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Why the product experience should be front and center in eCommerce

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7 min read

Why the product experience should be front and center in eCommerce

Take time to think through your customers' experience with physical products

By Alex Willen · February 12, 2021
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As an eCommerce store owner, it's easy to associate the customer experience with the experience of buying: how a prospective customer might come across the website, what they'll see when they get there, and how those interactions can be best optimized in order to get that prospect to buy. There are multiple roles built on this part of the journey, from digital ad agencies that work on compelling ads to conversion rate optimization (CRO) specialists, who endlessly tweak eCommerce websites and measure whether their changes lead more people to click that buy button.

And the customer experience considerations don't end there: once a purchase is made, buyers are placed into carefully-designed post-purchase email campaigns that push them to offer glowing reviews, post about their new purchases on social media, and, of course, come back and buy more. When I started my business, I was shocked at how sophisticated these campaigns could be—dozens of meticulously-optimized emails with different content depending on what you've purchased, when you've purchased, whether you used a coupon code, and endless other variables.

But with all of this digital optimization going on, there's one big piece of the customer experience puzzle that's often overlooked: the product itself. That thing that gets shipped as a result of those successful ads, CRO, and email campaigns is sometimes left in the dust.

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Why product experience shouldn't be an afterthought

Many eCommerce entrepreneurs come from digital marketing backgrounds, so their expertise is in getting people to come to a website and purchase. My background is a bit different. Before I started my company, I was a product manager at several enterprise software startups. My focus was on making sure that our product served the customers' needs and that they had a great experience using it. 

This was further reinforced by the fact that I was working on SaaS products—that's software as a service, and it means that, instead of paying once for our products, customers purchased a monthly or yearly subscription. In many cases, they had the opportunity to cancel their subscription and go to a competitor every single month, which meant that we had to be working constantly to make sure the product would appeal to new customers and that existing customers remained happy.

So while my current business selling make-at-home dog treat mixes may be a bit different than selling complex software to large businesses, I still approached it from the beginning with a focus on delivering an amazing experience to the people who would actually choose to buy from me. 

How to create an excellent product experience

My first product at Cooper's Treats was a frozen dog treat mix. It's pretty straightforward to use: mix with water, pour into an ice cube tray, and freeze. I packed the mix in jars, put labels on them, and was ready to go. 

A jar of Pupsicle mix, next to a steak and a wedge of cheese
I also took a picture of the jar next to a delicious steak and wedge of cheese (the ingredients).

Before I started selling, though, I went through an exercise that I can't recommend enough to folks in eCommerce: I thought through, in as much detail as I was capable of, what it would be like for a customer to receive my product. (Even better than thinking through your customer's experience is watching it: if you can, find a way to give your product to people in your target demographics and watch them use it. I promise you'll learn something useful.)

Here's how my thought experiment went.

First, my customer would get her box in the mail. (She's a woman in this scenario because 90% of my customers are women. The more specifically you can think about who will be using your product, the better a job you can do giving them an ideal experience.) She opens it up and pulls out a jar of treat mix. When she's ready to use it, she reads the instructions and goes to get everything she needs: a bowl, a tablespoon, and an ice cube tray.

Now we haven't gotten especially far, and there's already a problem. In my house, we have a built-in ice dispenser in our fridge. That means we don't actually have any ice cube trays. Since built-in ice dispensers are pretty common, it's very possible my hypothetical customer also doesn't have ice cube trays. If that's true, her experience immediately tanks.

She roots around in her freezer for an ice cube tray and realizes she doesn't have one. Now she can't make the treats because she's missing a key item. And it's an annoyance to get one: she has to spend at least a few bucks (a decent percentage of what the $10 jar of mix cost to begin with) and either get in the car to go pick one up or wait a couple of days for one she orders online. What was supposed to be a fun little project is now an annoying errand.

We've identified a potentially serious product experience problem, but let's put that aside and continue for a moment, assuming that she does have an ice cube tray. She combines the mix and water at a 1:1 ratio as the instructions say, but there are some lumps in it. She's not sure if that should be the case, so she keeps stirring. Ultimately, though, the lumps remain, so she just pours it into the ice cube tray and puts it in the freezer.

