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Episode 41 - Let Your Customers Design Your Shopify Store

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Hey Scott Austin here.

In this episode, I'm going talk about a methodology that you can use to improve the shopping experience of your Shopify store. Now to take step back for a second I come from a software development background. I worked at Microsoft and other software companies for a long time and worked on many different product teams. So I have very much a software mindset when it comes to creating a Shopify store.  Which, by the way, isn't the only mindset to bring to the table--it's just the mindset that I bring. Now in software development over the past 20 years what people have learned is that it's better to release small incremental features in your product rather than bundle all of your product changes up into one big release. If you remember back in the days of windows 95 and windows 98 and windows 2000, Microsoft was shipping a completely new version of windows every couple of years. But now in the Windows 10 era, what happens is the Windows  team is releasing little updates with features and improvements and enhancements incrementally over time.  Windows 10 now shipped over 5 years ago and will be the version we'll be on for a while.  But it has changed and evolved over those 5 plus years in small steps.

And I think your Shopify store could benefit from this software mindset. That mindset is to improve the experience one small step at a time.  A key part of the methodology is that when you ship small incremental changes it gives you time to see how your customers respond to the changes and incorporate their feedback into the next iteration of the store.

So this whole episode is going to be focused on getting you in the mindset of doing small incremental changes to your store and then listening to your customers respond to those changes and then incorporating customer feedback into the next step.

I'm currently working on a bunch of store redesigns with a number of different clients.  Each of my clients has a different comfort level with how quickly we roll changes and improvements out. Many storeowners want to wait until everything about the redesign is absolutely completed and buttoned up before deploying a new theme out to customers. With Shopify that becomes a bit of a challenge because we can easily make changes to a theme offline but we can't change a product offline.  We can't have one version of a product live for the current theme but have a different version of that same product waiting in the background for a new theme to be deployed. So there has to be in a Shopify store a little bit of a making changes in the live environment.

In the software world there's lots of documentation about this approach.  One of the key elements is called an MVP which stands for Minimum Viable Product. Now I'm going to read to you the definition of a minimum viable product from Wikipedia changing a little bit of the wording to apply to a Shopify store.

A minimum viable product (MVP) is a version of an online store or feature in your store with just enough features to be usable by customers who can then provide feedback for future improvements.  A focus on releasing an MVP means that stores potentially avoid lengthy and (ultimately) unnecessary work. Instead, they iterate on working versions and respond to feedback, challenging and validating assumptions about a store's requirements.  The MVP is analogous to experimentation in the scientific method applied in the context of validating business hypotheses, it is utilized so that store owners will know whether a given idea will actually be viable and profitable by testing the assumptions with their customers. The concept can be used to validate a market need for a store and for incremental developments of an existing store. As it tests a potential shopping paradigm to customers to see how the market would react, it is especially useful for stores that are more concerned with finding out where potential business opportunities exist rather than executing a prefabricated, isolated store design.

And one short way to summarize this is that very few people can accurately predict how customers will respond.  So just put it in front of customers and see how they respond.

In my experience most people do a pretty good job in understanding the minimal part of an MVP. In that it is to do the least amount of work possible to test out an idea or design. But many times people miss out on the viable part of the MVP. In that is that whatever you are testing, whether it’s a store redesign or a new feature, has to be a full and complete experience.  It doesn't have to be the fullest and most complete experience but you can't leave any key element out of the equation because then it's not really a viable product.  An extreme example is that you can't be testing a store design if checkout is not enabled.

The result of an MVP approach towards building out your store or redesigning your store is that you will do it in several steps. Each step that you take and release to customers will give you feedback from the customer whether it's through watching how they click and tap on the site or actually talking to them. And then the knowledge gained from that step will be applied and put into the next step.

So let me give you an example of a recent store build that has gone really well in listening to customers. The store is I'll include a link to it in the show notes.  They make and deliver fresh pasta meals to their local customers in Massachusetts.  They allowed their customers to order a single meal to be delivered or to sign up for a subscription for weekly delivery of meals. But the experience was too confusing, so we did a full store redesign. And because of the nature of the product catalog and not being able to have an offline catalog and an online catalog, we actually had to release the new theme design more quickly than any of us initially expected. And that ended up being an absolute blessing. Now because Twyrl is delivering in their local area and allowing people to pick up orders at their restaurant, they have the opportunity to talk to their customers more than most online stores.  That allowed them to quickly hear what customers thought of all of the changes that we made to the store. Some of the feedback was very positive and said the changes that we had made improved the ordering process. But other customers were confused by certain things and found parts of the shopping experience that didn't work well for them. Some of that was the way that we designed the shopping experience and some of it was also the way we structured the product catalog. So over a period of 3 short weeks after we launched the site, we have done 5 or 6 different changes to the store.  Some small and some big changes.  And in the end many things that we thought we were going to have to build and deliver in the store, we didn't have to.  Because the shopping experience ended up going down a slightly different path from our original design. So if we had done all the work that we thought we were going to do up front before we released the new theme and shopping experience to the customers, we would have wasted a bunch of that work because we ended up, by listening to the customers, modifying the original design. In the end, what worked for the customer was a bit different than what we thought was going to work for the customer at the beginning of the project. So by releasing store updates quickly and incrementally and listening to customers responses to the changes allowed us to build a shopping experience that actually works better than the original design.

