3 Tips for Better Product Descriptions on Websites

by Amy Schade on August 24, 2014

Summary: Key content requirements for product pages are: answer users’ questions, be direct, and help with product comparison.

As we've said before, the first law of e-commerce is that if the user cannot find the product, then the user cannot buy it. But finding relevant product pages is only the first step down the purchase funnel. While many sites have improved their information architecture and navigation, many product pages are still dismal.

Product pages need to do more than provide an image, a cursory product description, and an Add to cart button: they need to sell the product. To do so, product pages must convince or assure users that this is the item that meets their needs. Yet many product pages fail to do this.

When users rely on a website's product information, they do not get the chance to touch the product, read its packaging, try it on, or ask a salesperson a question before purchasing. Clear and descriptive product pages are essential.

In our e-commerce studies, we found that 20% of the overall task failures in the study — times when users failed to successfully complete a purchase when asked to do so — could be attributed to incomplete or unclear product information. Leaving shoppers' questions unanswered can derail a sale or even worse, make shoppers abandon not just the purchase, but the site as well. One shopper in a recent study could not find the information he needed in the product description, so he left the site to search Google for more product information. In the course of his search, he found another site with the same product, a more complete description, and a lower price.

In general, when you run a usability study and hear the test user say, “Now I would go to Google,” you know your site is making less than half the money it could. Losing a user to Google is almost identical to losing the order.

Poor product pages have 2 main consequences, both of which harm the user's relationship to the site:

  1. A user cannot decide if the product meets his requirements and so abandons the purchase.
  2. A user makes assumptions about the product, buys it, and discovers it’s not what was needed. Definitely an unhappy customer; probably an expensive returns-processing step to sap your profits.

Here are 3 basic requirements that every product page must meet.

Requirement 1: Answer Questions

In our research, many users simply did not have enough information to make a purchase decision. While it is impossible to anticipate every question that a shopper may have about a product, some sites neglect to go beyond providing the bare minimum of product information.

Shoppers often want to know details — about accents on clothes, dimensions of furniture, care of clothing, size of toys, proper storage of edible products, whether a hotel’s outdoor pool is heated for year-round use. Many sites however focus only on basic information, or on the wrong information. Shoppers want to know how the product will meet their needs and are looking to the site to provide those answers.

For instance, Anthropologie.com offered an item called Pilcro Hyphen Embroidered Chinos.  The embroidery was a feature notable enough to be mentioned in the product name. However, the accompanying text about the item, listed under a Details label, made no mention of the embroidery. Only when a shopper clicked to reveal the text hidden under the label Description was the embroidery mentioned at the end of a 4-sentence paragraph: “these casual chinos are complete with embroidered side panels.”  You’d think that a user could then turn to the product image to find out what the embroidery looked like.  However, none of the three product images offered showed a clear view of the embroidery. Here, a defining aspect of the product was completely neglected in the description and images provided. 

The only indication of the embroidery in this item from Anthropologie was the name of the item and a cursory mention in the Description, which needed to be expanded by the user to be visible. None of the product images (including the third, not shown above) showed clear images of the embroidery.

The J. Peterman Company is a company known for using lengthy, verbose stories for product descriptions, in their print catalogs as well as online. For example, a description of a shirt on the site began, “Springtime in Nashville, 1967. She was singing that day at Ryman (before it was redone). Scent of honeysuckle outside.” For this company, such descriptions are part of their history and brand. However, even J. Peterman follows their more eloquent prose with standard facts about the item for sale, such as “pointed collar,” “shell buttons at center front,” “1-inch grosgrain ribbon (antique white) at neckline and left front placket,” and “adjustable cuffs.”

J. Peterman followed their narrative text with details that clearly described their products. These details, however, would be easier to read in a bulleted list, rather than in a paragraph of text.

Requirement 2: Get to the Point

Product descriptions need to be complete, but not wordy. Unlike J. Peterman (mentioned above), most companies can’t get away with verbose prose. Users are not looking for marketing-heavy text, but for a solid description of the product, how it can be used, what it looks like, and what it does.

Users typically skim text when reading online, reading more at the beginning of the description than the end, and more at the start of a line than at the end of a line. Don’t waste the first few lines of product descriptions on text that doesn’t help the user understand the product.

