How important is guidance?

In our recent study on consumer preferences, respondents made it clear that guidance is critical in guiding them to make good decisions.

Simplicity vs complexity

Interestingly, age does differentiate users in terms of their tolerance for complexity.  But, “The customization paradox” applies to users of all ages.   Users are fickle.  They want complete control, but when you give them too much power, they get frustrated.   The key to mitigating “customization fatigue” is guidance.  Use templates with defaults, filter options, reduce steps, and show recommended combinations.    Make your design tool “customer proof.”   The trick is to give them power and to protect them from themselves at the same time.

Why do young users want more complexity? 

Most likely because younger generations are accustomed to digital control, and are therefore more inclined to control hard products as well.

Per Frank Piller, consumers are finally ready for customization:  “I believe it took 10 years of consumer education on the net so that MANY of them feel confident to not just shop standard products from a catalog, but also co-create. Also, today’s 25-35’s – a core group of people buying custom goods – are trained by the interactive solutions of social networking, but also co-creation in computer games. This generation is the natural shopper for custom goods – and getting old enough now to have the discretionary income to buy custom goods online.


Design constraints

The reality is that customers are customizing YOUR brand.  They are empowered to customize within the constraints that you define.  Customers are great editors, but are they talented designers / creators?   Most customers don’t want a blank canvas, they want to start with recommended (virtual) products and make adjustments to match their tastes.  This is guidance at its core.   It really depends who your customization customers are, but guidance is appreciated by advanced and novice product designers.   Creativity loves constraint.


Users want to see suggested designs, what other customers are designing, the last 5 products built, product of the week, etc.   Inspire them with creative suggestions rather than asking them to be creative in a vacuum.

From our research, here are a few verbatim suggestions on how product configurators can improve:

  • “More suggestions or creations by others.”
  • “Better to provide a big pool of ‘good designs’ as showcase and customers could use those or work from there.”
  • “I think it can be improved by providing pre-customized products with option to modify the product.”

Whitepaper 2011: What do consumers want from a product customizer?

What do shoppers want from an online customization experience?

Which product configurator features are most important?

  • Visualization
  • Intuitive design
  • Guidance / recommendations

Will shoppers still pay a premium price for customization?

Research objective:  To help the collective mass customization industry to build better customization experiences.

This is the second study we’ve launched on the topic of consumer preferences in the context of product customization.  See last year’s study.   This presentation was presented at the Mass Customization and Personalization, and co-creation 2011 conference, November, 2011.

What is a product configurator?


Customize furniture

Per Wikipedia, a product configurator has traditionally been defined simply as “a computer aided manufacturing system to produce a custom output.”

A new generation of web shoppers

With advances in Internet interfaces and a growing demand for interactive shopping tools, the product configurator is experiencing a renaissance.   Gone are the days of stale, slow, technical product configurators that simply accomplish the goal of “producing a custom output. “  Today’s end users demand so much more.   Every retailer has made user experience top priority.

The product configurator has evolved into an online guide that leads customers to exactly what they’re looking for.   A configurator platform is a tool used to build custom applications without any custom coding.  So, web developers can change data, behavior, and the presentation layer all without writing any code, and without the costs, bugs, and delays of custom code.

At its core, a visual customization platform is a rules engine. The rules engine allows a developer to continually refine a product solution based on a customer’s previous input.

The core platform can be employed to address a variety of applications, for example:

–       product customization

–       product recommendations

–       troubleshooting

–       diagnostics

–       sales quote generation

Personal shoppers

Use cases and applications

For example, an online shopper may be designing custom furniture. When the customer chooses a panel color, the rules engine can automatically suggest matching trim colors.    This is a guided customization flow.

Or, maybe a customer may have no idea what panel color to choose in the first place.  The system assists them by asking them questions about themselves, and make suggestions accordingly.   This system creates a “taste profile” for the customer.

Or, maybe a customer is looking for a new flat screen television. They don’t know whether they want an LCD or plasma screen, what resolution they should get, what size is right for their viewing area, etc.  The system can take the human expertise of a salesperson and convert it into an automated online guide that helps the customer find what they need quickly & efficiently.  This process emulates a “personal shopper.”


A configurator platform should have a clean separation between data (product info), functionality, and presentation.  A dev team should be able to parallelize development:  One person can be working on styling, while another works to flesh out all the product data, and another can work on tweaking the UI behavior and navigation.