A couple hours later, she takes it out and it's frozen as expected. She pops one of the ice cubes out, and it's... a brown ice cube. Fine, I guess, but certainly not visually appealing. She gives it to her dog, who sniffs at it and then gobbles it up. 

Having walked through my customer's experience, there are a few things that stand out as less than optimal:

  1. The customer has to search for an ice cube tray, which she might not have, and even if she does, she may not know where it is.

  2. The mix is lumpy, and she's not sure if she's doing it right.

  3. The end result, while dog-approved, is ugly, which means it's going to be remembered a little less positively (and likely won't be photographed).

After that, it was time for me to consider how I could improve her experience.

Setting customer expectations

We'll start with #2—the lumpy mix—since that's pretty straightforward. 

Consider this: you've ordered yourself a fun little gift online, and you're told it will arrive in five days. Delivery day arrives, you're really excited, and… it doesn't show up. This is obviously disappointing, and it ends up arriving two days late. Now let's take the same scenario, except you're told your gift will arrive in 10 days. Instead, it shows up three days early. This time, you're not expecting it and are pleasantly surprised. 

The core experience was the exact same: you ordered something and it arrived in seven days. The difference between the two scenarios? Your expectations. Seven days is seven days, but whether it's late or early depends on when you were told it would show up. That's why it's so critical to properly set expectations to avoid confusion, or worse, disappointment. 

Getting back to the dog treats: in this case, our customer doesn't know what texture to expect when she adds water to our mix, and because lumpiness is often bad in cooking, she's afraid she's done something wrong. This concern is easily fixed by adding a note to our instructions that says "the mix might be lumpy—that's ok!" It doesn't cost me anything to add that sentence, and as a result, my customer has had a better experience. 

If there are challenging or even annoying things about your products, that's ok. Really. I hate putting together IKEA furniture, and yet here I sit typing on an IKEA desk that I had to put together. I didn't enjoy putting it together, but because I had the right expectations (it's IKEA, you're going to have to put it together—which also means your back is going to hurt afterward, and if you went to the store with your significant other, you're now fighting), I didn't hold the negative part of my experience against IKEA.

If there are downsides to your products, don't try to hide them. Instead, set your customers' expectations, so they don't run into any negative surprises. People are generally better at coping with problems when they see them coming.

Give your customer everything they need

Going back to #1 from our scenario (the case of the missing ice cube tray), we have a potentially serious problem. What was supposed to be easy and fun has now turned into a chore—or not even using the product at all. Even if the customer does go out and get an ice cube tray, she's unlikely to remember her experience with my product fondly. I don't see that customer coming back for more or recommending our treats to a friend. 

You've probably figured out what the answer is here: we need to give her an ice cube tray.

A dog eating treats from the ice cube tray

While we're thinking about ice cube trays, let's also consider problem #3: ice cube trays make ice cubes. That's fine for your lemonade but not especially aesthetically pleasing. And typically, people who are buying things for their dogs want those things to be cute. Like their dog. That's why we ended up adding a paw- and bone-shaped silicone ice cube mold (the one in the picture above) to our Pupsicle Starter Kit

Now our customer has everything she needs—and her treats look cute, instead of like weird brown lumps. That carries another benefit, by the way. Do you know what dog owners do with cute dog stuff? They post pictures of it on Instagram. 

A screenshot of someone posting (on Instagram) a picture of their dog eating Cooper's Treats

This is yet another reason to consider your customer's experience with the product. With the right changes to your product, you can drive the post-purchase behaviors you want, like sharing and referring friends. Some eCommerce businesses spend endless hours tweaking their post-purchase email flows to try to get customers to post about their product on social media, when what they really need is a proverbial cute ice cube mold. 

If you have a demographic that lives on Instagram, you could even consider selling your products directly on Instagram.

I hope this helps you think a little bit more about your customer's experience, not only before and after buying, but also when they're opening up the box and actually using your product. It's an incredibly valuable time for you—you have their attention and enthusiasm—so make sure not to squander that opportunity. 

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Alex Willen picture

Alex Willen

Alex Willen is the Founder of Cooper's Treats, a premium dog treat business that he founded during the pandemic. He spent a decade as a product manager in Silicon Valley before leaving to start his own business, and he's never looked back. He lives in San Diego, CA with his wife Maggie and two dogs, Cooper and Maple.

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