Customer first, but also business first: building a personalized subscription engine for Smalls.

Blending User-Centered Design with Business Optimization

Many of The Vaan Group’s clients come to us with a user-centered design challenge.

  • Build a website that helps customers do __.
  • Design a shopping experience that guides customers to do __.
  • Create a custom Shopify store that lets customers __.

That might seem like the obvious place for a web design agency to start, but you can end up with an ill-fitting solution if you don’t begin with business analysis before tackling a web design (or redesign) project.

What we’ve learned from working with dozens of retail businesses is that even the most beautiful design doesn’t go very far if what you offer your customers ends up shaving your margins and limiting your ability to scale.

When you’re laser focused on the user, it’s critical to keep business efficiency top of mind, from web design to fulfillment to the product itself.

That requires identifying potential profit-eaters and understanding what a best case scenario sales structure would actually look like.

Big businesses might invest heavily in market research, hire a dedicated team of business analysts, or even use machine learning to optimize e-commerce. For small to medium-sized businesses, a simpler playbook designed by an experienced partner can be used to effectively guide customers to make the best buying choices for themselves and that also align with business objectives.

Well, that’s partially true. For most online retailers, artificial intelligence is still out of reach.

That doesn’t mean you can’t use algorithms to gain a competitive advantage of your own.

With the power of human intelligence, you can build a website that doesn’t just sell products, but optimizes the shopping experience for your customers and for your business.

A Small But Mighty E-Commerce Customization

When Smalls came to us with a vision for a custom Shopify build for their subscription-based cat food company, we were excited about the opportunity to help change the way people buy cat food.

Without actually speaking with an expert or scrolling through pages of information on Google (go ahead, we’ll wait here) it’s hard to know what you should be feeding your cat. Even then, you might end up less certain of what to buy than you started out.

Smalls wanted to pull their customers out of the rabbit hole of search results and guide them through a step-by-step shopping experience that would offer a clear and simple answer to their cat food woes. To do that, they created a cat food calorie calculator to help people figure out how to meet the individual nutritional needs of their cats.

We started out with a fairly straightforward request: build a custom step-by-step shopping experience that would fill a customer’s cart with a certain quantity and variety of food to meet their needs and preferences.

To do this, we knew we had to figure out a way to lay the foundations for Smalls to:

  1. Help customers navigate the murky waters of cat food shopping
  2. Meet the needs of different customers based on variables like the age, weight, activity levels and health condition(s) of their cats
  3. Make the experience of shopping for cat food a sheer joy for customers

Before diving into these customer-focused challenges we added a fourth business objective to be tackled first:

Determine the acceptable range of options including order size, product variations and delivery intervals for business profitability.

Ideal shipping frequency intervals for three box sizes

Customer First, Business Also First

One way that a specialized company can win out against the Amazons of the world is by saving customers from the paradox of choice.

For customers, a company like Smalls that doesn’t just give options, but actually narrows down those options to meet their needs, values or preferences are solving a real problem.

For a business, fewer options can mean greater profitability — but you need to understand which options are profitable and which are not.

In this case we started out by working with Smalls to determine the range of shipping intervals and product quantities that would allow the company to be profitable. A customer might want to order one packet of cat food shipped weekly, but that would require driving up the cost for the customer or accepting a loss for the business. To avoid that, we needed to offer a restricted range of options to customers that would perfectly meets their needs, without compromising the business.

This chart shows a spread of ideal shipping frequency intervals for boxes of 10, 15, and 20 lbs based on combinations of (total cat count + daily calorie need) for cat count up to 5 cats and calorie range from 150 to 400 cals per cat.

We calculated the range of possible food packet combinations required for a variety of households, mapped that to three different box sizes for shipping, and aligned those boxes with a range of acceptable shipping intervals.

We used the js-combinatorics library to generate a list of all possible combinations for cat count up to five cats and calories in range from 150 to 400 with step of 25.

Using the data, we were able to draw three charts and draw some conclusions about the optimal shipping dates for 10/15/20 lb boxes.

From there we developed an algorithm to determine how to automatically fill a customer’s cart with the optimal selection on products, depending on the information they provide.

For a specialized business like Smalls, you don’t need to use machine learning to develop an algorithm like this. Using advanced mathematics you can tailor the retail experience to meet each customer’s needs.

A Step-by-Step Shopping Experience for Shopify

Once we figured out what options would be acceptable, we were able to effectively build a shopping experience that would stear customer to make purchasing decisions that are optimal for themselves and for the business.

That meant building an application that works a bit like a personal shopper; by the time they reach checkout, customers have everything they need in their carts, even if they have a limited idea of what and how much they are shopping for when they first land on the site.

Smalls chose to build their website on Shopify, which offers a user-friendly, stable platform for e-commerce. Shopify is designed to be very simple and rigid, which means you don’t have to have a lot of technical skills to build a basic website.

But to build in custom features like the step-by-step ordering process Smalls required, we had to build a single page application (SPA) from scratch.

Smalls — Pet Summary Screen

In a regular shopping experience you would decide what type and how much cat food to buy based on your own best guess at your needs. With this step-by-step ordering experience, you provide information about the cat(s) in your household and you end up with a shopping cart filled with exactly what you need to feed them over a period of time.

If, for example, you had one very lazy two-year-old cat named Ramone with a taste for variety, you might end up with an order that looks something like this:

Smalls — Order Summary Screen

We built this custom shopping experience around the idea that what’s good for customers can and should also be good for the business. From there, it’s possible to scale without tolerating avoidable profit losses in order to increase your sales.

Since launching their business, Smalls has been able to build a base of customers whose needs are met and whose orders are profitable. That’s possible thanks to a program built with human intelligence that does what a real personal shopper could do, if not better: operate using a playbook that simultaneously emphasizes an excellent customer experience as well as business profitability.