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First Thought: The New Amazon

You probably didn’t notice, but there is a new Amazon in town. No, it’s not how Amazon is coming out guns blazing with Kindle Fire or how they are quietly introducing physical touch points in the US and the UK. In fact, you probably wouldn’t have noticed, because I happen to be one of the first to see it. I didn’t see it because of secret access or because I’m special, or because I happen to know a lot about retail and eCommerce. I saw it because it seems I’m the subject of some A/B or multivariate testing Amazon is currently running. Let’s review what Amazon is testing, which may come to your laptop or tablet in the near future.

First off, the biggest changes: a new visual design and home page:

The visual design is cleaner and more contemporary, feeling one part Safari and one part Google tools. The use of warm greys and understated gradients have replaced a more cartoony use of blue and orange in all of the Amazon-specific elements in the interface. Overall, these changes have quite a dramatic effect by really highlighting the merchandising slots and the products themselves, rather than drawing a customer’s eyes to the interface itself.

While the visual changes are significant, Amazon’s stripped back approach to navigation may be both more significant and more refreshing. The company has gone back and forth in extremes of showing all of their top level product categories to very few across a range of permutations. To see a detailed documentation specifically on Amazon’s navigation, it’s worth taking a quick look at the excellent overview of The History of Amazon’s Tab Navigation provided by Luke Wroblewski. I like their new approach for a lot of reasons I’ll touch on momentarily.

One final thing to mention about the new home page is their use of the “feature” space in the middle of the home page just below the tools and primary navigation. Where typically you would see one larger promotional image–generally for Amazon’s own Kindle or (worse) a giant “Letter from Jeff Bezos”–there is now the introduction of two merchandising carousels. The top carousel highlights all of Amazon’s own digital media products: the Kindle family, MP3 Store, Cloud Player, Appstore, etc. The bottom carousel has switched between three (as in the screen shot above) and two items displayed. Having just revisited the site, it’s clear that the bottom includes one personalized slot given it’s pushing a category at me that I had very recently visited. Neither the top nor bottom carousels cycle automatically. Amazon is clearly outlining top and center what they are betting their future on: their digital media and app ecosystem. Overall, their approach to introducing customers to Amazon products and promotions seems both more clear and yet more subtle than what we’ve seen in the past. The jury is out on whether it is too subtle.

Investigating the navigation and tools header more closely, we see some radical design decisions:

At rest state, none of Amazon’s departments are displayed and only a single, understated “Shop by Department” tool is shown. Pushing the visibility of Amazon’s product range out of obvious view of customers is a radical departure from other commerce sites and more extreme than Amazon has ever done before. Rolling over the “Shop by” tool invokes a set of “stacked” fly-out navigation with two levels. The first level is similar set to what Amazon has been showing recently in a static state, in a similar upper left hand position. This first level has three clearly demarcated areas: Amazon’s digital products, other common categories, and the “Full Store Directory”. It’s hard to understate the importance of this change. By placing all of Amazon’s categories behind a “Shop by Department” stacked fly-out and search, Amazon is assuming that (1) customers already know what Amazon sells, and (2) they have comfort that customers will intuitively get to products through subtle navigation, on-sites search or from general web search.

The second level, offers a combination of both text links and visual merchandising. As documented above with the Clothing category, Amazon introduces a flexible double column navigational space. In this case, it uses the left column for text links in the clothing category and the rest of the space for a large, visual for the “Resort Trend Report”. The use of a full-length woman breaking the edges of the fly-out navigation makes it feel more organic, more magazine-like and, conversely, less web-like. Different categories receive different treatments. Some have just a single column of text links and others mix text links and visual merchandising between two columns. Overall, it seems much more flexible and much more effective. I love the stacked navigation and seeing Amazon use it will help other clients see the potential value of a bit more progressive disclosure in primary navigation.

Looking across the top navigation and tool bar, we see Amazon is delivering a lot more utility and access to deeper levels of the experience:

An account pull down now (finally) offers up access to really obvious functions customers would expect to get to quickly. Orders, lists, and similar account related functions are now accessible directly from anywhere in the site. The “Your Account” area also seems to be evolving into a space to manage your digital media and Amazon cloud services. We could see this continue to grow or maybe even break off into a similar but separate tool set.

The shopping cart is also (finally) upgraded:

First off, we now have an item counter in the cart itself, clearly visible at all times. In this case, I happen to have four items in my cart so the number “4” appears in the cart. When rolling over the cart navigation, a drop-down spawns with photos, linked product item names, quantities and the ability to view cart. Pushing this type of really critical information and functionality up in the hierarchy and making it available from anywhere in the experience is an obvious move that Amazon should have already introduced years ago. If I didn’t believe in the notion of “best practices”, I would probably say this is a best practice.1

Looking deeper in the site, not much has changed in the experience outside of the visual design:

This books department page is pretty representative of the treatment for the rest of the site. While there are subtle changes, the information architecture and the visual design below the top navigation and tool bar is essentially identical to what came before it. The funny thing is, the effect is still quite dramatic. The experience feels contemporary and more useful because Amazon has driven a lot of understated power in a header which was before, most positively described as, “dated”.

Obviously this is a test so we’ll see what changes really do get rolled out in the coming days, weeks or months. We would assume there are a series of other variables or versions Amazon is testing. That said, I would argue what we do see here is evidence of definite improvement. Overall, the visual design effectively makes the experience feel more modern while simultaneously delivering a cleaner slate on which to set products and promotional opportunities. The new radically stripped back–no departments showing at rest!–navigation both depends more heavily on a user’s intuition yet also delivers greater access to deeper areas of the site as well as more effective visual merchandising. The complimentary header toolset delivers both more information and more functionality.

If these changes go live, and I believe they will, this should help prove that we don’t necessarily need to pander to “obvious” navigation or lowest common denominator interactions. Instead, we can introduce more information-rich, more useful and more responsive design which enables us to provide more power to customers with less interface junk. That said, it also shouldn’t usher in an era where other retailers seek to hide their primary departments. Amazon is a special case playing to their long-tail business model, their move to a cloud-based digital-media/app ecosystem and a legendary in site search and SEO capability. What’s great for Amazon is not necessarily great for everyone.

1 You’re probably asking yourself, “How could he not believe in best practices? Doesn’t everyone?” More on this in a later post.


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