We’ve entered the age of emotional, design-centric, e-commerce

When I opened up my first package from online women’s clothing startup Everlane, an immediate smile spread across my face. The company had wrapped the cashmere sweater I bought in a soft, silky Everlane-branded cream-colored bag. It was a very basic choice — not something meant to blow your mind — but a little detail that resonated with me in an immediate tactile and emotional way, and later in a branding way.

True & Co.The same smile appeared when I was filling out the brief quiz for True & Co., a new startup that’s trying to rethink how women buy bras. The company asks you a variety of questions that are meant to find out the best shape and size of your bras, and it has put a lot of thought into doing this in an innovative, creative, and tactful way (boobs can be a tricky subject).

For example one quiz question asks “Do your cups runneth over?”, basically asking in a playful way if the bra you’re wearing is too small. You can’t help but laugh at that, easing the tension that is natural when you’re trying to think about the shape of your chest. Email marketing company MailChimp has led the way for using this type of language in an innovative way to develop a brand and an emotion connection and deliver better results.

Everlane and True & Co are creating new online e-commerce experiences, and they’re using emotion and design to do it. Warby Parker has famously grown its online glasses business in this way, too. These are the new wave of e-commerce companies, ones that could rival not only big box retailers but also the first-generation of e-commerce companies like Amazon, or clothing companies that have moved into selling items online.

I think Fab founder and CEO Jason Goldberg put it best in an article he wrote last month on his personal blog:

The third wave of e-commerce is all about bringing emotional purchases online. Non-commodity products. More thoughtful purchase decisions.  I like to call this Emotional Commerce. This is categories like furniture, home accessories, home textiles, fashion, art, and jewelry. These are categories where people care about having something special in their lives.

warby parker, online eyewearIt will be the Warby Parkers, the Everlanes, the Net-a-Porters, and the Birchboxes that will innovate around using design and UI to get you to part with your money online in exchange for a product that adds a little something extra to you life, your home and your wardrobe. At our RoadMap event in 2012, we highlighted a discussion between Birchbox CEO Katia Beauchamp and Warby Parker co-CEO Dave Gilboa, who discussed some of these ideas. For our next RoadMap event in San Francisco in November, we’ll continue that theme (tickets won’t go on sale until this summer, but you can sign up to get first access here).

The lesson for e-commerce startups, product developers, website designers, and anyone else building something that other people will be using — in the physical world and the digital world — is that the small details matter. A lot. Om recently gushed about well made shoes:

I don’t just love the shoes because of how they look — though that matters — but I also look at where the leather comes from, how it is stitched together and what kind of craftsmanship has gone into it. From shoe trees to little patterns on the toe to the packaging to the font on the label, all of those little things add up to the design aesthetic. And that way of thinking about the design aesthetic extends to other things, including website design. Yes, fonts matter, and the layouts matter, but so does the relative relationship to the kind of content, the speed of the web service and even the screen size and how it all correlates to me.

Design might be a buzz word in the tech world in 2013, and some high end designers might not necessarily like the bastardization of the term and its embrace by the tech industry. But in many ways, designers and design thinking is starting to be valued like never before at tech companies (and let’s face it, all companies are becoming tech companies these days).

This has led to better and higher paid positions by designers and new products that are connecting with us on an emotional level. And that’s a good thing.