Design Principles, Products… So What?
Did you know that Amazon has a tool to help you find items you had clicked on before? If you’ve ever used Amazon’s Browsing History functionality, you may have stumbled a bit because it didn’t exactly fit your shopping workflow. But most importantly, you probably wondered how to get to that thing you really wanted three weeks ago.
Currently its system relies on displaying a full viewport grid of all items viewed by users in a left to right, top to bottom format. It’ll do the job, and you’ll eventually get there with a couple of clicks and scrolls.
But, there are improvements that could be made to make the experience less so walking through the shop again, and more so walking to the same aisle you found that shiny new toy to put back in your cart.
How can we be better shoppers, and NOT better browsers?
This might be counterintuitive, with Browsing in the name of Browsing History; however, we have to consider that the crux of what we do on Amazon’s storefront is to feed our materialistic cravings. From the product’s perspective, they want users to engage and purchase more if their tools can help it.
*Disclaimer: this article only discusses the desktop experience of using Amazon Prime, not including mobile, tablet, or other viewports and experiences.
Let’s Paint the Picture:
Amazon’s Browsing History can be improved by focusing on its aesthetics and minimizing unnecessary data, as well as matching the digital view with familiar designs via Jakob’s Law. This piece will cover my investigation of how to improve using just these two principles.
First, let’s break down some of these laws and design principles at a high level. Starting with Aesthetics and Minimalism: it may not be obvious, but performing actions and eliciting responses become easier as fewer options present themselves. Jakob’s Law works well in parallel with “beautifying” and minimizing interfaces: users’ interaction with web applications and products likely interact with multiple pages; thus, as users grow familiar with other websites and products, they begin building mental models and expectations of how other products should look, feel, and perform.
So let’s say you’re at a restaurant and their menu has many options. Too many options. There are low quality pictures that are discolored and you’re not sure which picture maps to which menu item. They all sound great, and maybe you’re not sure what the difference is and get confused. You’re also confused why the menu items are in a grid, and it’s unclear where the cutoff for appetizers and entrees begins.
Now imagine Gordan Ramsay comes in and “Kitchen Nightmares” the place. So now the menu is less than half the size, the names are recognizable and you now know where exactly to look for that entrée and drink.
Back to the real world — let’s break down what’s going on with Browsing History: we have a dropdown from the navbar at all times which displays a carousel. You can also see if the item you recently browsed was purchased. Navigating into view and edit, or all the way to the end of the carousel will bring you to the full history.
If you don’t want to scan through the navbar, there are other options. You can select the Account & Lists button on the top right of the navbar and then select Browsing History from the dropdown.
Note that you have to hover over the account button on the navbar, then select Browsing History. If you click on Account and the page loads, Browsing History doesn’t actually show up, so you’re back to using the navbar.
Once you’re at the full Browsing History screen, you’re greeted with the full grid of all your previously browsed items. The page is titled on the top left of the screen, and offers a “Manage History” drop down on the top right.
Managing History only displays the ability to completely clear your history, and turn off Browsing History for whatever reason you see fit.
Browsed items cap at five to seven items per row in the full Browsing History, with around thirty to fifty rows, averaging at around 250 products. At a 1920x1080 viewport, only three or four rows of info can be seen at a given time, in the order that you clicked within a product to view its details, and doesn’t include previously searched queries. This means any standard laptop or desktop monitor displays fifteen to twenty one browsed products.
Adding to the complications, the viewer has to click on an item to see the date in which they viewed it. If you’re looking for something you noticed about three weeks ago, it is difficult even to find where ‘three weeks ago’ is in the Browsing History without recalling specifically when you searched each item.
Interestingly, the drop down Browsing History offers more affordances (cues which give users a hint on how to interact with the object) than the full browsing history. The dates give more direction and information regarding when an item was browsed, and better matches the overall aesthetics of Amazon’s browsing experience.
What Fundamentals Apply Here?
Browsing history is a difficult data set. It is entirely dependent on the user, yet companies want to use this data to inform decisions on which products to push out in front of users, as well as how to advertise different, yet similar products that will be engaged by the user. From the business perspective, how do we design products that help users make purchase decisions?
