How to start an eCommerce business - part 4

How to start an eCommerce business - part 4

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In the first 3 parts of our series we've looked at ensuring you're as prepared as possible for making your new eCommerce store a success.  Over the next 2 weeks we talk about sourcing designer and developer, and starting the actual build of your store.  This is really the point at which you put your money where your mouth is and start the investment of both time and money, confident that you've done all you can to make sure you're spending wisely.  From here on in you no longer have to imagine what your store will look like or how it will work, you see it actually coming to life.

The original plan for this week's post was to look at getting both the design and development side off the ground, but as they're both such fundamental aspects to get right, I wanted to cover them in more detail, so I've split them between this weeks, and next weeks post.  This week we look at design, and talk about the importance of good design and usability for your store, how feasible it is to use an off-the-shelf theme instead of building from scratch, and where you might want to look to source good designers.

How important is good design?

Good design and usability are fundamental aspects in ensuring the initial success of your store.  What your store looks like and how easy it is to use is what gives potential customers their first impression of what you're offering and very quickly allows them to decide if your store is somewhere they want to buy from.  If a store design is outdated and usability is poor, a customer will need to have an extremely compelling reason to buy from you, with the reality being that you'll very likely be losing a huge percentage of potential sales.

So with design being fundamental to giving customers a good first impression, and with 75% of customers deciding on your company's credibility based on design, you can understand why the design of your store should be very carefully considered.  After putting in all the preparation work for your new store, you don't want to give potential customers a poor first impression because the store design is lacking.  An important point to remember here is just how competitive eCommerce is, and excellent design and usability are key elements that will give you that additional advantage over your competitors.

Off-the-shelf or entirely new theme?

Whatever eCommerce framework you decide to use, you'll quickly find that there's a multitude of extensions available for it, and this will include themes which will allow you to shortcut the design side both in terms of time and money.  While you certainly can do this, my years of experience working with eCommerce stores have shown me that off-the-shelf themes will never give you the best end result, and this is for a few reasons.

Your stores design should stand out

Your stores design should stand out and be different to attract customers and give a good first impression.  Many off-the-shelf themes follow a generic layout and look meaning your store is more going to blend into the background than stand out from the crowd.  This will immediately make it harder to keep customers on your store, and that's not what you want when trying to get sales off the ground.

Themes add a lot of clutter

Off-the-shelf themes often add a lot of clutter that you just don't need in the form of bundled additional extensions.  With regards to performance, a general rule is the leaner your store is in code terms, i.e. only add the extensions you actually need and use, then the better the store will perform.  Theme developers seem to largely ignore this and bundle all kinds of extra functionality, which will just bog down your store and affect performance.  Instead, you should just be adding each piece of individual functionality as you need it, and nothing more.  It's also a good idea to consider what functionality elements can be provided by external services as opposed to having that functionality provided by your store.  This simplifies your codebase and means you don't impact performance.

Design and usability aren't tailored

Design and usability will never be tailored to your ideal customers journey.  It's often the case that theme creators don't consider too much more than just looking flashy in order to boost sales of their theme.  This means that the design certainly won't be tailored as best as it can be to your ideal customer, and the UX often won't match very well with your desired customer journey.

The advice I often give to clients is that if they can find a theme which matches the look and feel they want pretty closely, then by all means use an off-the-shelf theme as a starting point, but only if it doesn't add a lot of bulk in unneeded functionality.  If not, then create your own theme from scratch.

Ultimately using an existing theme is a cost-saving measure, but the reality is that you'll always end up with a better end result building from scratch, both in terms of look and performance.  So when it comes to the design side, make sure that you get the design work done, then see if any theme looks pretty close in terms of layout and usability - if so you can choose to use and customise it.  So don't skip designer involvement by just picking a theme you think looks nice.  By doing this you're probably not going to give customers the best first impression, and the usability probably won't work as well as it could for your customer's journey.

