Store Optimisation

UX Basics For eCommerce: The Human Behind The Buying & What They Really Want

Patrick McCarthy

When a potential buyer lands on your site, what do you think they’re after?

While the answer may seem obvious at first (they’re looking for new trainers, dog probiotics, or legal advice), it goes a lot deeper than that. 

As Shopify website designers, we’ve learned over the years that most people have a sense of what they want; very few know what they need, beyond the obvious surface stuff like food and water. In fact, most of us conflate our needs and desires. 

That’s because human beings are complex creatures. And it’s why referring to the people that purchase your products or service, or at least consider them, as users or buyers is a bit detached and impersonal. 

Of course, those terms are part of every digital entrepreneurs’ vernacular because they’re accurate and convenient (read: we do it too), but it takes away from being in touch with who your customers really are. And that’s important, because at the heart of your business is a desire to help people get what they need

In this article, we’re going to jump into what those needs are – they’re the same for every person regardless of what you’re selling. Then we’ll link those metadata to practical approaches and tools you can use to serve your customers (ahem –– people) in a meaningful way.

What People Want

Ever seen that Mel Gibson Hollywood flick, What Women Want? Here’s a quick synopsis: an arrogant ad executive is able to hear women’s thoughts, and he (ab)uses that power to get what he wants (her getting fired so he gets her job). 

The moral of the story can be summarised as be careful what you wish for, especially if you have a conscience. But there’s a subtheme: the idea that knowledge of what people want can be used to help them or hurt them.  

We’re going to safely assume that ecommerce owners have only good intentions in their quest to discover and meet their customers’ deeply rooted needs. That is, you’re in the business of helping someone get what they’re looking for (and hopefully that’s your product or service), while also turning a profit.

The broad-scale searching/buying journey goes like this:

Your customer arrives on your site with a need. While they may think it’s a superficial desire, deep down it’s a need. For example, they want new trainers for their workouts – good support, a comfortable fit, and durable. But beneath that desire is a need to achieve, to get stronger and fitter and healthier. And it goes even further than that. Deep down they need to feel capable and in control of their lives. 

Are your trainers going to help them accomplish that?

So, they suss out your products, compare features and prices, and read reviews. But they’ve already made a choice. According to neuroscientist and modern-day philosopher, Sam Harris, the human brain decides before the person attached to the brain realises they’re making a choice. 

And that decision is based on some very fundamental requirements:

A need to survive. A need to feel secure. A need to belong. A need to be recognized. A need to be at the top of their game. A need to solve problems, to be creative, to be moral. A need to fulfill each one of those psychological requirements.

That’s a hefty grocery list for the online retailer! But don’t worry, your job is not to meet each one of those needs. If you can hit on one or two of those, then you’re winning. And you can – morally, honestly, and effectively.

Let’s start with the fundamentals and work our way up.


People need to know how to buy from you. This starts with basic computer literacy and expands to ease of technical use on your site. Do your pages load quickly? Can people easily purchase the product they want?

If someone has to wade through pools of confusion and technical junk trying to buy from you, they’re bound to get frustrated and look elsewhere. Ensure there are as few steps as possible between them and what they want, without compromising trust. 


Security is functional and psychological. First of all, is your site secure? Can people give payment information without any fear that it will be shared with a third party? Adding trusted logos in your site footer and checkout page will give them peace of mind.

Second is the psychological component. Does the person feel confident that they are making a good buying decision? 

This is why you want to inspire confidence throughout the buying journey. Opt for full transparency regarding product details and features. Give them all the information up front, and demonstrate, with compelling, benefits-focused copy, how that product is going to improve their situation.  

Ensure all your reviews are up to date and reflect a balanced view of your product or service. Make it a regular task to respond publicly to those reviews so your customers feel appreciated and new customers feel confident that they are buying from someone they can trust.


Can people see themselves represented on your site, such as through the use of images? Customise the buying experience as much as possible. For example, if you’re selling unisex t-shirts, use gendered models displaying the actual t-shirt they’re buying (XL in Navy Blue). If possible, use images that depict the product being used in an activity relevant to its purpose. Take it a step further and give them the option to upload their personal avatar to try your product on.

Offer customised up-sells based on their purchase history, but be careful to avoid overwhelming them with too many suggestions.

Consider a loyalty program. There are tons of software applications that can help you develop one. Check out this article on Medium for some suggestions of Loyalty Programs for Ecommerce Brands.



We visited this deep-seated need in the trainers example, so you get the idea. To feel like we’ve achieved something worthwhile means we’ve succeeded in meeting our own personal benchmark for success. How can you help your customers with that?

Reassurance is key. If you’ve ever experienced buyer’s remorse, you know intimately how uncomfortable it is. However, if someone continued to support and validate your purchase, chances are you wouldn’t have regretted it. 

An email nurture series can help reaffirm to your customers that they made the right choice buying from you. This sequence of emails may include inspirational stories of people they can relate or aspire to that are, of course, relevant to your product or service. Use these emails to really tap into the psychological underpinnings of their purchase with encouragement to “keep shooting for the stars.” Renowned business coach, Marie Forleo, has carefully crafted email campaigns that do this well.

Your email sequence may also include a follow-up “just checking in” message to communicate that you’re there, you care about them, and you appreciate them. It puts the human being back in the business.  

Creativity, Intelligence & Morality

We’re getting closer to the top of the purpose-of-life pyramid, as we like to refer to it. We’re beyond mere survival and functionality and in the realm of “what’s my real purpose?” While it may be difficult to consider how your product fits in here, don’t doubt it does. 

When you’re making a purchase, it usually meets at least one of the following needs: creativity, intelligence, and morality. A particular item may support your creative expression, or it may help sharpen your intelligence in a particular area of life. If it appeals to the moral part of you, even better. How can you help your customers accomplish that?

If possible, provide stats on how their purchase contributes to an important social initiative: greater eco-sustainability, a non-profit or charitable cause, or somehow puts them in a position to be a better human being. 

Note: we’re not suggesting that you twist information or pander to your customer’s personal moral requirements. The most critical part of your communication with your customers is honesty. If it does fit, don’t make it.

Focusing on benefits in your content marketing and site copy is one of the best ways to illustrate how your product or service is going to support their creative, intellectual, or moral expansion. Don’t tell them, show them. Paint a vivid and positive picture of post-purchase life. 


This is the overarching need that plays into all the others. We feel fulfilled when we’ve attended to all our other needs and recognised, to an extent, our reason for being here (on this planet, that is). It’s the actualisation of all our hopes and ambitions. That’s a tough nut to crack, and every part of your site and the buying journey is going to feed into that organically if you’ve considered each of the previous functional needs.

Our recommendation here is don’t shoot for the stars. Start with where your customers are and gently lead the way. Otherwise, your brand voice isn’t going to ring true. 

Pay Attention To Your Thought Process…

The next time you hop online to browse for an item, check in with yourself. What are you looking for and why? How are you searching for it? What is the underlying need in you that propels your finger to click “see more” or “buy now?” 

This article is really about assessing who your ideal customer is, in detail so you can properly serve them. If you haven’t already developed a clear customer avatar, start there and build your site around those details. 

If you need help with any of the functional, technical, or marketing aspects, we’re ecommerce website specialists and we can help. Give us a call to set up a free strategy session or just ask a few questions. 

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