Ahmed Zedan's Interview on Minds of Ecommerce Podcast

How Haute Hijab Uses Data To Create A/B Tests and Make Better Web Design Decisions (with Ahmed Zedan)

In the last episode of the Minds of Ecommerce Podcast, Audrey Castonguay of Wholesome Culture shared how she followed her “rule of one” to achieve $1M/month in ecommerce sales.

In episode #4, Ahmed Zedan, co-founder of Haute Hijab, will share how they manage to scale fast, using data to make better web design decisions, how they use customer insights to drive their AB testing program, and how they’ve built a culture with experimentation, within the company.

The following is an edited version of the interview’s transcript.

100% growth quarter to quarter…

“We’ve been progressively just growing faster and faster, month over month and week over week and I think that all I would attribute that to our methodology and how we approach and think about growth. We’ve done a good job in terms of just applying some really good lessons that we’ve learned over the years.”

Applying the lean-startup methodology to ecommerce for fast growth

“We are big fans and big advocates of the lean-startup movement I think it also comes out to human centered design. There’s a lot of things like that I think, there’s a lot of really nice synergy between these different frameworks and for us, the way that we really like to think about it is that it starts off with the customer and really thinking very carefully about really empathizing with them and trying not to solve problems that they have.”

“So, it’s everything from looking at where the friction points are in terms of the shopping experience, to what are the things that they don’t have to put a lot of effort into when they’re having to deal with customer experience”

Doing counterintuitive things to build relationships with customers

“So there are just a lot of things like that, that we think about very carefully. I was actually talking about this on a different podcast, where one of the things that I think that is counterintuitive to a lot of people is that, the returns process as an example, that people say “Oh, yeah from a business perspective we should make it as easy as possible to process a return because that

will mean that, we actually protect our bottom line.”

“In reality, the right sort of thinking is optimizing for long-term relationships and long term value. And that, again goes back to who the customer is and whether you value them as a customer. In which case, then, you are thinking “No, I want to make it as easy as possible because that also means that they know they can come back and shop with us and they’ll have an easy and pleasant experience and they will love the brand more because of that.”

“For us, emotional attachment to our customer is such an important, and integral part to our growth.”

Focusing on the Lifetime Value of the customer over one-time orders

“I think that is part of what’s contributing to such a high repeat rate without business. I mean over 70 percent of our customers will transact with us each month, and it’s just so incredible to see because it’s a testament to that relationship that we built and why they love us so much.”

Applying a lean-startup-style, data-driven methodology to the ecommerce business

“Let’s say we want to do something like a feature improvement. We’ll usually focus on those when we’ve recognized that there is friction at a point in the process. As we dive in, we’ll launch a survey to ask customers about it.”

Oftentimes, our customers are also quite vocal so they’ll put in feature requests, I don’t know how common that is with other eCommerce start-ups, but for us our customers just really love the brand and are always happy to volunteer that information.”

“So we look into it, and obviously not everything that comes across our radar is something that we implement and say we have to do it. We first look at that signal and then we try to validate that with data. We look at the likes of Google Analytics, we also use something called Wicked Reports just a few different things to see whether there’s any truth to the smoke in a sense.”

“Once we’ve had at least a hypothesis as to why this feature or this issue they are running into is a problem, then we come to you (SplitBase) and we say, “Hey let’s come up with a design variant and test it.” and then we let it run, and we see whether it’s had a positive or negative impact on conversion and then based on that whether we have a winner then we go to the design process.”

Always be testing

“It’s always been this incremental movement upwards with everything that we do and not just the website, I think that when it comes to marketing for example, it’s everything from what channels we try, to what assets we try on that channel to who are the audiences that were trying to hit.”

“Facebook is just a great example of that because their targeting capabilities are amazing so, we’ve tested everything from like look-alike audiences to whether a segment of lists off our database actually have higher efficacy and depending on whether we’re re-targeting them or not.”

“All of these things are constantly being iterated and worked on so that not only are we matching the right customer to the right product at the right time, but we’re always trying to create the best experience for them in that moment. Ultimately what we are trying to do is not about the sale, believe it or not, it’s really about are we surprising them? Are we making them happy when they’re getting to experience a new product that they might have not seen before.”

Care about the customers’ emotions, don’t think of them as “transactions”

“Emotional resonance is so important, because ultimately that’s what’s going to stick with them, because otherwise, it’s a transactional relationship, and they won’t care about you and they will never come back. So, yeah that’s how we go about it.”

Having a solid A/B testing methodology and optimization process is what will get ecommerce companies to the next level

“I think that a lot of eCommerce companies reach a point where they have a pretty healthy design but they don’t know how they can continue improving their conversion rate and I think this is where the testing methodology kicks in and it’s so important and it’s such a healthy thing that it’s like good hygiene.”

“To me, it’s dumb if you’re not doing it. It’s such and obvious thing and it feeds into how we think and how we deal with all of this within our company as well because for us it’s not just us thinking about “Hey we need to do testing for the website alone”, we do this all the time.”

“We’re constantly not only surveying our customers, but we’re doing phone interviews, we’re also doing in-person interviews. This is something where we really want to live and breath the customer experience very deeply so it translates throughout the entire experience.”

“So, having said that I think that when it comes to iterating the website itself, and making these changes, like I mentioned earlier, is just good hygiene it’s just something that you have to do.”