As we discussed earlier, users spend time bouncing around other sites, other non-digital experiences, and thus build preferences and mental schemas to how things should operate. Differences from one system of interaction to another become glaring, as we tend to be able to spot differences easier than similarities between experiences.
Presenting browsing history back to the user needs to be done so elegantly. It’s entirely possible to utilize a similar layout as the regular browsing experience, including filtering options with timelines. One change we can implement is to the grid layout, which can be rearranged and modified to mirror the top-down, single column list. This one change would also match the experience with other applications’ history (think any internet browser’s history).
The timeline offered in the carousel can be implemented either as a filter or as a visual aid. Offering users a sense of time can help them remember when they were browsing specific products.
These affordances will also reduce cognitive load for users, reducing user confusion as to why some features are present in the navbar version and not the full Browsing History version.
The last challenge to tackle and add to our discussion today is adding some quick search functionality. An example use case of this can take the form of a user who browses home improvement products, electronics, and clothing. In one sitting, they may remember a particular faucet they were searching for, which isn’t quickly showing up when they search for it and didn’t save to a list or cart previously. So they move to Browsing History, filter out clothing and electronics, and quickly arrive at the faucet they would now add to cart.
This involves a bit more difficulty as the current Amazon search is geared toward new searches and will bring you to new product pages. But if we were able to squeeze some search in the navbar, or include an option within the main search, we may be able to improve the usability and familiarity of Browsing History and match the experience with other products and applications.
Aesthetics & Minimalism
Aesthetics affect user satisfaction and influences user willingness to buy into a system. Simply put, beautiful things are perceived as good, and relates to the perception from users to how useful a thing can be. Now, there’s nothing wrong with Amazon’s Browsing History as it stands. It’s not the prettiest, but at its core, it does the job of displaying what you had previously browsed. Your Browsing History should be as enjoyable, fun, and useful as your regular Amazon shopping experience. Building upon the discussion of the previous section, let’s assume we’ve implemented our layout and navigation changes.
Looking at the current state of Browsing History, each item has two buttons: More Like This, and Remove from view. These two buttons can be consolidated, reducing noise that is constant and eventually blends into the screen. We can consolidate these two options by offering users a select button on each item, and moving the two options to buttons on a left sidebar.
Furthermore, the left navbar and filter options we added can allow users to find similar products, or narrow down their search to a few selections of a particular product within the scope of their history. Finally, we can examine how filters can plug into minimizing load in other areas of Amazon, particularly how these improvements can benefit recommendations.
A user’s frustrations and curiosity with loved products naturally provides insight into product improvements. Revisiting guidelines periodically and focusing on key practices develops a critical eye and design thinking.
What we examine today apply to many facets of users’ experience. This exploration only focused on two usability heuristics, but there are many more which we could dive deeper into and see how they can be applied and improve products. Today’s discussion is a smaller exploration of what could be, and there are always leaps of improvements we can theorize, envision, and be a part of.
How we view products, services, and how we engage with digital applications is built upon behavioral fundamentals and can lead to improvements. Navigation challenges aren’t exclusive to Amazon and exist everywhere in the digital world. Let’s empower users and designers to improve the products we use and love.
 Garrity, Steven, et al. “Design with Difficult Data.” A List Apart, 16 Apr. 2019, alistapart.com/article/design-with-difficult-data/.
 “Brave New World of Visual Browsing.” UXmatters, 3 Aug. 2009, www.uxmatters.com/mt/archives/2009/08/brave-new-world-of-visual-browsing.php.
 Woods, D. Ben. “Book Review: Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products.” UXmatters, 21 June 2021, www.uxmatters.com/mt/archives/2021/06/book-review-hooked-how-to-build-habit-forming-products.php.
 Nudelman, Greg. Designing Search: UX Strategies for Ecommerce Success. Wiley Pub., 2011.
 Katz, Adi. “AESTHETICS, USEFULNESS AND PERFORMANCE IN USERSEARCH — ENGINE INTERACTION.” Journal of Applied Quantitative Methods, vol. 5, no. 3, 2010.
 Yablonski, Jon. “Jakob’s Law.” Laws of UX, lawsofux.com/jakobs-law/.