What eBay and Amazon Selling Taught Me about IT Design

The internet has radically altered how we shop. My father was amazed when I told him I found replacement parts for several appliances in a house we were fixing up for rent and/or sale. I found the replacement part for the dishwasher on eBay and pool pump part on Amazon.com. “I thought Amazon only sold books,” he remarked. “And wasn’t eBay where you did a lot of the kids’ Christmas shopping?”
eBay is joking referred to as America’s garage sale. Amazon began as a low cost online book store and became the Walmart of the internet, selling everything from baby diapers to Zithromax for fish.
These websites are popular because of their offerings. Their selection is driven by ease of use by both customers and sellers. What lessons can we learn from them in terms of IT design?

Simple Setups are Incredibly Valuable

A system that enables someone to step in and set themselves up, ready to go in a few minutes, is invaluable. IT systems based closer to the principles of simple and basic functionality as suggested in “Rework” by Jason Fried are superior to software applications and sites loaded with apps and features that take hours to learn and days to master.
eBay and Amazon are known for their simple setup for new customers, often letting you start selling your products in a matter of minutes. Both sites are the 800 pound gorillas on the internet because they made getting started simple. These sites benefit from millions of sellers reaching consumers through their websites, garnering a portion of the third party sales as well as a wider breadth of products that bring more consumers to their site than the competition’s. This makes the simplicity of the user setup a value added business proposition.

Ensure that Customers Can Find What They Need

Amazon has added an incredible number of sorting criteria to let consumers find the right product based on their criteria. They used crowd-sourcing via Amazon Mturk to winnow product information to identify the key aspects of a product so that consumers have access to the information they need and not much more. The end result is a shopping experience akin to walking into a boutique, asking for what you need and being shown a dozen items sorted by your preferences. eBay, too, has numerous criteria that let consumers search by criteria important to them and related to the product category, aside from simply relying on SEO.
Whether it is searching through a database, finding help resources or identifying the meaning of an error message, ensure that customers can find what they need when they use your product.

The Right Amount of Information

Insufficient information causes your product to get missed in keyword searches. Too much information causes customers to wonder if your product is the right one. Give enough information to prove that your product is (or isn’t) what they are looking for. Send a technical specification sheet and assembly instructions with the product.
Balance the amount of information consumers get. A lack of information is frustrating, while hitting them with a fire hose of information is overwhelming.

Proper Design Prevents Replication of Errors

A well-thought out website or product design at the onset is the foundation of the endeavor. It is easier to plan out a good design and build it than to set something up and then spend much more time trying to fix it. This is especially true when a system is expanded via replication and federation. If it is a hassle to make changes to one system, try implementing a fix in two or more versions or multiple databases.
IT is revolutionary in many ways because it is so scalable. Hence the joke that a computer lets you make a mistake a thousand times faster and ensure that millions know about it. Proper design prevents replication of errors on a vast scale, so build in robustness, quality, interoperability and ease of use from the onset.

Reputation Matters – and It Matters Most at the Beginning

When a seller starts, the first few shipments establish the reputation. A bad rating early on takes a dozen more five star reviews to offset. A software application with a problem-prone initial release will take months of customer care to make up for the initial problems. It takes more work to make up for a bad first impression than it does to create a good first impression. Your reputation matters, in online selling and service. It matters most in the beginning, because new customers are those most willing and able to leave your products or service agreement.
Focus on quality when designing an IT system or service. Ensure that it meets customer requirements and is bug free. You should wait another month or two to release something instead of making a bad impression that you may never undo.

The Light Hand of Corporate Governance

My father once said the greatest thing America has in its favor is political inertia. A long history of personal freedoms, local decision making and peaceful coexistence keep the country strong despite recent national erosion of our freedoms and bad governance. People can and do rely on a strong collective history and set practices to resolve problems even when the national government seems paralyzed. We can take care of things mostly by ourselves because we have had to in the past, and we have many close at hand solutions to fix things before bringing in the big legal guns.
Both Amazon and eBay utilize a similar inertia to their benefit and that of customers. Reputation scores and customer ratings warn customers of bad apples quickly, and the threat of a bad review often leads to resolution of service problems without relying on website management getting involved. Well-designed dispute management practices exist on both Amazon and eBay to mediate problems that may have arisen due to third parties, such as shippers. Dispute resolution is focused on helping each side find a solution that they can live with. Heavy measures like banning someone are a last resort, but one that exists. The light hand of corporate governance leads to a better overall experience for everyone.
Design IT services and systems so that system administration doesn’t appear heavy handed or arbitrary. Give consumers multiple avenues of reporting problems and seeking assistance.

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