A Case Study in UX
Can you name another website that has enjoyed a conversion rate over 20% for 20 years? So, what made this such a successful design? It certainly wasn’t about merely delighting the user. This brief summary of the history of our design effort with Proflowers helps shed some light on how real UX design can improve a company's bottom line, by helping the user solve their problem.
User Research Methods
Since it was explicitly stated that this site was to be different from any other site, evaluative user research methods were inappropriate for our needs. We instead relied on generative, observational research to accurately define the problem we needed to solve.
Rather than observe people buying flowers on a website, we opted to remain technology agnostic and visited several brick and mortar flower shops. The stated objective dictated that we design a site that looked like no others. Observing users on other e-florist sites would have biased our observations towards existing site designs and we would have missed the key observation that eventually made Proflowers so successful.
Once we had developed some interaction design mockups, we employed evaluative research methods, specifically usability testing, to refine our designs. Usability testing helped identify several key improvements as noted in the following story.
The client specifically wanted a design that stood out from the rest. Therefore, it could not look like any other site.
Target User (Persona)
Men buying flowers for women.
Most of the online flower customers were men. There were others but market research data provided by Proflowers identified men buying flowers for women a key initial target user set.
We created a single persona for this target group called Birthday Bob: He doesn’t know what he needs, just that he needs something.
Bob forgot his wife’s birthday.
Get out of the doghouse. This was a very common type of goal for the target users. If you just go by our research it would seem that Men are prone to forgetting a wife’s birthday or anniversary or... you name it.
Note that the desired outcome had nothing to do with flowers. The main objective of any research is to clearly and accurately define the problem the target user is trying to solve. Usually, the users’ problem has no direct relationship with your product, services, or site. Yours is merely a means to an end. For example, someone doesn’t come to a T-shirt printing website to print T-shirts. They are there to outfit their softball team with a uniform shirt that fits well.
Rather than listing all of the typical demographic and psychographic information about the target user, it’s more important to understand them from a cognitive perspective, specifically what they can be expected to know about the task or goal.
Demographics don’t give you any indication about user behaviors that would accurately influence the resulting design. Understanding what the target user will know (and not know) about the task is much more useful.
The Proflowers’ target users typically could be expected to:
Know little to nothing about flowers.
Knows his wife likes specific colors, shapes, etc. (My wife likes purple.)
Needs to know which bouquet is appropriate for this specific occasion. For instance, Roses are not the right flower for every occasion. Buying the wrong flowers may make matters even worse.
UX Design Strategy
The user research clearly and accurately redefined the problem; customers weren’t buying the flowers for the flowers, they were buying them for an occasion. The UX Strategy then became: “Proflowers doesn’t sell flowers, they sell occasions.”
The following are some specific insights derived from the observational research and usability testing that achieved the phenomenal conversion rate and sustained it for 20 years.
By modifying the typical checkout sequence, we were able to dramatically increase the conversion rate by leveraging those aspects of the transaction that had a high emotional value. For instance, typical e-commerce flows (at the time, 1998) requested the credit card information to begin the checkout sequence. That sequence made shoppers hesitant to continue and increased the abandon rate. We found another flow that worked much better. (read more about emotional investment)
Some of the changes are:
No Shopping Cart:
Given that most users bought only one bouquet at a time, requiring the users to add something to a shopping cart seemed to interrupt the emotional flow of the transaction. A shopping cart required additional, unnecessary steps: add to cart, view cart, checkout. We eliminated the shopping cart and launched into the checkout sequence as soon as the shopper selected a bouquet.
Rather than require a shopping cart to promote upselling or cross-selling, we focused on prompting the user to enhance their gift by adding additional items during the transaction sequence. For instance, rather than expecting users to add a teddy bear to the shopping cart, we prompted them with an upsell message such as “Nothing says Happy Birthday like a gift to accompany the flowers. Would you like to add a Teddy Bear to this Gift?”
It is often said that UX designers must “speak the user’s language.” Of course we follow that common paradigm whenever possible. For instance, we refrained from calling this transaction an ‘Order.’ An order is something that benefits the company. We referred to each transaction as a ‘Gift,’ which benefited the recipient. Usability testing of this vernacular proved it was much more successful than the typical checkout language.
It is common practice to include a note with flowers to personalize the gift and let the recipient know who the flowers were from. Other websites added this at the end of the checkout sequence, but we found that providing the card right after the user selected the bouquet increased the shopper’s excitement of the purchase. Once they wrote a note, the purchase became very personal and the shoppers were much more eager to complete the process.
Rather than ask for all of the credit card and shipping information in one long form, we found that breaking it up into smaller chunks improve user success. Moreover, we oriented the information requests towards the recipient rather than the shopper. Instead of asking for the shipping to address, we asked the shoppers where they would like the flowers sent and to whom just after they filled out the note card. Once they completed the card and the recipient information, they were actually anticipating the payment screens.
The key to Proflowers’ success was making the customer succeed regardless of their familiarity with different types of flowers. Rather than relying on the users to know which flowers were appropriate for which occasion, the bouquet were organized by the occasions. The shopper only need to know the occasion.Once the shopper selected an occasion they were presented an array of suitable bouquets from which to choose. Interestingly, usability testing showed that shoppers responded to this by focusing on the colors of the various bouquets with comments like “Oh, my wife really likes purple. I’ll get this purple bouquet.”
More to the Story
Proflowers launched their site just prior to Valentine’s day, 1998, a very popular flower oriented holiday. Imagine our surprise when the Proflowers team called to complain that the site had performed miserably for that holiday. We reviewed the site and noticed that the contract developers had taken liberties with our design. They said that the wireframe design specs we delivered looked nothing like any of the other e-florist sites so they made some changes.
The Proflowers execs were very upset and commanded the developers to rebuild the site, following our design, and have it ready for Mother’s Day, which is another flower oriented holiday. The new site followed our designs very closely and saw conversion rates over 20%. The site maintained those extraordinary conversion rates every month for 20 years.
Though they have tried many design iterations over the years to improve the site’s performance, Proflowers has used the same basic design and has remained in the top 10 converting websites for 20 years. The company was recently sold for almost $500 Million. Not bad for a company that only sells flowers. Oops, I mean ‘occasions.’