Surplus Record is one of the largest directories of used industrial equipment in the United States, with over 70,000 listings for fabricating machine tools, engines, generators and more. The directory has been available in print since 1924, and online starting in the late 1990s. While they were one of the first print directories to successfully build an online presence, they haven’t released a major update to their website in over ten years.
Without any pre existing domain knowledge, our first step was to get acquainted with the market for used industrial equipment, and how Surplus Record operates within that market. As with most markets, there are buyers and sellers. Buyers often work for fabrication shops or manufacturing facilities and they are typically looking for discontinued products, replacement parts, or a cheaper alternative to new equipment. Sellers, on the other hand, are either companies looking to quickly sell off assets or used equipment dealers that trade industrial machinery. The sellers will list their equipment in the Surplus Record directory, and buyers can use either the printed version or the website (or both) to find the right products. It’s important to note that Surplus Record doesn’t facilitate the actual transaction, but rather provides the platform to connect buyers and sellers.
“Without Surplus record, how would I get information on lovingly, pre-owned equipment?”
In contrast, new users don’t view Surplus Record as a legitimate source of information because they don’t have an existing relationship with the brand or with individual sellers on the website. They have higher expectations for the user experience based on interactions with similar websites like eBay and Craigslist. Unlike the existing user base, they are less willing to overlook UX deficiencies when using the website for the first time.
“The first time I looked at it, they didn’t have the exact product I was looking for, so why would I go back again?”
To help us define what’s lacking in the user experience, we also evaluated the existing website against Jakob Nielsen's heuristic principles for user interface design. To keep things objective, each member of our team evaluated the website independently, identifying problems on each main page. We found moderate to severe problems with language, a lack of consistency and standards, flexibility, aesthetics, and documentation.
Our research pointed toward new users as being the most important audience for the website redesign. To stay competitive, the company needs to attract a new generation of users, and help them connect with trustworthy sellers. We also had to be cognizant of the site’s existing user base, who appreciate the familiarity of the existing platform. They use Surplus Record because it’s a reliable way to find used equipment, and they don’t have the time to learn a new system. The challenge was how to improve Surplus Record’s design to attract new users, without alienating the site’s existing user base.
We knew that we couldn’t redesign the entire website in three weeks, so we focused on the most heavily used portion of the site: the search flow for finding used equipment. There are two primary ways users can search for equipment: searching by category, or searching with keywords as one would do on most search engines. We ultimately decided to develop the keyword flow since our research showed that most users (existing and new) look for very specific products and aren’t browsing by category. The main components of this flow are the home page, the search results page, and the product listing page.
To address the challenge of attracting new users while accommodating the existing user base, we developed three guiding design principles. First, evolve. This isn’t about recreating the business, it’s about evolving to meet the demands of today’s marketplace. Second, trust us. Our design needs to enhance the sense of trust and credibility that has traditionally defined the Surplus Record brand. Lastly, keep it compact. We need to display information in a way that’s highly scannable. With these principles in mind, we developed divergent concepts for the main equipment search flow:
In my approach, I used images of the Surplus Record book and clear, direct language on the homepage to demonstrate that the company has a long history and offers legitimate information. In addition, I included a section for recent listings to give new users a sense of what products are available and to show that the site is updated daily. The search results page and the product listing page, in turn, borrow patterns from familiar e-commerce sites like Amazon, McMaster Carr, and JC Penney. Since the final transaction takes place offline, I only needed to show the most essential information–photos, brand, high-level specifications, and seller contact.
While the homepage and the product listing page of the e-commerce concept were well received, the formatting of the search results missed the mark. I designed the page with a sidebar for filtering products, and large photos for each of the individual listings. This format works great for browsing through products, as one does on Amazon, but as one of our concept testers pointed out:
“We're looking for equipment that might cost over a million dollars, and that's fundamentally different than shopping for a new coffee maker.”
The final design combined my approach to the homepage and product listing page with the spreadsheet view for displaying search results. One of the biggest challenges to making the spreadsheet system work was figuring out the maximum number of filter parameters that could comfortably fit into columns on a standard desktop screen. For example, users should be able to sort CNC lathes by chuck size, swing distance, and bar size in addition to make, model, year, location, etc. Since these parameters are dynamically generated for each product category, we needed to make sure that we could accommodate those products with the most unique parameters. Coincidentally, the development team at Surplus Record was trying to solve this same problem, and we ultimately determined that we had more than enough column space to accommodate the upper limit–nine.
At the start of this project, our team knew nothing about the market for used industrial equipment. We initially (and erroneously) assumed that it was like every other type of market that involves buyers and sellers. However Surplus Record has a very particular user base with highly specific needs, and it took time for us to understand the domain and develop viable design solutions. By far the most important part of this process was concept testing. Our research helped us empathize with our users, but until we tested our design concepts, we didn’t know what would work in this highly specific domain.
In contrast to our work with Sojourn Fare, this was also an opportunity to work with a client who wasn’t already familiar with design thinking. While it was a struggle in the beginning to explain the design process, it ultimately helped me become a more strategic designer. As a team, we had to clearly articulate the rationale behind each design decision. We went through several rounds of copy editing on the home page, for example, to make sure that each word was clear and direct. We didn’t have time to redesign the entire site, but as a result of our attention to detail, we reached a high level of refinement for the main user flows.