Hard to customise

Themes often come with quite a bit of configuration allowing you to customise and change the look of the store.  This can easily be seen as a good thing, however there's a fundamental reason why it's actually not.  A key principle in developing a store is having more than one environment so that you as a store owner can view, test and approve changes before they make it to your main production environment.

The problem with the way a theme often allows you to customise the look and functionality of the store, is that it regularly auto-generates content to support these changes.  Much of the time the theme will put this auto-generated content in a location which makes it impossible to port between your different environments.  This means every time a change is made, it has to be replicated manually in all other environments to keep everything in sync.  This in turn means that you introduce an element of human error in the way store changes are managed and this is never a good thing.  You can be sure that given enough time, you will see a situation where a change is forgotten or done differently between environments and stores will gradually get more and more out of sync.  This effectively defeats the entire point of having different environments in the first place as you can no longer be sure that what you see on staging will be what you get on production.

All frameworks will have a built-in method to customise the look and functionality of a theme following best practices, but often off-the-shelf themes use their own wierd and wonderful way of doing things which just makes life hard in terms of developing and managing your store.

You'll always need to customise

You might think you can just use a pre-built theme and then tick off the design side with no more changes needed.  The reality is however that even if you've had the design work done, and found a theme that on paper requires very little change, you'll still need to customise it more than you think.  Yes, you may have a starting point that's further ahead than building from scratch, but the complexities around properly customising and managing a pre-built theme can quickly cancel a lot of this gain.  This generally will become even more pronounced over time as you learn more about your ideal customer's needs and the theme requires greater levels of customisation to look and functionality.

Where can I find a quality designer?

We've talked about the fundamental importance of good design and usability for your store, and how you're always going to the best results using an entirely new rather than off-the-shelf theme.  So understanding the breadth and importance of the task involved, where can you go to source a designer with the expertise and knowledge of eCommerce design you need?

Design agencies

You're likely to get great results from any number of design agencies with experience in the requirements of eCommerce stores.  The quality of the design work and how it's delivered should be very high, and exactly what a developer needs to work from.

The same as you'd find with development work however, the cost of an agency will be higher than other options.  But you will get a product of the highest quality that will really help to sell to your customers, and make the store easy and intuitive to navigate.

Design marketplaces

There's a few different marketplaces such as DesignCrowd or 99designs that for a reasonable fee, provide multiple design choices for your store.  This can be a good option if your not really too set on a design look for your store, but want some inspiration from multiple designers, then having the ability to pick the option you like the best.  You can also choose to work with individual designers directly.

Personal recommendations

Finding a designer from a personal recommendation of someone in your network can be a really good option.  People won't personally recommend anyone unless they've had a good working experience with them, so by getting this kind of recommendation from someone you know and trust, means you've probably got a pretty strong lead.  There is of course no guarantee that the designer will have availability to work with you, but it's still one of the better avenues to pursue so ask around and see if anything comes of it.  You just might get in touch with your new go-to designer.


A great first impression is the starting point of that new customer hitting the place order button on your checkout page.  You only get that with a solid design, and without meeting or even exceeding the design expectations of your customers, you'll already be starting off at a disadvantage.  But by combining solid design with equally good usability you're starting your customers store journey on the right foot, and hopefully keeping them browsing for longer.  Good design is also the starting point of building credibility and trust with the customers, to keep them coming back and buying from you.

Thanks so much for taking the time to read this post, and I hope this series is proving to be a really useful resource for you in starting your new eCommerce adventure.  Next week I'll be talking about the importance of using a quality developer to bring your store to life.

My name is Jon Hussey and I've been developing eCommerce stores, and working with eCommerce businesses for well over a decade.  I'm also the founder of Developer Connection, which is a service to allow eCommerce clients and developers to create quality working relationships across the UK.  So if you're an eCommerce developer, you can list with us for free, or if you're a client on the lookout for a developer, then you can instantly find multiple high-quality options by just taking a few minutes to create a project.

Thanks again for reading and I hope you'll join me again next week!

Find eCommerce developersFind eCommerce developers
Find eCommerce developersFind eCommerce developers
Find eCommerce developersFind eCommerce developers