If you owned a shop you probably wouldn’t put up your signage in a foreign language, forget to turn on the lights, or leave your products scattered haphazardly on the shop floor without price tags. Yet that’s essentially what eCommerce retailers do when they neglect their website user experience, making it so difficult for customers to find the information or services they need that they often leave before they even reach the checkout.

Website user experience has been of critical importance for eCommerce businesses since the dawn of the Internet but the pandemic has made it more important than ever, as the numbers of people shopping online soared. In Fjord Trends, Accenture’s annual future-gazing report, the consultant giant identifies “collective displacement” as one of the biggest changes created by COVID-19 and argues that those businesses which deliver online experiences which are as seamless and enjoyable as physical interactions are those that will thrive in 2021.

What does this mean for most businesses? As European Business Review points out, it means placing more emphasis than ever on “making an outstanding first impression or providing the audience with the best experience.” That may sound simple, but in practice, it involves a rigorous approach to evaluating your customers, what they are looking for and how they access your website or app, as well as putting in place the right technological solutions to enable fast, seamless and intuitive journeys through your online spaces.

The first step towards superb user experiences is understanding how your customers are accessing your website. The chances are that in 2021 that isn’t through a PC screen but through a smartphone. Having a mobile-friendly website isn’t enough, your website needs to love mobile, and in most cases be designed with smaller screens primarily in mind. If the website you’ve designed so lovingly on a PC screen turns slow and glitchy on a smartphone, you need to rethink your user strategy. Fast. If you’re not sure whether your website is responsive enough, you can test it with this valuable tool.

On the subject of speed, modern consumers have less patience than ever before, so your website needs to move as fast as their attention span. Access Press points out that “if the loading time of your website is too slow, it will frustrate the clients and will ultimately hamper conversions.” In fact, Time Magazine has argued that most consumers will spend less than 15 seconds on a website. If most of that time is spent waiting for images to download, or trying to work out how to find what they are looking for, then chances are that they will have moved onto another website faster than you can say “bounce”. If you are looking to improve your loading speed there are multiple guides available online, but if you find that nothing you do works, don’t forget that your web hosting server can play a major role in your speed.

Then there’s navigation. Creating a website that is easy for potential customers to find their way around is a subject so meaty and important that there are whole books written just about this one topic. However, although this is a complex area (particularly if you are a complex business) there are simple steps you can take to create instant improvements. For example, calls to action that visually stand out will enable your website users to get exactly what they want in the location they expect to find. In creating call-to-action buttons, design is important, and you should always consider the psychology of colour. As Hubspot reports, in a study done by Maxymiser “researchers were shocked to find that they achieved an increase of 11% in clicks to the checkout area of the Laura Ashley website, by testing color variations and action messaging.” Small touches can create big changes.

There are other simple ways to make your website easier to navigate. Consistency is very important, so ensure that all elements – font choices, button styles, spacing, illustration styles, and photo choices – are internally consistent and coherent. This will enormously increase the confidence consumers have in moving through your website. You need to pay special attention to headings and make sure they are designed around what your potential customers are looking for. Given that search engines give headings more weight than other content, smart choices in headings will also pay dividends in your SEO results.

These are the basics, but as we move into 2021 what are some of the more sophisticated ways of improving user experience? Hip B2B predicts that a minimal approach to website design will pay dividends in the year ahead, anything which encourages “a simple, streamlined user experience”. This could include a simple design with bold 3D graphics, or restrained use of colours and copy.

3D is also singled out as a major trend for 2021 by the UX Collective, which argues it can have a big impact on user experience. Nor is it just for the biggest and best-resourced businesses. As UX Collective points out, it’s getting much easier for UI designers to create something effective in 3D, so now is the right time for you to investigate it, while it still has the power to stand out.

UX Collective and Hip B2B both agree on the likelihood that photography will play a major role in user experiences during 2021. Many websites which have come to rely on illustrations or graphics will begin to pivot back towards real-world images, while those offering products will become more creative in their use of photography. Many more people may be trying to shop on websites than ever before but can become frustrated when static photographs simply don’t offer the same ability to see, touch and feel. 3D photography is one way of getting closer to a real-world experience, allowing the user to inspect a product from different angles, and greatly increasing the likelihood of a sale.

Intelligent use of video may be another important element in improving the user experience, and RS Web Solutions argues that even more than photography they keep a potential customer’s “attention engaged for longer”. They can certainly help to bring a product to life and show all of its features in use in a way that a photograph, even a 3D one, can’t match. However, video must be incorporated into your website with care to avoid it being so slow to load and display that it’s likelier to send your customers scurrying than keep them hooked.

The ideas above really are the tip of the iceberg when it comes to user experiences. The truth is that there are hundreds of factors that play a part in affecting how your customer interacts with your website and whether the experience ends up as mostly pleasure or pain. It can take a lot of time just to research your options, but that is time well spent. Getting your user experience right can be just as significant as more obvious elements of digital marketing, such as your SEO or advertising strategies. When they all work together they become a machine with one overriding function – driving sales.