Web and mobile e-commerce sites are noticeably deficient in their efforts to build the kind of product familiarity that customers obtain when they view the product in a store. When customers are in stores, they not only touch and hold products, they use fuzzy logic processes to become more familiar with them.

They glance around the general area for similar products that may or may not be directly related in the product catalog, but that serve as alternative or complementary purchases. They ask questions, or eavesdrop as other customers ask questions. They see how other customers react to products and prices. They place the product next to other products to see how well they go together. They touch, pick up, or try on products to evaluate their quality and/or suitability. Perhaps they visit the store more than once to become more familiar with the distinguishing characteristics of competing products.

Some of these processes are difficult or impossible to emulate with current technology. But others are easily within reach using commonly available digital tools.

Product-Matching PK

What do retailers offer through web and mobile catalogs to build familiarity? How do they engage customers through product knowledge (PK) and awareness? A few photos, a brief description, some product specs. Maybe a video. But mobile devices are capable of delivering much more useful information about products to help customers understand them, familiarize themselves with them, and pull the trigger on a purchase.

For example, as pointed out in Usography's recent Retailer UX Audit, retailers can do much more extensive product matching than the typical "You might also like..." They have thousands of store associates who could, over time, go through their product catalogs and create associations between products that from their experience they have found to be good matches for each other. Everyone would gain from internally crowd-sourcing the taxonomy and related products. Or, alternatively they can hire outside firms to optimize the product catalog for intelligent product-matching.

Video PK

Approaches available for building familiarity go far beyond intelligent product-matching. Some sites offer product videos to communicate PK. However, videos could communicate much more information about products than they currently do. Often, the videos are just short online commercials, and don't enable the kind of product familiarity that customers could get by visiting a store.

Crutchfield does a good job of offering PK-rich videos for different types of electronics. Amazon takes product videos a step further by allowing customers to upload video reviews describing a product's features and benefits. Amazon's video review feature has admittedly been slow to take off, and has very few imitators at this point, but the potential for familiarization through such a feature is high. Customers could be incentivized to create how-to videos that train others how to use a product. The brief fame that would result from reviewing a popular product may be incentive enough to encourage participation.

Social Media PK

Product reviews have become standard on web sites. But the social media sphere of influence extends far beyond product reviews, which are more like personal essays than social interaction. The fear that other customers will dissuade purchases is the same argument that was used against product reviews several years ago.

Social media conversations are a powerful way to build familiarity with a product, because they are fresh and genuine. These conversations may not all be positive, but familiarity in the store isn't always positive either. Familiarity builds confidence, and confidence enables purchases. Social features like Question & Answer and Product Discussions are additional ways to allow customers to communicate PK to one another. Such features are becoming more popular, but are still not offered on many e-commerce and mobile sites.

Product Context PK

Digital catalogs, whether web-based or mobile, have the potential to build familiarity with products in a way that stores can't: through virtual representation of product context. Customers can view products in a virtual representation of the context, or setting, in which the product will be used. The context could be a virtual representation of a room within a customer's home. Or it could be a virtual representation of a customer's car, office, yard or body. With connection speeds ever-increasing, there are few barriers to producing realistic virtual representations that allow customers to view or try out products in the context in which they will be used.

Expert PK

Some products are more challenging to understand than others. Just looking at them picking them up doesn't build enough familiarity to result in a purchase decision. Some examples of product types that fall into this category are cars, home improvement, electronics, outdoor and sporting goods, and gardening. People need advice when considering these types of items in order to make an informed purchase decision.

Expert assistance is provided in some stores where PK can be a barrier to purchase, like Best Buy or Lowe's. But digital channels could be so much more helpful in patiently explaining the details of product attributes and usage. This is being done by a few retailers, through UX features like Chat with an Expert, interactive demos and product videos.

But the level of expert PK is still very low on most retail websites, as reflected in the results of the Retailer UX Audit mentioned above. The sites that offer Chat with an Expert do not usually repurpose the chat sessions and offer them to the wider customer base as PK. Videos and demos just scratch the surface of the PK that could be communicated.

Of course, offering expert PK is expensive. But in situations where expertise is required for customers to have the confidence needed to make a purchase, an investment in digital expert PK has a positive financial impact across the entire customer base that shops digital channels. Conversations with an in-store expert are heard by a handful of customers, whereas a digital expert PK piece can be experienced by millions of customers.

Conclusion: Think PK for UX Strategy

The vision of offering digital PK that builds product familiarity on par with the in-store experience has not yet been realized. But there are many signs of improvement. If you offer products whose purchase decision process involves more than a couple of steps, then you need to account for PK and product familiarity in your overall UX strategy.

Editor's Note: You may also be interested in reading: