The Guide to Discovery Design for Online Marketplaces

Learn how to create experiences that make product discovery easy and delightful for shoppers on online marketplaces.

Online marketplaces

With numerous brands, styles, and product types under one digital “roof,” online marketplaces have the potential to attract a vast range of consumers. Connecting them to the right products — and getting them to click “add to cart” — is another challenge.

Today, with more competition than ever, online marketplaces need to offer an exceptionally smooth, inspiring, and engaging user experience (UX). One that transcends aesthetics and ease-of-use and makes the process of discovering the right products a delightful and tailored experience.

On the other hand, friction, poor on-site search, and irrelevant recommendations will send both high-intent shoppers and casual browsers straight into your competitors’ arms. 

Attracting shoppers, introducing them to the right products, and converting them requires a dynamic and individualized UX that caters to each shoppers’ unique preferences.

It requires Discovery Design.

What is Discovery Design?

Discovery Design is a new approach to eCommerce focused on creating user experiences that make product search and discovery intuitive and engaging for everyone.

For online marketplaces that want to build more personalized, engaging, and conversion-oriented user experiences, Discovery Design has emerged as a key strategy.

It enables you to facilitate an individualized and inspiring customer journey for each shopper, regardless of their preferred method of discovering new products. Whether someone is searching for a specific item or she is just there to browse, Discovery Design ensures you connect her to the most relevant and compelling pieces in the most efficient manner possible.

With a robust Discovery Design strategy, every aspect of the customer experience — including menus, web navigation, merchandising, site search, and more — is built with the goal of exposing shoppers to the products that will inspire them to buy.

6 Ways Online Marketplaces Can Practice Discovery Design

Here are our top tips for online marketplaces on how to create tailored shopping experiences for all types of customers.

1. Strengthen your tagging and merchandising infrastructure to better support sellers and suppliers 

Robust product tags and descriptions are essential to Discovery Design because they create the foundation for on-site search and merchandising. If your tags are not comprehensive or lack standardization and objectivity, it will be difficult to facilitate effective product discovery and make sure each shoppers sees the right products at the right time. 

For example, if some of your wide leg jeans are tagged as “flares” and others are tagged as “bell bottoms,” some of your inventory will be left out of relevant product recommendations, search results, promotions, and collections. 

Online marketplaces suffer the most from these inaccuracies and the lack of metadata standardization, because often, there are a range of suppliers and even individual sellers uploading products and entering tags on their own. 

By adopting an automated and scalable approach to creating product tags and descriptions, you will more easily manage your SKUs and ensure the right items are included in your merchandising activities, no matter who uploads them. 

You will also be positioned to offer more effective personalization, which is a key pillar of product discovery. Accurate tags that include granular visual attributes enable you to offer hyper-relevant search results and product recommendations that hit the mark.

2.  Eliminate dead ends and out-of-stock disappointment with continuous product inspiration 

Online marketplaces have a massive variety of products for sale, but they also typically have quick turnover and limited stock in many items, especially among those selling second-hand goods. This means shoppers frequently encounter out-of-stock notices, whether it’s the color, size, or a product altogether that’s sold out. 

For most shoppers, the journey would end here. But by incorporating Discovery Design principles, online marketplaces can implement tools like “similar items” carousels that immediately introduce shoppers to similar products that are in stock, keeping the journey going with targeted product discovery experiences.

A recommendation engine in Venca's online marketplace

Venca suggests similar items directly on PDPs to keep shoppers exploring even when items are out of stock.

Similarly, since online marketplaces are popular starting points for any shopping journey, it’s critical to consider how Discovery Design can help you boost conversion among casual shoppers. By continuously introducing them to more products that match their style, goals, and context, you can generate authentic inspiration and convert browsers into motivated buyers.

One way to achieve this is by providing on-point, personalized product recommendations. Based on a shopper’s actions (including how they navigate your site, which categories/collections they interact with, and what kinds of filters they apply) as well as the visual attributes of the products they click on, you can gain a clear idea of their taste, style, and current context. 

With this information, you can provide hyper-relevant product recommendations. Imagine someone comes to your site, clicks on “New Brands,” then narrows her search to “cardigans” and filters out any products above $100. From there, she clicks on a bright blue button-up wool sweater among the results. You could then offer her more sweaters within this price range and style so she can find the perfect one.

You can use the same insights to offer additional recommendations on pages that would otherwise lead to a dead end, such as in “no search results” pages. By creating these dynamic, personalized “inspiration boards,” shoppers are more likely to engage with and purchase products.