And here's another example that I'm currently working on with a new store that sells auto parts.  What we're doing in this case is the store staff and I are discussing a couple high level points about how the shopping experience should work. And just so you know auto parts inside of a Shopify store is a little bit of a challenge because we don't have good control over the product database.  So there are a lot of things that we are doing to enrich the product data to allow customers to find the right parts for their vehicle.  What we're doing is keeping those conversations about the data model and not so much about the shopping experience.  Our next step is that we will launch the store with two different ways for customers to find parts.  And then we'll put traffic to the store to let customers try both ways to find parts.  We'll see how each method gets used and ask customers for feedback.  We'll use that information to evolve the store experience.  I do not yet know what the final shopping experience will look like as customers are going to be a part of the design process. 

So let's talk about some ways to get customer feedback on the changes to your store.

  1. The best way to do this is to leverage any existing conversations that you have with your customers. For example, especially in these times of Covid, if you are having people pick up their order from your store or warehouse definitely take advantage of that opportunity to talk to those people and ask them questions. Questions like how easy was it for you to find the product that you were looking. Or ask them in a perfect world what would have been different on the website.  An open-ended question like that lets the customer talk about what is important to them.  And may allow you to discover ideas you have not thought of.
  2. The next thing to do is to actually call your customers that place orders online. in Shopify customers are putting down their phone numbers as they are checking out. It's a very rare customer that would be angry if they got a phone call from the store owner asking them about feedback on a purchase they just made. Most people love giving their feedback and helping a business improve.  The biggest hurdle for this type of feedback is convincing store staff to actually invest their time to make the calls.  If you haven't called your customers before for feedback, you'll be amazed at the quality of feedback and new ideas that you will get by just spending a few minutes on the phone with your customers.
  3. You can invite your VIP customers to try something out or give them early access.  This could be done in bulk through email.  You can define your VIPs any way that you like.  A common method is repeat customers.  Let's say you are building a holiday shopping guide.  One way to test it is to send it out to your VIPs as early access.  You can see how these customers interact with the shopping guide.  And you can then call those that purchase through the guide and get detailed feedback.
  4. And the last way to see what customers think is to actually watch how they behave on the website. Now there are apps like HotJar which do a great job of allowing you to see exactly how a customer behaves during their shopping session on your store. You can also look at your Google analytics data and see how customers respond in mass. For example if your main navigation allows people to start their shopping experience a couple of different ways like shop by size or shop by color you can easily see the percentage of people using each method.

The key to all of these methods is to actually listen, whether listening to them speak or watching how they behave on the website, actually listen to what your customers are saying. And allowing the customers voice to impact your assumptions. For example with Twyrl, the pasta company out of Massachusetts, at the start of the project, I had come up with the idea that we should have subscriptions that were a rotating menu plan.  Every week customers would get a different meal over a 5 week menu rotation.  Well after 3 weeks of being deployed the customer feedback was that the menu plan was just too confusing.  Customers preferred to pick a meal and get that consistently delivered.  So we cancelled the whole menu plan idea and delivered what the customers wanted overnight.

And honestly, it can be a little bit hard to let go of your idea and let the customer's voice change what you think is right.  We all have a bit of an ego.  But the stores that do listen to their customers end up providing a more satisfying experience that is more intuitive for customers.  These stores see their conversion rates go up and their customer loyalty improves too.

Let me illustrate what I mean when I say you can use this MVP methodology for testing out new features in your store. I have a current client Bixby & Co. who make chocolate out of Maine. And I'm currently working on a full store redesign for them. One of the things that they believe is that their customers will buy a subscription offering of their products. They don't currently have subscriptions on their website.  So, as part of the redesign project, I'll also be adding the subscription functionality to the their store.  Here's how we're going to MVP that new feature.  First off is the V in MVP, Viable.  I'm going to fully implement a subscription app in the store.  All parts of the subscription process work and the store's branding and messaging will be fully implemented in the app.  So the subscription process will meet the store's quality bar.  Next is the M in MVP, Minimum.  We're going to deploy a single subscription product.  We haven't decide on what that will be yet, but its going to be as simple as possible.  We first want to see if can get customers to subscribe.  Then we can engage those subscribers and see what other subscriptions they would want.  And that will inform the next round of subscription products that we develop.  We'll see if people are buying for themselves or as a gift.  And what frequency they want the subscription delivered.  And I think we'll probably learn a couple of things that we haven't even thought about yet.  By listening to the customers, we'll actually let them design what the subscription offering is going to look like on Bixby and Co.

Now, a MVP done poorly can hurt your brand.  And those types of mistakes usually fall under the Viable umbrella, where what is being tested has holes or is not complete.  In other words, you need to maintain your quality bar in your MVPs. 

In summary, here's a way to approach the evolution of your Shopify store:

  1. Do small changes step by step.  Getting something in front of real customers is more valuable than iterating on a solution in a vacuum without customers.
  2. Listen to what customers have to say about the changes.
  3. Each step should be informed by the customer feedback.

This should result in a store that it easier for customers to purchase through, which leads to the ultimate store goals of increased conversion and Customer Lifetime Value.

Thanks for listening. 

JadePuma is a certified Shopify Expert. If you need any help with your Shopify store, we can help.