site and numerous comments appeared with regard to what we should change (over and above our current discussion).  Part of that it seems is a misconception about what can/cannot be changed in terms of a site.  So I thought I’d see if I could clarify some points.

The Site As A Physical Store

Let’s assume the website is a physical store. If you think of a physical store, there are aspects of a store that come pre-set – the way the walls are set-up, the floor plan, the number of windows, the amount of storage space and where your electrical outlets are.  Other aspects are easier to change – paint and trim, the physical layout of the store – and others vary on a regular basis – the personnel, the games, etc.  Each of these features cost a varying amount to change.

The Walls & Floor Plan

Most e-commerce sites run off a main e-commerce system – a central program that runs everything.  We use Magento, others might use Shopify, Zen Cart, osCommerce, etc.  Each of these e-commerce systems have an in-built set of features, the floor plan and walls that make up the site. Among the many in-built features in any e-commerce system would be:

  • Order Management
  • Customer Information Management
  • Checkout Pages
  • Site Search
  • Reporting Tools

To change any of these systems in a significant manner, it would require specialised work; just like it would in a physical store.  Want to put in some new windows? You need a contractor to cut the hole in the wall, get the licenses sorted, make sure electricity & plumbing isn’t an issue (and hire the necessary contractors for that if it is), etc.  It’s a big change, and requires a lot of planning to make sure that it doesn’t destroy the store.

Store Layout & Colours

On top of that though, there are store layouts and colours.  You might have a barebones shop, but what you do to it – how many shelves you put in, what colours and trim are added, where each category of items is located – can make a huge difference.  Working smart, you can make even a horrible floor plan less horrible.

In terms of a website, your store layout translates to:

  • site design (colours, fonts, layout)
  • category pages and their layout
  • store information pages and their layout

These are ‘simpler’ to change.  You can dash a coat of paint on much easier than ripping a wall down; you can put a new font in rather than adjusting site search. It might still require specialised help, but mostly you could do it yourself.

Iterative Changes

When you look at the changes that happen on the site, you can see how each of these changes play out.  Some, like fixing Site Search require a lot of planning and a lot of funds – it’s not easy ripping out retaining walls, shifting plumbing and electrical outlets to make the store better.

Other changes are simpler and can be down with minimal external help – changing how our products are categorised, the skin (colours) and even the general layout can be much easier.   These can be less ‘planned’ and because in many cases we don’t need external contractors, can be changed much more often.