How technology has enabled usability to user experience designs in today’s grand Ecommerce industry
Prompted by Walter Benjamin’s arguments in his well-known text The Work of Art in The Age of Its Technological Reproducibility 1, he indicates that technology violates art’s original intention and unique existence due to technology’s reproducibility. The fundamental reason why contemporary technology has been criticized as “it violates art’s original intention” is because people tend to confuse art and design. In most cases, technology serves design purposes, not art.
This paper will first clarify between art and design. Then it will discuss how technology serves better design functions and hence purposes under a user experience design base, specifically ecommerce directed UX, with examples of successful ecommerce businesses like Amazon and Tmall. In fact, it is believed that the convenience and possibilities that contemporary technology brings to UX design have enabled more targeted and feasible designs that traditional media fail to do so. Under further technological development, such as 5G, more designs will achieve milestone leaps.
Walter Benjamin has asserted in his text The Work of Art in The Age of Its Technological Reproducibility 2 that technological reproducibility violates art’s original intention and unique existence. Accordingly, “by replicating the work many times over, it substitutes a mass existence for a unique existence”, he adds that “the product of technical reproduction may leave artwork’s other properties untouched, but they certainly devalue the here and now of the artwork”.
Benjamin’s critique is reasonable and insightful, for sure. However, because there are these voices against technological uses in art purposes, people gradually and automatically assume that technological uses in design purposes are harmful, too.
Art does give birth to design; but indeed design is never the same as art.
Miklos Philips, an experienced UX designer and speaker, paraphrased Art’s definition based on Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy3: “art exists and has existed in every known human culture and consists of objects, performances, and experiences that are intentionally endowed by their makers with a high degree of aesthetic interest” 4. It’s hard to ignore the fact that the intention of art makers is purely aesthetic interest, whereas the intention of a successful design is to solve certain user problems and, eventually, meet commercial demands. Think about the difference between markets and museums: museums and artistic items can be preserved or even be sponsored because of their historical, cultural, artistic, and humane significance; yet capital markets may abolish any item if user value, or business value in other words, fails to be seen.
Artists can paint for personal aesthetic interests, but designers have to meet the demands of a target user group. Art can self-appreciate, but design needs appreciators.
As mentioned, the fundamental reason why contemporary technology has been criticized as “it violates art’s original intention” is because people tend to confuse art and design. To certain extents, technology does devalue art and harms art’s unique existence. But it actually benefits design, especially user experience design. Thanks to technology, user problems, usability, and commercial demands can be satisfied.
If you are a person who works in a related field, you must have heard the term human-centered design (HCD). What is HCD and how does HCD apply? It is defined by Donald Norman, the godfather of UX and HCD, in his famous reading The Design of Everyday Things 5 as “an approach that puts human needs, capabilities, and behavior first, then designs to accommodate those needs, capabilities, and ways of behaving”. It is an important philosophy because it highlights the fact that technology can actually serve and adapt to human beings. In user experience design, whenever there is a detected need of a certain group of human beings, designers utilize the most advanced yet acceptable or understandable technologies to satisfy the need. There is this circle of discovering needs and then satisfying needs under the help of technologies. In other words, technology is simply a tool to achieve certain demands. It does not lead the circle; it assists the circle. Designers and users should not hold such great hostility against technology because it’s just a media that helps us communicate and collaborate.
E-commerce has been a typical representative of industries that are supported by and highly dependent on UI/UX design. Some examples of real life e-commerce products including Amazon, Tmall, and eBay. According to the article UX Design for E-Commerce: Principles and Strategies 6, there are four main key aspects of UX for e-commerce, including: utility, usability, accessibility, desirability. These aspects can be embodied in many occasions.
Firstly, technologies help designers establish stronger brand images. This does not only showcase visually but mostly when users interact with the product. For example, Amazon’s brand color is sky blue and it has a curved arrow element, which looks like a smiley face, in its logo design. Most times users make an interaction, like tapping on something or buying some products or services, this smile-face-like arrow symbol shows up and prints into users’ minds. Oppositely, if you go to a local grocery store for some daily supplies, you might forget what the store’s name is after leaving. The apparent result here is that Amazon has successfully established a brand image whereas physical stores might fail to do so. “If you do build a great experience, customers tell each other about that. Word of mouth is very powerful”, says Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon.
