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Sage Advice from Amazon.com’s Original Website Designer

By Brent Leary

By now we all know how Amazon has changed the way we shop, read, and even create businesses with its Amazon Web Services arm. But in the early days of eCommerce, it was far from a sure success. As I’m in the process of writing a book on how Amazon has changed the rules of the game for customer engagement, I recently had the distinct pleasure of speaking with one of the people responsible for leading the design of Amazon’s first site.

Rick Ayre, Amazon’s vice president and executive editor from 1996-2000, shares some of his experiences during the early days of the business. Ayre was responsible for the editorial content and design of the company’s first website.

How did you go about designing the Amazon.com website experience in order to get people to buy?

Ayre: We had an explicit set of goals. Some of them we vocalized, and some of them we didn’t. Our feeling was that, unlike Walmart, we didn’t have to try and convince the customer to buy a product.

No matter what book page you were on, we didn’t have to convince you to buy that book. Instead, what we wanted to do was entertain you and get you to click on a few more pages. In other words, intrigue you — and then once you were on a product page, we wanted to create the perfect context to make a buying decision; that decision could be to buy the book or not.

We didn’t want you necessarily to buy the book. We wanted to be sure that you were in an environment where you had the information you needed to decide whether that was the book you wanted to buy, and if you did make the decision to buy that book, that you were happy with that decision.

It started from that point, and it continued until you had the book and were more than satisfied with it. Otherwise you wouldn’t come back, and we needed everybody to come back.

What role did content play in getting people to buy books in the beginning?

Ayre: We did make a conscious decision to try and distinguish our site with the content that was on it, and we worked hard to hire people. Jeff [Bezos] wasn’t sure why we needed page designers. And in fact, we made it the convention that we didn’t want a highly designed site. But, we did want a site that was warm and welcoming and made people happy and intrigued at the same time, so they would come often and stay late.

It was clear one of the differences between ours and almost every other eCcommerce site was the quality of the content — and that was a big differentiator.

What role did customer engagement play when Amazon was just beginning?

Ayre: From the very beginning, customer reviews were a critical part of the content that we built on the site, and they were a point of contention, but something that we encouraged. Kevin Kelly, who’s a famous prognosticator in the Internet space used to say in the 1990s, ‘If you give people the space and tools they need to build a great Internet site, they’ll build it for you.’ When it came to things like customer reviews, that certainly was true.

As many people have said, it got us into a lot of trouble because an editor, publisher or a writer would come and say, ‘Look, this is a negative review under my book, and you’re a bookseller. Aren’t you trying to sell my book?’

And we’d say, ‘Yes, we’re trying to sell your book to every person who really wants to buy it. But we’re not going to try and convince them that they should buy it. We’re going to try and help them make the decision about whether it’s the book they want to buy.’

These seem like logical points today, but they definitely weren’t 18 years ago. But, as in many things, these fundamentals still apply in today’s business world.  Amazon still lives by them today.  Look how it’s worked out for them. AT

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