Usability reflections: The failure of search in online stores

Source: ShutterstockRecently my Sennheiser headphones died after a decade of everyday abuse. I wanted to buy something similar in about 100 Eur class. Sadly the two biggest Slovenian stores failed to help me locate a perfect new pair in a number of ways.

I started with EnaA and entered into their search general term “headphones” (slovenian: sluÅ¡alke), since I was not really attached to any brand. This is part of output I got:


The built in search provides suggestions towards categories inside the store but fails to give you better context in which sections of store these categories are. If you are wondering, the first “Bluetooth headphones” points to “Audio/Video section” and the second to “Car accessories section”. Observant reader will also notice failure at standardization with first category using comman to separate microphones from headphones while last category uses ampersand sign (that is actually not used normally in Slovenian language).

They also sadly sell mostly cheap computer headphones so at that point I turned towards their competition Mimovrste. Same query this time returned following result:


In this case categorization was done nicely as “Headphones” in “Audio/Video” > “Audio” (section). Here as user I could see how hierarchy works. One could argue that turning this left to have the more general on left would be better since we are more used to such notation from everyday lives and also applications like Windows Explorer which opens folder from more general towards more precise.

I had another wish for the headphones, to have detachable cable since in my experience the cable fails every few months. After inspecting into more details one promising headphone I noticed something interesting:


The connector type is defined as “6.3mm stereo jack, with adapter included”. Here my question was adapter for what?

While this might seem like nitpicking it is actually quite important since some Sennheiser headphones (like HD 555 model) come with connector that will not fit into your iPod and you need a converter (which might be what is implicitly mentioned in that sentence). What would be helpful in this cases would be small link at the end of the row like “(confused?)” that would take you to a sub page with a few pictures of different connectors like the one in the iPod and such, explain the names so you would then feel confortable with your choice of headphones. This is online store after all where you can not turn the box around and see how it looks. (The argument about “Googling” is irrelevant here since you do not want your potential customers to wander away).

Since I was already noticing slips of the stores I decide to see if they could help me out with my little annoyance, that is the fact that I do not know how to spell “Sennheiser” or at least for me the usual spelling is “Senheisser” or just “Senheiser” with double letters. Since this is a big brand I would image they would know how to correct my spelling mistake:



There are two interesting facts to note. While it might be acceptable for EnaA not to suggest correct spelling, since they actually do not carry the brand – they found one match in one of their partner stores that had the actual product name misspelled! (Trying the luck with misspeling other brands also did not produce suggestions)

Mimovrste did a bit better with a large category list at the bottom, but also failed to correct my spelling. As a naive consumer that wants to buy a certain brad with hard to spell name, it should not be acceptable that I either have to guess the correct spelling or enter it into Google to get it to suggest me right spelling (even though this might produce also produce a list of more specialized online stores at the same time).

Lessons learned

Providing good search is not easy and should be treated as a separate usability review. In this case clear categorization and failure to suggest proper spelling produced breakage on my part while browsing which made me switch online store in hope that other one makes the process easier.

What interests me a bit more is that I actually failed to buy one pair of headphones since the description was not understandable to me and there was no clearly visible way how to get help on the connector part. This could be seen as part of the guidelines as “Speak users language” and “Provide help”.

3 thoughts on “Usability reflections: The failure of search in online stores

  1. Hi! Aren’t Sennheiser headphone so cool!?

    I have worked in usability with a number of online stores before. The biggest issue that they have is that the product vendors are often in control of the content that describes each product in the store’s database and they are sometimes even responsible for the metadata.

    For the store to reinput and check all the data is often very resource heavy and is not done.

    I’m sure that some ‘monkey’ was requested to enter the content and few controls are in place from a UC point of view.

    To fix this issueI have a number of suggestions to online shops:
    1) do it yourself
    2) by a better search engine that take into account spelling errors etc
    3) provide your vendors with a set of guidelines, templates or even a system that controls the content about each product.

    Any other ideas?

  2. Great suggestions James,

    I’d say maybe:

    4) Have a feedback loop built-into system (ISO 9000 style) that ensures that the questions received through emails and phone support get addressed in future revisions of product data and as part of normal iterative site development.

    5) Maybe do usability reviews of the competition and then check the problems list against own site?

  3. Good points Jure, we’ll make sure to include them into our product development cycle. Regarding misspelling correction, we did have a prototype in place a while ago, but never got around into implementing it. So thanks for kicking us and reminding us to do it now. I’ll let you know when we do 😉

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