3. Enhance product discovery with multiple search options

Online marketplaces almost always mean you’ll have more demographic variance among customers than a single-brand store. The wider the variety of customers, the more pathways to product discovery you should provide to ensure shopping is intuitive for everyone. For example, many shoppers prefer the convenience and accuracy of visual search over text search, as it allows them to instantly find visually similar products while avoiding the need to guess the correct terminology.

Camera search on Venca's online marketplace

Venca provides an inspiration gallery for visually-driven shoppers who didn’t come prepared with a photo.

By offering personalized visual search, shoppers can simply upload an image and the visual AI engine running the system will analyze, interpret, and display the right results within seconds. Shoppers can use any type of image, whether it’s from social media, your website, or a photo they snapped themselves, and see every visually similar item from your inventory. Shoppers who don’t have an image on hand can also use a personalized inspiration gallery to start their discovery journey.

4. Prioritize brand names in website navigation

On online marketplaces, one of the most common ways for shoppers to wayfind amid tons of products is based on brand names. Since marketplaces typically offer a variety of brands, it’s super important to ensure shoppers have easy access to sort by brand in every scenario. 

For starters, all products uploaded on-site should have the brand name as one of the mandatory product tags, to make sure nothing gets missed in search results and category pages for specific brands. 

Then, on your main site menu, include a “brands” option that displays the most popular brands at a glance and enables shoppers to click through and see all the designers offered, ideally in alphabetical order.

Search results on Venca's online marketplace

The brand filter on Venca’s search results page allows shoppers to check multiple items to easily narrow down results to their favorite brands.

You should also ensure that your text search functionality can easily identify brand names and common typos, and that the brand filter is clearly marked on search results and product listing pages, so that shoppers will waste no time finding it and sorting results according to what they most want to see.

5. Make it easy for shoppers to narrow down their options

Having a huge catalogue is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, you can cater to nearly everyone, but on the other, variety becomes a disadvantage because it can be overwhelming and prevent shoppers from even starting their journey. 

Online marketplaces often use collections to promote specific products or highlight certain brands. But usually, they don’t promote their collections in personalized ways. 

Instead of automatically featuring the collections that were most recently added throughout your homepage and category pages, a Discovery Design approach guides you to promote the collection that is most relevant to each shopper’s style and needs.

A product collection for animal print items on Venca's marketplace

This animal print collection on Venca’s website is accessible directly from the main menu, taking shoppers immediately to the items most likely to appeal to them.

For example, the shopper who has been searching for “aviator sunglasses” on your site would be more compelled to click through your “Summer Style” collection than they would your “Valentine’s Day” collection, even if it is February. 

With personalization tools that can decipher shoppers’ current contexts and goals — not just the categories of products they interact with — you can showcase the collections that resonate with them the most.

6. Optimize search for accuracy and conversion

Shoppers that come to an online marketplace already inspired to buy something specific are highly motivated. In order to capture that motivation, you need a method to seamlessly and efficiently connect them to the products they want. That’s why accurate on-site search is crucial.

Imagine that a shopper comes to your marketplace app and searches for “Levi’s vintage dark wash hemless shorts.” Instead of seeing results for denim shorts like they wanted, they see results for all different lengths of dark wash jeans. 

The problem is that your conventional on-site search engine isn’t able to distinguish the correct priority of search terms or intuit what the shopper really wanted, and subsequently produced irrelevant results. Frustrated by her inability to find the shorts she was looking for, the shopper exits the page. 

Discovery Design enables a better text search experience and helps you avoid leaving money on the table by ensuring search results are intuitive and relevant. 

Capabilities like Augmented Site Search help you achieve this by replacing the conventional (and outdated) text search architecture, which often produces inaccurate and irrelevant results. Instead, Augmented Site Search uses visual AI to automatically enrich product tags and create a richer database for search. Regardless of typos, word choice, or word order, it can intuit what shoppers are looking for and deliver hyper-relevant, high-converting results. 

When you add to this merchandising rules and page layout tweaks that are optimized for conversion — such as prioritizing brand names in search results and showcasing color options for the highest-converting color variants first — you can make the most of search results and lead shoppers to the right products faster. 

Transform Your UX With Discovery Design

With their large and diverse inventories, online marketplaces offer plenty of opportunities to inspire shoppers. But keeping them on the page, engaged, and motivated to buy isn’t a given. Marketplaces must work hard on providing the differentiated UX shoppers are looking for. 

By incorporating the Discovery Design tips above into your user experience, you will create highly resonant, engaging, and enjoyable customer experiences that cater to all kinds of shoppers — regardless of their preferred method of discovering new products or their initial intent.