Even a single line of text that answers no product questions can deter or distract a user. In the example below, Fannie May started a description of assorted creams with the text, “Sweet dreams are made of these creamy centers and each one is its own pleasing reward.” All we’ve learned here is that the creams have creamy centers.  The description ended with “If our rich buttercreams are your heart’s desire, this is the treat for you!” The one sentence that described the product accurately, listing the types of chocolates included in the box, unfortunately ended with “…chocolate, raspberry, strawberry, orange, Trinidads and more.” This left two unanswered questions: What is a Trinidad? And what does “more” mean?

This description from Fannie May included only a single line of text that described product details. The other two sentences added little to an understanding of the product.

By contrast, a product description on Forever 21’s site got to the point quickly. A faux-leather jacket was described as “A must-have for all seasons, this textured faux leather jacket features quilted accents and a flat collar. Complete with long zippered sleeves and zippered front pockets, pair this piece with skinny jeans and booties or a bodycon dress and heels.” This brief description managed to include information about the appropriate seasons to wear the jacket, design details, and even advice on how to style the item.  The bulleted list that followed included additional details, such as measurements, materials and care instructions. Four images also showed the jacket from different angles, providing a more complete idea of the product.

Forever21’s brief description covered key details about the product, its construction, and how a customer could wear the item. This was followed by a bulleted list of product details, including fabric, measurements and care.

In general, product photos are a great way of providing specifics for many product categories, particularly when users are given the option to see truly big and detailed images. It’s amazing how many sites still limit users to small images with insufficient details, even though “inadequate photo enlargement” was #10 on the list of top-10 web design mistakes as long ago as 2005. That’s why user experience specialists will have good careers for years to come.

Requirement 3: Help with Comparison

Comparing multiple offerings is one of the most crucial user tasks. You can’t assume that people will know which of multiple products is the best for them without having to compare the options. You can reduce the need for comparisons by simplifying your product line: as always it’s easier to make a simple user interface if the underlying concepts are simple. But few companies can make their product line so simple that there’s only one choice for any given customer. E-commerce sites that carry multiple vendors definitely can’t do this. Thus, we need to help users compare.

Some sites offer users comparison tools that allow shoppers to see products side by side. Depending on the design and the product information included, these tools range from dismal to powerful. Yet we see that when users shop, the most helpful way to allow comparison between products is to provide comparable information, presented in a comparable way, about similar products.  Shoppers struggle when sites offer robust details about one item, and sparse information about another. They are left guessing as to which product better meets their needs.

Pottery Barn listed information about dressers in a consistent and descriptive way. Two bedside-tables descriptions began with brief overviews, and then bulleted lists that provided comparable details about the products, listed in the same order for each. Each listed dimensions, followed by materials, features, finish information, and hardware details.

Pottery Barn did a nice job of providing equivalent information about two products on the site. This helped users with simple comparison. Basic information such as dimensions, materials, and furniture details such as shelves and drawers were listed in a consistent way between products.

When sites have widely variable product information, it makes comparison extremely difficult. Two shredders available through OfficeMax.com had vastly different amounts of information available, with one summarized in 5 bullet points, and another offering a similar bulleted list, followed by a listing of key features, a product tour, a product demonstration, and a brand-specific comparison chart.

The OfficeMax site offered different amounts of detail about these two comparable shredders.

Both product descriptions began with a bulleted list of features, but even here there was no consistency between the listings. Descriptions did not focus on the same or comparable features, and details that were similar, such as the number of sheets that could be shredded at one time, and size of the resulting shredded particles, were not listed in the same way or the same order.

Listing different amounts of detail about different products makes it difficult for users to understand how products compare to one another. In the OfficeMax.com shredder listings shown above, even the baseline information that began the two descriptions listed details in a different order.

A little mini-user test is in order here. Which of the above two shredders would satisfy your household needs the best if you were to buy a shredder for your home?

Fine-Tune Product Descriptions

Shoppers rely on product descriptions to assure them that they are making the right purchase decision. Clear, detailed, consistent, and concise descriptions are most effective.  Product descriptions can easily make or break a sale. For more tips, see our report on creating effective product pages or our courses on writing for the web.

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