Secondly, technologies help companies gain user feedback as well as acquiring user actions in order to iterate for better experiences. Imagine what do physical stores do: they have a feedback box for customers to give hand-written feedback. This is ineffective because customers might ignore it and leave. If they find products not usable later on, they won’t go back to stores just to complain. In this case, it’s relatively hard to get feedback and hence make improvements. However, technology allows a platform for users to provide feedback during and after shopping, and to read feedback from others before purchasing. This is an effective UX design strategy because users get to know the quality or FAQs of a product as well as commenting on their experience. In other words, technology has enabled an online community for consumers.
To add on this, it is mentioned by Nupur Pal in the article named How Amazon’s UI UX Design Has Made It One of The Most Gloriﬁed Online Shopping Destinations 7 that the system tracks its consumer’s purchasing hobbies and patterns. Accordingly, “this feature provides the user with a list of similar new products or products which are recently restocked” and it “persuades the user to make a transaction instantly, boasting the sales with it”. If you randomly make promotional posters in your physical store, it might work with some customers but not others, due to people’s different hobbies.
However, a machine learns and adapts every individual human being’s hobby and pattern so that one recommendation list is generated to be the best fit for one specific consumer. It’s quite obvious that technology has done something which salesmen in physical stores often fail to. Machines are clever and faster than human beings hence designers and engineers can train machines to learn to adapt to people.
As a new innovation, QR code has been utilized in many occasions especially purchasing occasions for faster and easier experience. Nurpur Pal describes this function as it “helps users to locate their products by capturing a picture or scanning the barcode of their required products”. We often have experiences of finding a product everywhere in a physical store. This is a problem since it kills our shopping experience by reducing the efficiency. Amazon does a great job in saving its user’s time. The scanning function is accessible, usable and desirable, making Amazon one of the most preferred online shopping platforms.
You might argue that physical stores have real staff to listen to your demands and recommend the best product for you, which Amazon can’t. This is true until the launch of a new feature by Amazon’s UX designers: the voice recognition search facility. It is a modern technology where artificial intelligence applies. Nupur Pal says: “Amazon introduces Alexa to cater your needs by simply listening to your demands.” Amazon designs an AI to listen and talk to its consumers. Moreover, with voice recognition, it replaces typing and hence feels more comfortable and natural to talk with a machine.
Amazon is indeed one of the pioneers in the industry. Its achievements and advancements are remarkable. Yet, after analyzing all these advantages of Amazon, it seems that the latter Chinese e-commerce platforms like Tmall, JD, and TikTok, study from Amazon and, importantly, improve on it in a more user-friendly way.
As a UX intern at Alibaba Group, I work at the Tmall department, formerly Taobao Mall, which is the biggest online retail in the country. Personally, I have the opportunity to learn and get hands on the advanced yet acceptable user-friendly technologies and designs. Therefore, I would like to share some differences between eastern and western e-commerce platforms.
Despite the same technology, different ways of utilizing it can lead to different outcomes and hence user experiences.
First, we know that both eastern and western e-commerce companies use online payment systems. But they operate in different ways. For Amazon, they have so called ‘guest users’ which allows users to browse first, meaning they don’t need to log in until they decide to purchase. For Tmall, there is no such option as ‘guest’, meaning users need to log in before browsing. Instead of filling forms like Amazon, Tmall users can simply log in using their eWallet accounts like Alipay, which is more desirable and accessible. As Thomas Price points out the advantage of Tmall in his article Chinese Web-Store Design: East vs West 8 that “this lets them track more information and tailor recommendations to your known behavior”. As previously mentioned, a key aspect to success is pattern tracking. By starting to learn consumer’s persona earlier, Tmal does a better job in providing more immediate suggestions and hence stimulate potential purchases easier and faster. In short, Tmall exploits the technology in a better way to adapt to its consumers than Amazon, yet the technology itself is the same.
Second, the previously mentioned QR code technology is present in Amazon but Amazon doesn’t exploit it as much as Tmall. Amazon’s scanning function only helps you find a product, while Tmall really integrates QR code into its entire system. According to Thomas Price, “in China, the mobile-first ecosystem combined with the presence of WeChat in almost every facet of modern life has meant that for years, apps and platforms have used QR codes to facilitate a mobile-enabled life.” As a result, QR code technology has been used as payment entrance and log in method. By connecting the online shop with a social media account, which is WeChat, and an eWallet, which is Alipay, Chinese users can skip all the complex and annoying processes like form filling and billing address. Therefore, technology can adapt to people and serve for a better experience if used smartly.
To sum up the argument here: western e-commerce businesses are pioneers in the industry and have established and developed advanced technologies for their products’ functionality; while eastern ones learn from the pioneers and improve on utility, usability, accessibility, desirability for better user experiences with the same technology. Thus, the effectiveness and outcome of technology depends on the methodology rather than technology itself.
