It's not surprising that Zappos's web strategy is focused on the consumer, too.

"The over-arching goal for me is to make sure that we're constantly evolving the site to keep up with trends, be ahead of them and make it more useful for our customers. We try to ensure that everything we do has a service aspect to it. And there's been this overrunning change that everything we do has to be in the interest of scalability.

"What that means is that we anticipate the unknown. In the past, when we were just selling shoes, for example, we never really put the effort and energy into making sure the site was scalable to carry other products. In the last two years that's been the biggest change. We've shifted our mindset to make sure we create experiences that can house multiple product types."

So far, so unspectacular for a growing online retailer. But how do you apply the unique company culture to the website?

"That's a tough one", Brian admits. "I don't think we're ever satisfied with how well we do that. We're currently going through a redesign to figure out the best way to do it visually. For example, we try to use humour when errors occur on the site.

"So, if you were to get a 404 page in our sales area, you'd come across a picture of one of the employees' dogs stuck in a Zappos bag, looking for something. We try to make light of a situation that can feel negative and turn it into a positive by spraying our culture out there."

Employees also model products on the site and appear in videos discussing merchandise. And one of the main new features online is the beta of My.Zappos.com, a collaborative shopping experiment that enables people to save items to a personal wardrobe and share them via Facebook and Twitter to get comments from friends. It's Zappos's attempt to capture the emotions people have when they go shopping with their friends.

Zappos redesign

The biggest project on Brian's watch, however, is the redesign of the Zappos site, which introduces a distinctly different experience. The project, called Zeta, has been in the works for more than a year.

"We're trying to make sure that we tactfully migrate traffic over there and don't just flip the switch, for two reasons," Brian explains.

"Firstly, we don't want to shock customers who are used to a certain shopping experience – we want to sprinkle it in appropriate places. Secondly, because of the volume that we do and the amount of traffic that we get, we have to be very cautious about potentially losing any SEO traffic that we've gained over the years. It's a very slow process for it to become our main site as we have potentially more to lose than gain with SEO traffic right at the gates."

Mixed feededback

The feedback so far has been very mixed. Most notably, an open letter entitled You're Killing Me, Zappos, by Andrew Wilkinson of interface design agency MetaLab, recently criticised the site's design. Wilkinson acknowledged that Zeta was an improvement, but said it only took the site from 1999 to 2003, and posted his own mock-up of a redesign.

Brian admits the critique threw up some very valid points but ignored a lot of external factors his team has to work with.

"We get public criticisms like that pretty regularly. There are a lot of folks out there who can look at the aesthetic and tell us it needs to be better, and they're probably right. But what's quite often missed are the big challenges that we face in the design process.

"There are a lot of under-the-hood changes that are far more important than fixing our look and feel right now. Sure, we need all those design elements to be better, but more importantly, we as a design community need to acknowledge the challenges in business that prohibit us from realising these design needs more quickly. Many designers are in situations where it's not simple to just put up something pretty. There's internal business requirements, there's technology that supersedes any visual needs on the site ..."

Brian promises that his team will start rolling out a new, faster navigation over the next few months. And to address said design issues and help work on the redesign, Zappos has just teamed up with Happy Cog.

The group, which is headed by Jeffrey Zeldman, won the account in a 10-agency shoot-out. However, Brian stresses that again the evolution will be slow because anything else would be too risky. He hopes to see the first fruits of the new partnership in early 2010.

It's a very timely announcement and it will be interesting to see how Happy Cog will change the site. The new look will be crucial as the Amazon deal becomes a day-to-day reality and Zappos prepares to branch out from shoes and much more into clothes, its fastest growing category.

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First published in .net Issue 196

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