How Haute Hijab conducts conversion research to come up with testing ideas

“We want to know everything. We want to know how big is your family, what’s your household income, the demographic aspect of the questions, but it’s also asking things about… what’s something that’s aspirational that you wish that you had that you feel is missing?”

“We’re always thinking about creative ways where we can suss out an insight that is not obvious to that customer. Because they don’t know what they don’t know and we’re trying to basically get into their head to understand a bit more about why they’re making the choices that they’re making and why they live the way that they do.”

“It’s just such an important thing to understand choice. And if you don’t understand the motivation and what’s driving this person, then it’s going to be very difficult for you to try to serve them. Ultimately, that’s what we’re in the business of, we’re trying to serve this customer.”

How they use seemingly vague questions for the purpose of conversion optimization

“When we ask these questions, you really are asking for the moon and you just want to understand how this person is thinking and what’s motivating them. And sometimes they will give you an amazing insight. We’ve had instances where we’ve had customers essentially give us word for word how we should be describing our brand. They’ve said things like “It’s really been life changing for me. Before I found you guys I felt disempowered, I feel as a result of you I’ve felt empowered.”

“There are instances of that, there are instances where it’s inspired new products, there are instances where it’s inspired new services. There are all these different things that come out and it’s always unexpected and fun and new. And that’s part of why we’ve been successful is that we’ve really built this brand around this customer and really thinking very deeply very thoroughly about her and letting her drive the innovation.”

“When companies don’t do that, they miss out on some really amazing insights.”

Ahmed’s biggest piece of advice for companies that want to transition to being more data-driven, and do more conversion optimization

“I would be surprised if there are many companies able to reach a million dollar threshold without having some level of being data driven. I think that it’s really just about recognizing that you need to amplify that and you need to invest in that more because that’s what’s actually giving you that return.”

“We have made changes where we thought they would improve our conversion rate, but they ended up hurting us on other metrics. Before, we weren’t following such an iterative, methodical approach, and it hurt us. Once you do that once and you realize the mistake it’s hard to not recognize that there’s a problem with how you’re approaching the problem and that you just need to do a mind shift there and just do it the right way.”

“Companies who aren’t following a data-driven process… well you’re either lucky that you got to a million dollars without being data driven or, you’re about to go out of business now that you’ve gotten to a million dollars and you’re not following this approach because it just means that you’re not getting enough insights to be able to continue driving growth because you’re either need to stagnate or you need to have to shut down.”

What are some of the biggest mistakes to avoid?

“Yeah I think there’s also an assumption that somehow when you start applying methodologies you have to go from 0 to 100, that now you have to be this amazingly strict “I’m going to follow everything by the book” kind of thing. Whereas I think that frameworks and methodologies, the whole point of them is that they’re meant to be guide pros. They’re not meant to be these very rigid structures that you have to work within.”

“Sometimes, companies try to overdo it where it ends up kind of strangling any kind of innovation or change so where it took you like a week to make a feature update or change to the site, now it takes you a month or 2 and it’s really slowing you down a lot. It’s all about healthy balances, finding a way where you’re not to one extreme where you’re so methodical and you’re so rigid in how you do things that you don’t make changes anymore, versus you changing things all the time and not having any structure whatsoever.”

“I think it just applies to everything, you have to see what’s working, keep doing more of that and stop doing the things that are not working.”

If Ahmed were to start the company over again, what would he do differently in the later stages of growth?

“I think the thing that I wish we had done sooner is probably hiring engineering resources in-house sooner. I think, especially when it comes to engineering, when it comes to data science, I think these hires are better in terms of investing in them earlier rather than later.”

“It takes them a while to really understand the culture, the brand, what you’re doing, and plugging them into a process and having other people know how to work with these resources because they’re usually highly technical and you want to kind of mesh them into what the team is all about.”

“I’m also a big believer in learning from the mistakes that you’ve done, and at the same time that the mistakes that you did do, you had to go through them because you learned a lot from it. And I think that there’s a lot of things that we’ve gone through, and to also piggyback off of something that you just said earlier was just that, I love being proven wrong. I love it when I learn from a mistake and say “Oh, okay cool, so that’s not what the customer wants. She wants this.” I think that it’s really interesting because I’m learning something new and or me it’s just really important that I’m always learning something and that I’m getting something out of it. So I think it’s pretty cool.”

Main takeaways from this interview

  • Use your analytics, analyze customer support tickets, and actually talk with your customers to identify potential problems with your user experience, products, or business model. Ask questions that aren’t just about their demographics, ask questions that will help you pain better customer personas.
  • Impatience may make you want to implement decisions (or website changes) right away, as you’ll be convinced such change will be a total improvement. But without testing it, you’ll never know. Maybe your conversion rate increased, but what about your other metrics. Following the process may take a bit more time upfront, but the reward is much greater when things are done properly.
  • You won’t be able to grow if you don’t have a good experimentation process that’s backed by data. Data science, analytics, usability research, all have their place in everyday business. It’s not just a marketing thing, or something a specific department does. It’s for everyone. Hypothesize solutions using data, test, and validate, just like the lean startup methodology.
Raphael Paulin-Daigle

Raphael is the founder of SplitBase, and spends his time optimizing SplitBase's own optimization methodology, and growing his clients companies.

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