This is to prove the claim at the beginning of this essay that technology should be praised in design fields because of its great advantages. It brings modern life more potentials and possibilities by enabling advanced digital products and services. After all, the goal of design is to satisfy a target group and resolve certain problems. Technology is an inevitable part of reaching this goal.
As far as we know, advanced future technology like facial or voice recognition, AR/VR and AI has been introduced and penetrated more and more into our daily lives. It is believed that by the year of 2025, there will be great differences compared to now. In this case, what are the potentials of future technology? How can future technology further improve on utility, usability, accessibility and desirability? Are there possible ethical issues of future technology?
As previously mentioned, artificial intelligence and virtual reality are examples of emerging technologies that are very likely to be used in future UX designs.
Artificial intelligence (AI) means the communication between humans and machines. It involves machine learning: let the machine learn our pattern so that it can better understand needs hence offer better experiences. Although things like facial recognition have already been adopted in many products, the future of AI allows machines to understand emotions and make predictions. Here comes the concept of anticipatory design. According to Oliver Lindberg’s article Emerging Technologies in UX Design 9, published on Adobe XD Ideas, “it has the power to transform experiences by making smart suggestions and decisions instead of presenting us with a range of choices”. Indeed, facial or voice recognitions are never the end because there will be new iterations in the future. It jumps from the stage of “what” to the stage of “how” and “why”. The beneficial outcome of this is a more natural process to talk with machines. The secondary benefit is that people get more familiar and comfortable with AI and hence increases viscosity of users. With the ability to understand emotions and make predictions, the machine feels more like a friend instead of a piece of metal.
Virtual reality (VR) is another example here. Early VR appears in shopping malls for people to play VR games. Game designers do apply VR technology. But this is never the sole purpose of VR. It is believed by Lindberg that VR provides opportunities for ecommerce businesses since VR technology resolves consumer’s frustration of online shopping by allowing them to try out products before making payments. This increases the effectiveness of online shopping through eliminating possible returned goods that don’t match with their beautiful pictures. While VR benefits users, it also benefits designers in terms of the way they design. Rather than making real products out, designers can prototype and preview how the real product will perform and display. It resolves designer’s frustration of not being able to become the user of their own products in the future, they can.
While stepping forward, designers need to also consider the ethical issues of emerging new technologies. Lindberg says that “a lot of algorithms are being fed with biased data, which has resulted in flawed and discriminatory experiences”. For instance, some voice-recognized robot assistants might rely too much on female voices.
In conclusion, technology, both existing and new, brings opportunities as well as challenges. There are still these patterns and practices that need to be tested. For user experience design, especially ecommerce which involves massive interaction between users and devices, it is essential to apply user-centered philosophy, do plenty of research, make unique personal experiences for individuals, design inclusively, and reduce potential harms from the beginning.
All in all, it is not technology’s responsibility to be ethical but ours responsibility to adopt appropriate methods. Specifically, in the ecommerce industry, most companies work for one app or/and one website, meaning the entire revenue depends on it. Thus, designers really need to adopt technology in a right way to ensure better user experience. In an era where new technologies emerge everywhere anytime, it’s us as designers’ responsibility to grasp the opportunity and avoid the challenge and create higher-quality user experience.
Benjamin, Walter. In The Arcades Project, translated by Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin, 3–13. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Pr. of Harvard Univ. Pr., 2003.
Adajian, T. (2018, August 14). The Deﬁnition of Art. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/art-definition/.
Philips, M. (2018, May 8). Art vs Design — A Timeless Debate. Toptal Design Blog. https://www.toptal.com/designers/creative-direction/art-vs-design.
Norman, D. A. (2013). The psychology of everyday things. In The design of everyday things (pp. 1–36). New York, NY: Basic Books.
Tubik. (2021, March 31). Ux design for e-commerce: Principles and strategies. Retrieved April 24, 2021, from https://uxplanet.org/ux-design-for-e-commerce-principles-and-strategies-9df7d81e59d8.
Pal, N., Swadi, N., CronJ, Saxena, M., & CronJ, K. (2021, April 19). How Amazon’s UI UX design has made it one of the most GLORIFIED online shopping Destinations? Retrieved April 24, 2021, from
Price, T. (2021, April 01). Chinese web-store DESIGN: East vs west. Retrieved April 24, 2021, from https://www.tmogroup.asia/chinese-webstore-design-east-west/.
Lindberg, O. (2020, February 07). Emerging technologies in UX Design: Adobe XD Ideas. From https://xd.adobe.com/ideas/principles/emerging-technology/emerging-technologies-in-ux-design/.