Jared Spool
CEO & Founding Principal, User Interface Engineering, Jared Spool

When you want to buy a camera, are you more likely to ask about what camera has the best burst rate? Or will you ask which camera will best take pictures of a soccer game? Jared Spool, CEO & Founding Principal of User Interface Engineering, says that too many companies act as if customers care more about features such as burst rate. His answer? They don’t.

On a website, guided selling attempts to identify customer needs, offer a solution, and persuade the customer to buy—much like traditional in-person selling. Through his many years of experience and research, Spool notes that many companies still weigh guided selling algorithms toward features rather than the customer experience. But, it’s only by simplifying the choices of products and offering content that connects to a customer’s needs that allows websites to begin emotionally connecting with—and selling—to people.

As one of the foremost authorities on user interface design, Jared Spool took the time to share his insights with Content Science about the fundamental role of content in guided selling, scaling problems as companies increase the number of products they sell, and how companies (especially ecommerce companies) must transition from a feature mindset to an experience mindset.

Guided selling becomes more important as the buying experience on the web and on mobile devices continues to evolve, as you often put it, from features to experience. How does the success or failure of guided selling impact the customer experience?

At first, guided selling seems simple to organizations but it quickly devolves into something much more complicated than what they expected. That’s because organizations think that sales, especially in-person driven sales, is basically script driven.

For example, if a person walks into a store to buy a camera, the customer might say they want to take pictures of a birthday party where kids will play soccer. Then a nephew will blow out some birthday candles and open presents. The salesperson translates those pieces of data. A soccer game means sports action, which requires a high burst rate and fast exposure. Blowing out candles requires effectiveness in low light situations. Then the salesperson can point out 3 cameras that work best for that situation out of the 45 sold in the store.

Theoretically, you can take that script and hard code it into guided selling. But the way you ask those questions, the way users present answers, and the way the experience evolves quickly dictates whether you actually have a grasp upon what makes your products interesting to your customers or not. In our above example, the customer is not buying burst rate and low light exposure. They’re buying soccer balls, happy kids, and candles. They want great pictures. That translation of features to experience is a really difficult translation, and the biggest challenge for guided selling.

How would you describe the role of content in guided selling? How does a content strategy fit into this concept?

If you take content out of guided selling, then you don’t have anything. Guided selling is just an algorithm to figure out which content to display. Filtering algorithms don’t work if they lack content, and they also don’t work if the content isn’t clearly designed for the filtering algorithm.

If a small camera manufacturer features five cameras in its product line, the cameras are probably distinct and more easily translated into guided selling. But with a large camera manufacturer like Canon or Nikon, it becomes much more difficult to guide someone to choose between specific models—especially when adding new products to already saturated product lines. The distinctions between products become subtler.

If users understood features, you wouldn’t need guided selling or customized content. Instead, users would just peruse a chart of features. Guided selling maps features to a bigger experience, but it becomes complicated because the mapping is not necessarily straightforward. If a retailer like Best Buy sells 135 cameras from different manufacturers and the features aren’t even a part of a common language set, then what one person calls a feature another person may call something else.

It sounds like this represents a scaling problem for content within guided selling.

It’s a huge scaling problem. With e-commerce, the more choices you offer people, the less likely they will make a choice. When they do make a choice, the less satisfied they are with the choice they’ve made. This is called the paradox of choice. A lot of evidence shows if you give people more choices, you get into trouble. That doesn’t mean you should eliminate all choices, but 10 choices are definitely worse than three.

If Best Buy sells 135 cameras, how is the average camera buyer supposed to choose between them? With so many products, it’s hard to even just do prices. If you go into the camera category and sort by price, your lowest priced items are actually not cameras but cases and filters. At this point, you have to create more complicated filtering mechanisms to take those non-camera items out of search and only present cameras. And what about phones with better cameras than many cameras on the market? How do you create the filtering mechanism for that? It’s a really complicated process. When companies say, “If we give our customers choice, it’s a great thing,” it’s really not.

When you recently researched e-commerce sites, what were some of the most important insights you gleaned—both good and bad—from how these online retailers used content to help sell?

We found that the most effective product description pages were aimed at how customers actually make buying choices. E-commerce sites feature a spectrum of product descriptions. On one side, you have carefully crafted product descriptions written by the retailer that really talk to what retailers have discovered about their customers. These descriptions do a good job of answering customer questions when they shop for products.

On the other side, retailers just take copy produced by the product manufacturer and pump it into their CMS. Sometimes it’s a sentence, and sometimes it’s 10 pages. In almost all cases, the product description does not fit with the customer’s process of choosing between product offerings. Those descriptions usually speak to an individual product while ignoring the fact that the person is probably considering other products.

For example, Crutchfield.com does a good job of crafting content to user needs. They have fewer products to choose from, so they can spend more time on each product and make customers really understand the differences. The same people who answer the phones for their catalog business also write the content, so they understand how customers buy.

Crutchfield product description
Crutchfield’s customized product descriptions focus on the needs of users.

However, in most guided selling situations involving product descriptions, the merchandizers create the content without any contact with customers. That’s why this content uses buzzwords and feature terms like “burst rate.” If two different cameras have a 14 frames per second burst rate versus a 10 frames per second burst rate, then how do customers know they should pay extra money for those extra four frames per second? Those manufacturer product descriptions don’t usually speak to that. But if you say that 10 frames work fine for a kid’s soccer game but 14 frames works better for high school athletics photos in a yearbook, those distinctions make more sense to the customer.

As Jared Spool points out, even the most complicated, technical guided selling algorithms all point back to the need for good content. Taking the time to understand your customer’s needs and creating content that speaks their language remains one of the best investments you can make, even in situations where enterprises sell hundreds of products. Scaling up shouldn’t mean desperately pumping product descriptions into your CMS, as Spool says, but instead should create an opportunity to simplify how you talk about your products and address any customer needs, no matter how subtle or nuanced.

For more articles and presentations from Jared Spool and his team, visit User Interface Engineering.

Originally published on the now-archived Content Science blog in October 2013.

The Authors

Kevin Howarth is an associate writer for Content Science Review. You can contact Kevin at Content Science.


Jared Spool is the CEO & Founding Principal of User Interface Engineering.

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