Made-to-Order: Helping Etsy Give Shoppers Options for Hypercustomization

The Assignment

For this assignment, we were asked to add a feature to an existing website. We were working in groups, and I was lucky enough to get to collaborate with Chris Fezzuoglio and Suhail Graves. Our group was asked to help Etsy broaden its customer base through a new feature that would allow shoppers to buy more customized goods by posting a product request and receiving quotes from artisans.

Two potential issues we were aware of from the outset were 1) the need for customers to get timely responses to their requests and 2) the need for artisans to not get customers flooding them with “spam” requests and wasting their time.

Tools: Sketch, Omnigraffle, InVision, Google Forms, Keynote, Mural


Our very first step was to familiarize ourselves with the Etsy website, which included creating a sitemap of it, followed closely by examining the competition. We tried to think of who could be competitors for this service in a very broad way, at least in the early stages of our research. That meant that our initial scope included companies that offered customization of services as well as goods, customization through 3D printing, customization by commissioning artisans, etc.

We found about 50 sites in our initial search and then we began taking notes on what products and services they sold and whether they were “true” competitors offering a similar service to Etsy or to the feature we were developing for Etsy, or comparative sites that were more loosely similar. We eliminated many because upon closer inspection, they were too dissimilar in one way or another. For example, maybe they were only available in the UK and we assumed that something U.S.-based would be more helpful to us.

We also made note of whether a site kept appearing multiple times in our research. If many people or websites were listing it as a great example of a site “like Etsy” it might be a better aspirational competitor, and we felt that looking at sites that were doing a great job of offering this service would be especially educational for us.

To get a deeper understanding of what the competition was offering we narrowed our list down to four competitors that we sized up against Etsy and they were: Custom Made, Zazzle, Fiverr, and Vistaprint. We analyzed these sites using three main research tools:

  1. User flows — These allowed us to compare how many steps the same processes, such as setting up your store, took on different sites;
  2. Feature comparison — What features did the competition offer buyers and sellers? and
  3. Element comparison — Specifically we looked at language and categories on different portions of the site to get a better idea of how they referred to the products and services they offered.


From the feature comparison, we learned that four of the five sites offer the feature to contact artisans with custom requests. Borrowing terminology from the world of clothing and apparel, we began to think of three levels of customization: off the rack, made to measure, and bespoke.

With off the rack, you might have a few dropdown options like size, color, etc. With made to measure there’s a wider range of options but still mostly from dropdown menus or using pre-existing fields like entering some custom text or an image. With bespoke orders, the possibilities are almost infinite, limited only by the creativity of the buyer and the flexibility of the seller. Contacting the artist with a custom request is an example of a bespoke order.

The tradeoffs we assumed would exist with contacting an artisan are longer wait times and potentially greater expense, but that comes with a higher degree of creative control and input. The fact that this feature exists so broadly across sites validates that consumers are willing to take the extra time and effort to talk to the artisans in order to make things look exactly the way they want.

Among the competitors we reviewed, budget match, meaning the ability to communicate how much you were willing to pay for a custom product, was also present in four of the five sites. The only exception was Fiverr, and their platform is built around the fact that the baseline price for all products/services is fixed at five dollars.

It makes sense that budget match would be a common feature because according to the research from the user interviews we conducted soon after the competitive research, many buyers mentioned price as being a primary concern, though their shopping choices were also linked to quality/design and urgency/delivery time.

Who’s the Designer Here Anyway?

One feature that many of sites (three of the five) didn’t offer was the ability for customers to get their design made by artisans. This was particularly interesting since so many of the sites offered the option to contact the artisan with a custom request. It would seem that having at least the option to submit a design would allow for greater clarity and direction in the collaboration between buyer and seller.

Some assumptions we made based on this are that adding this feature might be a) technically cumbersome because of the diversity of design programs and formats people work with b) more time-consuming than most buyers would like or c) it might actually create greater potential for miscommunication between the buyer and seller. Someone who’s gone to the trouble to draw or design their creation might be much more finicky about the finished product than someone describing it in writing.

