Inspirational images, common on homepages, category pages, and even headers on product listing pages, can be great at lifting the aesthetic appeal of an e-commerce site design.
Indeed, our research shows that bespoke imagery is one of the biggest factors in positively influencing the user’s initial perception of the site, with 88% of our benchmark sites using inspirational imagery across the site.
However, users seeking the specific products depicted — or to replicate the entire depicted look — can become frustrated when they are able to clearly see the product they want but are unable to easily navigate to them.
“Users become frustrated when they can clearly see a product but are unable to navigate to it.”
As sites realize this key opportunity for upsells, our benchmark sites shows a growing number of sites consistently link to products depicted in inspirational images — from 47% in 2013, to 55% in 2017, to 91% in 2019.
However, 9% of sites continue to frustrate users by failing to provide easy access to highlighted items.
In this article, we’ll cover our research findings from both desktop and mobile large-scale UX testing regarding the use of inspirational images during product finding, including:
Images in general tend to receive a lot of attention from online users, and inspirational product images in particular are often designed to draw the eye with enticing photography and featured products within a beautifully styled setting.
Inspirational images are often used as an illustrative and visually interesting representation of a product category, such as a model wearing an outfit with a winter coat to represent the “Outerwear” category or a beautifully furnished room to represent the “Living Room Furniture” category.
However, the eye-catching tendency of inspirational images also leads to a potential problem: while the image is typically meant to promote a category of products, users may become interested not only in the overall category, but specifically in the particular products depicted — possibly even in a product besides the category the image is designed to promote.
For example, users may want that particular coat being worn by the model, or they may be interested in the rug shown in the image of a room meant to highlight the furniture.
Because these different products are — in the user’s eyes — so prominently featured on the site, users tend to expect to be able to access the specific products depicted, including auxiliary products shown in the background.
During our usability research studies, we time and again observed users grow frustrated as they spotted a product they wanted in one of these inspirational product images that they weren’t able to navigate to, either because the image linked to a category from which those products weren’t evident or because the image wasn’t a link at all.
When users don’t have immediate access to products that are being promoted, they are essentially forced to play a cat-and-mouse game where they must manually scan and search the site to hunt down the product on their own. In practice, many users will quickly give up the search, deciding it requires too much effort.
Failing to provide access to products depicted in inspirational imagery not only inconveniences and frustrates users, but it also presents a sizable missed opportunity for sites to upsell.
Users can be drawn to the entire “look” depicted by the styled room, vignette, or outfit and may be tempted to purchase all of the included products to replicate it in its entirety. Without an easy way to do so, users may give up on manually locating all of the products featured, missing out on a fully curated look — while the site misses out on a sale.
In practice, there are 4 strategies for providing access to depicted products.
The most direct option is to list featured or depicted products directly on the homepage or intermediary category page alongside the inspirational image.
This implementation allows users immediate access to product information that would normally be included in a product list, such as the product name, price, and average rating, without the need to further interact with the page.
However, product list thumbnails have the potential to be confused for subcategory thumbnails, so intermediary category pages containing both kinds of images must be carefully designed to ensure each kind of image and link is distinct.
If there’s a chance that the individual products may distract too much from subcategory thumbnails (which are important on the homepage and category pages), another option is for inspirational imagery to include a link to a page or overlay specifically listing the depicted products.
This implementation is especially beneficial for fully styled outfit or room photos, where users may be interested in purchasing all of the included products to fully replicate the look.
When inspirational images are linked to product listing pages, any products depicted in the original image should appear first within the product list so they are immediately visible and accessible.
This strategy will meet the needs of both users who expect the link to lead to a product-listing page as well as those particularly interested in the products depicted in the inspirational image.
Note that during testing some users assumed that clicking directly on a depicted product within the inspirational image would take them directly to that particular product’s detail page.
These users were disappointed to arrive at a curated page or product listing page; however, if the depicted product they were interested in is immediately accessible in the resulting list then they’ll have to overcome only a minor speed bump on their way to their product of interest.
To further help users identify the product they’re interested in, it’s thereby important to make it easy to recognize product list item(s) that match the products depicted in the original inspirational image. This can be done by listing the name of the product(s) within or alongside the inspirational image or indicating on the product-listing page which items have been featured.
Another interesting strategy to consider is to provide interactive tags within the inspirational image. Products depicted in the inspirational image are marked with a pin, dot, or icon, such as a price tag symbol, and clicking the icon provides users with additional product information and a link to the full product details page.
This implementation can be particularly engaging, encouraging users to interact with the inspirational image in detail, and may be most valuable on intermediary category pages with large inspirational images.
However, this strategy should be approached cautiously, as testing hasn’t yet verified the performance of this design pattern.
On mobile, where there is no hover state, it may be less obvious that inspirational images contain links to various product pages. Instead, including a button or icon within the image invites users to tap right away, thereby exposing the links to the individual product pages.
Inspirational images are often the most expensive to shoot, so it’s not uncommon for them to continue to be used on a site even if some of the products depicted are no longer available.
In these cases, users should be notified that the item is no longer available, instead of simply removing the product from the curated page or product list.
The description can be as simple as “discontinued”, “unavailable”, “only available in stores”, etc. Even better, if similar products are available, consider linking to those or their categories as alternatives.
While users may be disappointed to see their desired item is out of stock, this notification is far preferable to removing the item from this layer entirely, leaving users to wonder about the item’s availability or waste time searching the site for it.
Inspirational images can pull extra weight by not only visually enhancing the representation of product categories across the site, but also by giving users a clear path to featured products.
Doing so helps both users and the site itself: users can immediately learn more about all of the different available products they may be interested in, while the site makes it easier for them to find — and eventually purchase — a wider array of products.
Luckily, sites have several options for making products featured in inspirational images easy to find.
Given the benefits for users, it’s surprising that 9% of benchmark sites still don’t provide clear access to products featured in inspirational images.
Without a direct path to visually highlighted products, users who are drawn in by eye-catching inspirational images are likely to give up on manually locating the products — and the site misses out on an easy sale.
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