I’m calling for an eCommerce deconstruction movement. Hear me out.
There’s a type of business-centered best-practice extremism at work in the world today. In my experience, it closely mirrors religious fundamentalism: dogmatic adherence to a set of beliefs, prestigious organizations, and enigmatic leaders.
Fundamentalism, if left to fester for too long, results in a culture that is unwilling to explore the why of belief, because they never question the how.
Today on Insiders we’ll explore how our boring, “samey-same” web is the result of eCommerce Fundamentalism, and how we can claw our way out of its grip. The current eCommerce culture has become toxic, short-sighted, and lacking imagination. And you can’t spell culture without “cult.”
The “Cult of Best Practices” must be dismantled. And that starts by challenging our beliefs.
The Redesign, Anti-Design, and Bravery
There is no better time to test your beliefs than in the midst of a design refresh. “The Redesign,” as I call it, is a cultural moment in any organization where departments and leaders are required to collaborate, to challenge, and to build. Often it goes poorly because it requires consensus.
The Redesign, as an event, can make or break an organization. Engaging in The Redesign requires alignment. Alignment requires spending political capital. The Redesign often breaks leaders. It can fracture organizations. Quants hate The Redesign, as do Bean Counters. Why? The Redesign is risky.
You only embark on such a journey when faced with an existential threat. Because of the inherent risk, it often is combined with other big events like the adoption of new systems, new processes, new technologies, or a renewed product strategy.
Sometimes a brand experiencing The Redesign uses this opportunity to reposition itself in the marketplace. When this happens, it’s common to look at emergent design trends — ones that are off-kilter, or notably different from others in your competitive arena.
I have long been a fan of “anti-design,” a practice that challenges conventions by breaking common best-practices. Many (many) of our most popular pieces from Future Commerce have centered on challenging design norms:
- An exploration of brand-centric Dadaism and Maximalism
- C.A.R.L.Y. (Can't Afford Real Life Yet)
- Dork Mode: An Antidote to the Sea of Sameness (co-authored by Alex Griefeld)
So, you can imagine my excitement last week when The Verge launched a new redesign, igniting a debate around design best practices, and the need for media to challenge common design paradigms.
I have learned that eCommerce Fundamentalists HATE The Redesign. Bucking the design trend takes bravery because it often requires a user to reorient themselves. At worst, The Redesign can introduce bad friction—the kind that provokes a bounce, a cart abandon, or an unsubscribe. But it also allows a brand to move forward in a way that throws off fear and hits the reset button for a new generation.
Putting myself on-record here: The Verge’s redesign is bold. I love it. I want to marry it. To be sure, it is an over-correction, and that’s a good thing. Why? Because even after a reconsideration and optimization they will arrive at a happy medium that they could never have reached through optimization alone.
This isn’t micro-evolutionary change. This is a meteor-level event that blacks out the sun; only the strongest design decisions will survive, and the rest will be laid to waste.
A wonderful example of the adversarial reaction was from Sam Parr, founder of The Hustle, which sold to HubSpot in 2021 for $27M:
Internet companies are no longer the risky and bold entities they once were. News outlets like The Verge are now the Old Guard. To engage in The Redesign is to reboot your business for a modern era. Is it an act of desperation, or a ‘bet it all on black’ game of roulette? I’d argue it’s a bit of each.
What worked for The Hustle will not work for The Verge. They’re of different eras, with different readerships, and so the advice is not transferrable. Sam’s opinion is no more valid than mine in this regard. Despite the groupthink of Twitter, which seems to Know Better™, The Verge was met with a flood of organic PR hits. “Earned media” is usually praised, no?
Is it problematic that Sam shared his thoughts? No, not in the slightest. It’s what people do with Sam’s perspective, and how they put Sam’s opinion to work in their own context, that is potentially problematic. Using Sam’s lived experience to guide your own, without having the same context, is the beginning of Fundamentalism.
Deconstructing eCommerce Best Practices
Though often associated with religious practices, deconstruction is a more abstract philosophical process of self-examination.
The communities of Deconstruction fall into two camps: on one hand, it is a group of individuals examining their beliefs in order to examine those ideologies on a more personal level. These people ask themselves in earnest, “why do I believe what I believe, and how did I come to believe that?”
The second group throws away everything that has been learned because they perceive it to be a tool of power to oppress—or repress—a group of people from having their own thoughts and experiences. That is itself, a fundamentalist behavior. We’d be careful to avoid any extremes.
“Healthy deconstruction lays out all of the pieces and examines them in detail, and asks ‘is this true or is it not?’ — in order to have a healthy worldview,” says Erin DaCruz, the Director of Operations for Future Commerce, and a student of Theology at Covenant Theological Seminary.”Healthy deconstruction requires you to question why you believe what you believe.”