One of the big problems with the current online shopping experience is that it is product-centric, not customer-centric.   Product search is mature and well adopted, but it’s only useful if you know what you’re looking for.  A product configurator can take the human knowledge of a product expert and translate it into an automated online tool that’s fast and scalable. Think of it as making your best salesperson available to every customer who visits your site.

Marissa Mayer: Creativity loves constraint

Here’s a great talk by Marissa Mayer of Google on the importance of guidance in the creative process.

Click to view video on a new page

“Creativity loves constraint. And this sounds really counterintuitive, because when you think about creativity you think about, you know, oh, having a lot of freedom to do whatever you want. And I think that, you know, from my perspective what I see is that a lot of times when you constrain your thoughts, that’s when you ultimately see a lot of innovation happen. I have a good friend who’s a clockmaker in London. He did the millennium clock among other things.  And when I asked him, “Why are you a clockmaker? Why not just be a sculptor and you can sculpt whatever you want?” His answer was that when he was in art class, as a student, he preferred to start on paper that had a mark on it already.

He just liked that constraint, because he said, “You know, I feel like if there’s a mark on a piece of paper, I can take that mark and in my imagination I can figure out what to turn it into, but a blank piece of paper is almost just too intimidating.”

Mass Customization best practices – Progress bar

At the recent Smart Customization seminar at MIT, survey results of 500 mass customization companies were shared.    Chris Cameron of ReadWriteWeb wrote up a nice summary of the results.

This post will discuss on the benefits of using a progress bar in the customization process.

“Helping customers through the process of creation is also a key facet of the process that most companies are missing.   Nearly two-thirds of the surveyed companies didn’t provide users with any guidance through the process, and only 4% have a progress bar.”


Do progress bars help the customization process?   Progress bars are great navigation tools, but are certainly not mandatory.

Usability studies often turn up important navigation issues like “where am I?” and “what do I do now?”  Users like to know exactly where they are in the process, how far they have come, how they can go back and change their answers, and how many steps they have left to complete.

Blue Nile

Progress bars can be presented in many ways: a list of steps, breadcrumbs, or tabs.


Here are some progress bar best practices:

1) Guide the experience

Progress bars provide control and transparency to the user, reducing the mental effort that goes into co-creation.   Customers expect increasingly effortless web experiences.  In an effort to provide easy, fun user experiences for multi-step configuration flows, the progress bar anchors the experience.   The key to a great navigation design is to “reduce friction.”   Don’t force the user to learn anything new, just clearly guide them through all the necessary steps.

Progress bars provide visual cues that gently push the user in the right direction, avoiding the need for additional messaging and instructions.   Less text means less clutter.

2) Challenge and reward

One design theory in engaging users is to create a system of challenge and reward.  The progress bar serves to measure a user’s level of accomplishment toward their goal.  Give users a finish line to look forward to.

In addition to making it easy for users to quickly make progress, finishing the customization flow with a “congratulations, you’re done!” message can be the icing on the cake.   Users love a pat on the back.  Job well done!

3) Make the progress bar navigatable

The best way to design progress bars for product configurators is to allow the user to select any step in the process so they can go back and change an answer at any time.  Users don’t want to feel like they are stuck in one step and can’t go back to change play with various customization options.   The experience should feel playful and easy.  Enable the user to quickly hop around the flow without throwing error messages or making them resort to using their browser back button.

Proper Cloth

Mass Customization best practices – Guidance

At the recent Smart Customization seminar at MIT, survey results of 500 mass customization companies were revealed.    Chris Cameron of ReadWriteWeb wrote up a nice summary of the results.

One key finding of the survey was that most mass customization companies don’t provide guidance.

“Helping customers through the process of creation is also a key facet of the process that most companies are missing.   Nearly two-thirds of the surveyed companies didn’t provide users with any guidance through the process.”

Effectively that means that nearly 66% of mass customizers are providing a build-what-you-want tool without providing any expertise, color matches, compatibility checks, or guided recommendations.

Ted Acworth, Founder and CEO of custom mosaic designer Artaic, attended the Smart Customization seminar and stated that “Too much customization / choice reduces sales.   Blank canvas draws a blank.”     Certainly, building something from nothing is a daunting task.

The opportunity is to design a product configurator that presents many choices (but not all), while providing guidance and assistance.   Of course you want to prevent the user from choosing incompatible components, as well as help guide them to make good design decisions.