Talking to Real Users

Now it was time to get some input from actual people who had some experience shopping for customized products. Each member of our group sent out a screener questionnaire on Facebook and other social media and we ended up with 131 responses. We tried to keep in mind that the demographics would be influenced to some degree by our social networks but I think the three of us had different enough social circles, and our sample size was large enough that the data was highly valuable.

We tried to keep the questions very broad and high level because we still had much to learn about our target audience. Here are a few example questions:

Do you shop online?
What kind of products do you purchase online?
Have you ever ordered personalized/customized goods?

The three most valuable pieces of data we gained from the initial screener were: 1) information about the ratio of buyers to sellers in our sample 2) the frequency with which people buy customized goods online and 3) the types of custom goods that people purchase most often.

Here’s a visualization of that data:

Another valuable thing we gained from the survey was we got a good-sized pool of people who opted in to participate in a follow up user interview to get richer data about their shopping habits. We ended up speaking to about 16 people for this portion of the project, some of whom we went back to later for additional help with usability testing.

We found that each of our group members had very different styles of interviewing, so having a script to work from and doing as many interviews as possible in pairs was very helpful in getting us on the same page and led to richer, more detailed information for our project. During the user interview phase of our research, we wanted to ask some more specific questions than we asked in the screener since we had already found a narrowed pool of respondents who we knew had past experience buying customized goods. Some of our questions included: “Who do you buy products for?” “What was the occasion?” and “What do you do if you can’t find [the type of product] you’re looking for?”

After we had conducted a number of user interviews we used a tool called an affinity diagram to locate and highlight trends and patterns in those interviews. An affinity diagram is basically a chart with four quadrants where you can collect phrases and ideas from user interviews to spot patterns more easily. In each of the four quadrants we collected pains and pleasures, behaviors, contextual information about where people buy and sell, and demographic information drawn from the survey.

Some of the things we discovered from the contextual inquiry is that many people didn’t buy custom items for themselves, but as a way of giving personalized gifts to loved ones. Some buyers had had positive experiences with customization and others’ had had negative experiences but a common theme was the expression that price was an important factor in their product search, and speed/ delivery time was another one. The sellers and artists we spoke to conversely articulated that they often felt that the talents and skills they’d take years to develop, spending lots of money on education and tools, weren’t appreciated by many consumers.

Currently Etsy has a reputation for selling relatively low-cost and affordable items. As a result, we anticipate that some marketing and rebranding would need to accompany the rollout of this feature in order to acclimate customers to the idea of paying more for custom goods. I only mention it in the context of the UX overhaul we performed cause business concerns like this could have an important impact on the language of Etsy Custom, the pathways that the user takes through the site, and even some of the functionalities.


Once we made the affinity diagrams from our user interviews, we were able to create personas. Personas are composites of real people that we interviewed for the project and they can be helpful for getting team members on the same page and guiding the design process. Our personas were a buyer named Abigail and a seller named Elizabeth and you can read a bit more about them in the images below.

Having personas fleshed out made it easier to move into the sketching phase of the project, putting our ideas on paper. Our first version stayed very close to the existing Etsy site since our intention was to add a feature not redesign or overhaul the existing setup. We added some links in the homepage navigation and carousel to publicize this new service to users, and then we created separate flows of pages that the buyers and sellers on Etsy would need to pass through in order for customers to submit a request and artisans to place a bid on that request.

Once we began to focus on the user interface and potential functionality of Etsy Custom, content blocking became an extremely valuable tool at our disposal. Content blocking is another competitive analysis tool that allowed us to compare the parts of different competitor sites to see what elements and positioning would be the most familiar and easy for users to navigate.


Once our team had created a rough, or mid-fidelity, version of the pages we thought our personas would need to complete their tasks, we used InVision to turn our flat images into interactive experiences that would allow us to get feedback from users on what they found intuitive and what confused, what might be missing and what they were glad we’d included.