We can thank social media, and TikTok in particular, for making the process of deconstruction popular. The hashtag #exvangelical on TikTok has over 1B views and tens of thousands of creators. To wit, deconstruction isn’t always religious in context. James Killen is a TikTok creator deconstructing his conservative beliefs.
In an eCommerce sense, how did we arrive at best-practices to begin with? By pushing the boundaries of design in order to introduce new and unexpected behaviors. Today, I was shopping on the Liquid Death website. Their “shopping cart” icon is a casket. Cute. But they have no mini-cart and no slide-out cart drawer. Instead, it directs you to a shopping cart page. That’s “one more click” before conversion, a no-no in eCom-land.
I’m old enough to remember when “mini-carts” and “sliders” didn’t exist. They didn’t just magically appear, we arrived at those decisions by power-testing. But when a design pattern becomes commonplace, often eschewing that practice becomes notable enough to feel like a new or novel experience. The Fundamentalist looks at Liquid Death and says “you should institute best practices.” The Deconstructionist looks at Liquid Death and says “it’s impressive that you’re willing to challenge best practices.”
Here’s a real-life conversation that I have had more than once in my experience as an evangelical pastor. (yes you read that right, I’m an ordained pastor):
“God told me.”
Oh, I see. I guess that settles it. “God told you,” I shoot back, matter-of-factly.
“Yes, He did.”
“Well then,” I retort. “Who am I to argue with the God of the universe?”
This exchange is frustratingly common in Western evangelical church circles and eCom circles alike. Substitute “God” with “Baymard,” and I have lived this experience many times over in both my spiritual life and in my professional life. How does one argue with an oracle? Who am I to challenge the mouthpiece of the Most High?
Organizations like Baymard or ConversionXL have created religious-level texts that we adhere to mindlessly, and instead as how Baymard arrived at making recommendations in the first place. Overly-optimized sites can leave a brand feeling anemic, and non-distinct.
In our Visions 2022 study, we found that the “lingua franca” of eCommerce—that grid-based, left-filter, top-rail-navigation, sort-by-price-ascending aesthetic—was largely boring and uninspiring. In one part of the study, we removed the header from major online home goods retailers. The results were stunning—consumers were split on which brand was the more premium option when they could not see a logo. The lack of an identifiable brand showed us that site experiences were virtually identical and could be ignored.
Calling for eCom Deconstruction
The biggest compliments I’ve received for our Visions study came within minutes of each other. “I like the report, but the design is visually nauseating,” said one reader. I graciously thanked them and sent them a plaintext version.
They’re talking back. This is good.
“I don’t have an executive summary. Don’t make me think, tell me what to expect” said another. “Good! We want you to think. That’s the whole point” was my response. If you can’t take the time to dive into the content, then it isn’t for you.
One of the more visually-nauseating slides had these words emblazoned across it:
“THE WEB HAS BECOME THE MILD-MILD WEST.”
Boring, and predictable; this is most of the eCom experience. How do we break the cycle?
This is why “headless commerce” acolytes have been so successful in spreading their gospel. Choosing headless as a technology is a forcing function for Deconstruction. Because there is no frontend by default, it requires technology adopters and brand designers to rethink all decisions. If you merely rebuild the best-practices, why would you use a headless platform at all? Just use an out-of-the-box theme. It’ll save you time, and inter-departmental heartburn.
So we witness now that many in eCom are at a fork in the road. Businesses once seen as Early Adopters are now encumbered with technological legacy debt: stuck on older platforms and outdated, or overly sophisticated, internal systems. These businesses are faced with capital expenditures during a time when the eCommerce industry is reeling from a number of setbacks (iOS 14.5, reopenings, The Uncorkening, and inflation, to name a few).
You don’t need to adopt new technology, and expensive technology at that, to Deconstruct. Instead, it requires a commitment to rethink decisions, and examine how you came to buy into those decisions in the first place. Again, in our Visions 2022 study, we found that up to 60% of the real estate of a Product Detail Page is made up of 3rd party integrations. Did you reason yourself into the belief that this was truly the best experience for your customer? Or did you merely adopt the beliefs of others?
Fundamentalists believe that we’re at the end of history; that there’s nothing more to learn, or worse, only a few anointed leaders are capable of divining truth for the industry. We wholeheartedly disagree with this perspective, but we’re not calling for mass disbelief or a dismantling of the thought leader industrial complex.
Healthy Deconstruction doesn’t dismiss the entirety of history and communal experience. Rather, an eCom Deconstructionist decides for themselves that it’s important to examine every best practice for what it is: an anecdotal experience of another person that may inform you along your journey.