During the customization process, guidance can be gracefully presented in three ways

a)    A single suggested “best match”

b)   Other options that are also good matches

c)    Hiding options that are not suggested or allowed

Removing options is a design decision that reduces clutter and consequently reduces the power to build to the heart’s delight.  Each mass customizer needs to balance the trade-off between hiding options and empowering the customer.   This design dilemma pertains to the paradox of choice.  Do users want infinite choices or select suggested choices?

In this build-a-computer example, Dell is showing compatible video cards, as well as up-sell options.  It’s important to realize that there are hundreds of video card options, but only appropriate matches are presented for this specific base product.

Another example of guidance is color matching.   If a shopper chooses a red bike, the customizer could recommend matching red or black saddles.   The mass customizer (ie mass customization vendor) should have the ability to make expert suggestions just like a salesperson would do in person or on the phone.

Color matching, recommended combinations, and inclusions / exclusions are defined by a rules engine.   The product expert, ie mass customizer, should be able to easily define these rules and present them in the customizer flow.

A guided shopping / building experience is similar to having a tailor build you a custom suit.  The tailor can recommend hem options, pattern styles, matching ties, pleats, etc, based on a combination of his expertise and a discussion with you about your tastes and preferences.   This is why it’s called “co-creation.” The shopper is empowered to build his own suit with the guiding hands of the tailor (ie product expert).

Innovating ecommerce with client-side computing

A VP at Amazon once told me that the key to Amazon’s success in the early days was to constantly improve on the three pillars of their business: selection, convenience and price.   As ecommerce sites look to improve ease of discovery and selection on their sites, they can focus on convenience by turning to more browser-intensive, client-side technologies to speed up the shopping experience.

Personal computers have become increasingly powerful, browsers have made huge advances in performance (with the likes of Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox,) and advancing Internet standards like Javascript and HTML5 are leading a trend in more intensive client-side computing processes that create better user experiences.  As the Internet has matured, hosted content has been distributed throughout regional content distribution networks, making server-side content more accessible and faster.    The next trend in the Internet is to run more processes and content locally in the user’s browser.    When a user first visits a site, they will download compact, rich content that then runs locally on their machine in HTML and Javascript.

Running processes in the browser is a popular computing trend.  Local processing is becoming more popular because of the advances of the HTML5 protocol, intermittent connections in mobile devices, and the increased power of computers and browsers themselves.    Ecommerce sites need to offer a compelling shopping experience that leverages Internet standards like HTML, Ajax, and Javascript

Performance:   Client side speed

Everyone knows that shoppers don’t like to wait around for pages to load.  In the context of ecommerce, a user could navigate to a shopping site and a product model could be downloaded once to the user’s computer and then run locally in the browser.   As the user navigates the full product selection model, no browser refreshes are required.   Very complex, graphic intensive, high volume product models can be efficiently run lightening fast on the client side without having to use proprietary browser plug-ins.

Shoppers should be able discover products by answering multiple selection questions and picking custom options.  Response should fast because all the product data is available locally.   Additionally, hovering over an answer to a question should preview a solution based on previous selections so the user can quickly browse options and self-educate without having to commit to a mouse-click (and a server call).

(including mouse-over tooltips) to ensure that the majority of their users have a positive brand experience.

Guidance:  Provide guidance with a client-side rules engine

A good shopping experience includes tips from a great sales person or product expert.   Especially when products are highly configurable or there are thousands of SKUs to browse, having a personal shopper or “style ninja” on hand to guide your shopping experience greatly increases the likelihood of conversion and customer satisfaction.

A compelling shopping experience includes a guided flow that mimics the conversation a customer might have in person with a top sales person.    Guidance is defined by combining matching constraints and human language associated with each solution.     A rules engine can be included in the client-side product model, providing recommendations rather than simply enabling all combinations like a simple product picker.

Most one-off product configurators are product picking solutions that allow thousands of combinations that are pre-defined by hand-coded if:then statements.     The result is an overly complex, noisy flow that frustrates the user and causes them to abandon.  (Note:  Trek Bikes boasts the ability to configure 56 million combinations which takes minutes to download, more than a shopper could ever digest.)  Users appreciate more than a product-picker that gives them unlimited options.   Users prefer to be given visual, recommended combinations that guide them to the right choice for their tastes and preferences.

As ecommerce developers look for new ways to improve the performance of their sites and the discoverability of their products, they can looks to client-side computing techniques that leverage the power of the shopper’s web browser.

(Note:  Here is an Ecommerce Times article on the same topic: