Surplus Record

PROJECT INFO

3-week UX design sprint with Riana Melendez and Josh Piepmeier for Surplus Record. Tools included Sketch and InVision.

OVERVIEW

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.

While there have been some changes to the back-end code, the website hasn't received a major front-end update in nearly a decade.

Recognizing the need to maintain their competitive edge in an increasingly digital market, Surplus Record approached our team at DESIGNATION to evaluate their online presence and make recommendations for a potential website redesign. This was the ultimate UX challenge: a complex website with a lot of users who haven’t experienced a significant update to the platform in over ten years.

With a tight schedule, we strategically focused on the most heavily used portion of the website–the search flow for finding used industrial equipment–to establish a library of interaction patterns that could give structure to the entire site. Our proposal introduced a new home page, advanced functionality for filtering and sorting search results, and a new format for displaying product information. More importantly, we helped define and articulate a vision for Surplus Record as they continue to evolve and adapt to a changing marketplace.

USER RESEARCH

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.

New users consistently expressed skepticism about the legitimacy of the site, while existing users praised its no-frills approach to design.

Once we had a firm grasp on the Surplus Record business model, we conducted interviews with existing users and domain experts to gain insights into how people interact with the website. From our interviews, we discovered that existing users and new users have radically different experiences with the website:

The existing users have relied on Surplus Record for decades to find used industrial equipment. These people recognize the brand, and have well-established expectations for the quality of information that appears on the site. From past experiences, they also know which sellers are trustworthy and which brands are reliable. As a result, existing users are willing to overlook some of the UX deficiencies because they are either used to the site’s existing interaction patterns, or have clever workarounds.

“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.

For the existing site, the biggest usability issues involved inconsistent formatting of information and a general lack of standards for visuals and interaction patterns.

PROJECT SCOPE

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.

The site is divided into two primary sections: the seller side (shown to the left of the homepage) and the buyer side (shown to the right). For this study, we focused on the buyer side, and made recommendations specific to the main user flow - searching for equipment.

EARLY CONCEPTS

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:

The first concept was a Google-esque approach, with a prominent call to action for the keyword search. We worked to make this design ruthlessly minimal and efficient.

The main component of this concept was a spreadsheet-like view for filtering and sorting search results. The homepage for this concept was very similar to the Google-esque approach.

This was my concept–a more radical departure from the existing website designed to work more like an e-commerce site and less like a productivity tool.

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.

REFINEMENT

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.”

While the Amazon-like system for displaying search results had numerous problems, users responded well to the spreadsheet view from the second concept. As product procurement specialists, our users know exactly what equipment they are looking for, and therefore need a quick way to scan through all of the listings to identify a few promising leads. The spreadsheet view accomplishes this goal, and upholds one of our core design concepts: keep it compact.

The biggest problem with this format was the size of each listing. Users wanted to be able to scan through 10-20 listings on a single page, without scrolling. Having a large picture for each product made that nearly impossible.

FINAL DESIGN

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.

Machinetools.com, another popular website for buying used industrial equipment, uses a similar system for filtering search results. Not how the specifications are organized into columns in the results listing.

Based on usability tests we made a few minor adjustments to the location and layout of features–moving dropdowns, increasing the size of buttons, changing icons–but overall users responded well to the new design. We tested new as well as existing users of Surplus Record to ensure that our changes improved the website without alienating the existing user base. The final design only encompassed the main flow for searching with keywords, but we provided a strong scaffold and enough clarity in our annotated wireframes to build out the rest of the site. With more time, we could have further developed the category search flow, designed the admin and account pages, and worked with sellers to refine how information is populated on the website.

The copy and imagery on the home page connote trust and credibility. Including an image of the printed publication lets the user know that the company is a legitimate source of information. The page also includes a section for recent listings, to let the user know that the site is regularly maintained.

The spreadsheet view provided the most compact way to view search results. If users want more information without going to the product listing page, they can expand each row to see pictures and get more information on the seller.

The listing page didn't change significantly from concept testing to the final wireframes. While we initially assumed that the photos were an essential piece of information, our user testing indicated they were not as important as the product specifications.

Given the breadth and complexity of this website, we recommended that Surplus Record pursue another round of UX design to build out the rest of the site and validate our designs with more user testing. In particularly we recommended more concept testing internally with Surplus Record to make sure our design recommendations aligned with their business goals. With a limited amount of time on the project, we weren’t able to have a detailed conversation about how the market for used industrial equipment might change in the future. Certain features, such as equipment auctions, might become more important to the company moving forward, and the design should ultimately anticipate those changes.

CONCLUSION

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.