A number of buyers we tested with found the timing and wording of the request to put in their payment info alarming. We’d put it in place to protect artists from spam bids, but buyers worried, understandably that they were about to be charged for something they hadn’t fully checked out yet. One thing buyers commented that they did like was the way we’d sorted the bids they got from multiple artists from lowest to highest (though it’s easy to imagine how artists might not feel the same way about that). We decided to restrict a customer to five artisan bids per request because we didn’t want buyers to have to wade through an unmanageable sea of choices. Some users we tested with expressed that they might be overwhelmed even by five options, while other asked what happened if they didn’t like the five bids they got and wanted to get more. This highlights the difficulty of catering to all users’ needs, but the more data we can gather, the better picture we’re able to form of who Etsy’s most active customers or potential customers are and what’s most important to them.

The usability testing gave us a lot of ideas for changes to make to our prototype, more than we could realistically implement in the time that we had. That’s where feature prioritization came in. Feature prioritization is another great tool because unless you have unlimited resources and human power, no one can accomplish everything they want to do in the first iteration of their product or feature. Using what’s known as the MoSCoW method, we sorted feature ideas into Must, Should, Could, and Won’t categories.

Recurring themes raised by users in interviews and the business needs of the organization were given the highest priority, and at the other end of the spectrum, we placed ideas that sounded interesting or valuable, but which seemed overly ambitious given the short window of time we had to work with. Some design changes that emerged from this process and went into our second prototype included: a brief explanation for users of why we were asking for their payment; visual changes to some page headers that users were confusing with buttons because of their shape; and many other small linguistic and layout tweaks.

Back to the Drawing Board

Now that we knew what our highest priority changes were, we were able to dive into our wireframes, and increase the fidelity from mid to high by adding images and a higher level of detail while also implementing changes that needed to be made. Once that was completed, we were able to squeeze in one final round of usability testing with both buyers and sellers. We spoke to far fewer people for this round of testing but the feedback overall was more positive about the ease of navigating the site though there were still plenty of interesting questions to consider for the future of the project.

Shopping On the Go

More than 80 percent of the people we sent our survey to said that they had shopped on their mobile phones or tablets so we felt that it was important to create a responsive version of our site as well. We found browsing on the existing Etsy mobile website to be a little challenging since they seemed to be trying to drive shoppers towards their app instead. But once we had designed flows that users were responding well to in the desktop prototype, we only needed to factor in the constraints of a mobile phone, though we didn’t have time to test the mobile prototype with any users during this two week sprint.

Here are the links to the latest and highest fidelity iterations of the desktop and mobile buyer and seller user flows:

Desktop buyer flow

Desktop seller flow

Responsive buyer flow

Responsive seller flow

Next Steps

For me this is one of the most exciting part of the process. We were able to build out a new feature and get it to the point where a number of users found it functional and even intuitive. Now we can begin the process all over again by thinking of ways to improve the customization feature even further. Here are some ideas that emerged from our conversations with users that we plan to test out in future incarnations of this feature:

  • Working with Etsy’s development team to tweak and improve the algorithm for matching buyers with sellers whose aesthetic they’d appreciate.
  • Thinking about how to ensure that users who haven’t logged in before adding all their product customization info don’t lose the data they’ve spent time uploading.
  • Tweaking the maximum number of bids to see what would be optimal for Etsy’s buyer and seller community.
  • Adding the ability to sort bids by relevance, shipping time, or other features beyond just price.
  • Using the empty state that first time users would encounter as an opportunity to create a quick tutorial / onboarding process that walks them through what Etsy Custom allows them to do


Thanks to everyone who participated in user testing and user interviews! And thanks to my classmates who were super supportive to me and to each other even though working in groups can be challenging. Particular thanks to Chris, and Suhail who were a pleasure to work with and who were very gracious about the fact that my Sketch skills are like this compared to theirs.

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated Josh Spiro’s story.