What to Know Before Building a Product Configurator

Lovesac product configurator

Purpose of a configurator

Not every website needs a configurator, there we said it.

Of course, as someone reading this article it’s likely you already know this. 

For the uninitiated, a product configurator is a way to visually represent a product based on the options and customizations a customer makes. These are often used for products that have a lot of features or options a customer needs to select: cars, computers, modular homes, glasses.

These tools are more important than ever as consumers get more used to being able to order anything from a motorcycle to a bracelet online. Visitors expect to have a streamlined experience no matter what item they’re ordering. But that doesn’t mean every ecommerce store requires a product configurator. 

Do you really need a configurator?

In the ecommerce space, there’s always a desire to explore new ways to help customers shop and, ideally, buy more. This can include creating a standalone app, testing out new payment options, and considering augmented reality on the product page.  

Product configurators are no different. From simple use cases like adding personalization to a product (ex. Adding your name to a mug) to complicated use cases like designing an entire modular home, product configurators can seem like they’re useful for any site. 

Swell.com customization tool
Swell.com customization tool

Does your industry often rely on a support team to help customers configure products? Think of items like a car or computer that can require additional explanation for optional features or the difference between certain variants like a faster engine. Even for something like a suit, there are many different options to choose from that a typical customer might not understand. 

That’s where a configurator can be a big benefit to customers. 

But there are often cases where a configurator can actually complicate the process or add unnecessary steps, leading to more customer confusion. It’s important to really consider if you need a product configurator. It may be a cool new tool to have, but it may not be worth the time and cost to invest.

Benefits of a product configurator

Since you’re past that last section, it’s likely you know you do want a product configurator, but perhaps you need to convince others at the company that it’s worth the investment. 

These tools have a multitude of benefits, the most important being to help the user visualize their customizations, reducing uncertainties and doubts about the final product. 

Blinds.com configurator
Blinds.com configurator

Let’s say you wanted to buy custom blinds online. If you’re not an expert in blinds, you’d probably actually want to go into a store so you can ask questions. Blinds offer a ton of customization options from corded or cordless, colors, tilt, headrail, etc. Blinds.com created a product configurator that illustrates each of these options with additional explanation. This likely helps make customers feel more confident about buying blinds online and also reduces customer support calls. 

A product configurator allows customers to buy items online that they might otherwise not have felt confident purchasing. The tool walks them through “building” the product and explains each feature. This can lead to higher conversion rates.

Another benefit is that returns are often decreased with product configurators. A customized product can’t be returned on most ecommerce sites. Buyers often feel a stronger sense of ownership over the item as well, because they configured it to their liking. 

For your business, a configurator will often lead to improved inventory management. Customers will often understand there is a lead time when ordering a customized item. There will be fewer returns to deal with (unless, of course, the item is damaged). And customer support has to deal with fewer requests that can be easily answered within the product configurator. 

Use Cases

When it comes to configurators, there are tons of use cases for them across a wide range of industries. 

One of the simplest cases is for personalization. This can be for many types of personal items like cups, mugs, and most products that are gifted. Allowing customers to add a message, name, or initials helps them feel a stronger tie to the product, it feels like it’s truly theirs. Companies like Yeti, Swell, and Fossil allow customers to add a personal touch. 

Fossil’s embossing feature
Fossil’s embossing feature

Another set of use cases for product configurators is large items with multiple options: cars, tiny homes, bicycles. These types of products are high-consideration, people really need to think about them before purchasing. When they go to finally buy, it needs to be clear exactly what they’re getting and what the final product will look like. Someone purchasing a car online is not going to be satisfied being told they got the sport package, but not seeing the sport package on the car they are customizing. 

Lastly, a large category for configurators is furniture and decor. These are items that visitors are going to see daily in their home, and they want to make sure the final product comes out exactly as they envisioned. Since they can’t see the item in a store or showroom, the configurator needs to clearly show the final product. 

Herman Miller product builder
Herman Miller product builder

A growing trend for furniture and decor is augmented reality. This allows customers to see the finished item in their own space, so they can better envision how it will look. 

There are plenty of other use cases from men’s suits to watches to baby strollers, so don’t let the examples above limit your imagination. 

What does a configurator need?

You’ve decided your store would benefit from a product configurator, but now the difficult part is scoping out the tool. How many steps should there be? How can you anticipate customer questions? And many more things to consider. 

We’ll go over a few important features all configurators need to have. This won’t be a comprehensive list, as all stores are going to require different elements. But it’s beneficial to ensure you cover these points. 

It’s important that customers understand what they’re getting into when they start to customize, and can see that they’re able to save their work. Your configurator should have an overview of all the steps, so visitors get an idea of what they’ll need to complete. They should also be able to jump back easily to prior steps. 

Blinds.com mobile experience
Blinds.com mobile experience

All configurators need to be usable across devices. Just because we often work on desktops and laptops, doesn’t mean all customers are going to want to shop that way. Mobile presents a challenge for configurators, since the screen is so much smaller and certain information can’t just be eliminated. 

“Help Me Decide” tooltip on Hermanmiller.com
“Help Me Decide” tooltip on Hermanmiller.com

As far as selecting options, it needs to be clear exactly what a visitor is changing. It’s good that you understand your industry jargon, but not all customers will. Illustrations and images work well, in addition to tooltips that provide extra details. 

“Help Me Decide” tooltip on Hermanmiller.com
“Help Me Decide” tooltip on Hermanmiller.com

Whenever a customer selects an option that has an additional charge, that should be clearly communicated both on the option and in the running total. 

Lastly, make sure the tool is easy to use! Customers are not going to want to use a tool that frustrates them. Do some user testing trials to see where people get caught up in the tool before you deploy it. 

Technical Considerations and Budget

When it comes to a product configurator you’re going to have to consider how technical you want to get and what your budget will allow. You’ll really want to think through these questions, because building this quickly to just get something up on your site can have adverse effects. Rather than helping improve the user experience, you’ll end up frustrating them with a poorly thought out tool. 

A few questions to ask yourself and your team: 

  • Does your configurator need to have a visualization or not? If so, how detailed does it need to be? 
  • Will you want to add more configurators in the future? (Is this a configurator for such a highly specific thing that you will never create another product like this or build another configurator like this, or is this something where you’re going to want to add a bunch of products that leverage this same tooling in the future?)
  • How much admin control do you want over which options are available to customers? Or do the options available depend on inventory counts? 
  • Does the resulting product from the configurator need to be added to a shopping cart within an existing platform? (There may be limitations on what can be added and how data is passed) 

When it comes to operations, you’ll need to think through some other things:

  • Where does the configured data need to go?
  • How does it need to be received?
  • Who is receiving it?

Once you’ve answered these, you’re probably wondering if you can utilize an off-the-shelf option or need a custom-built configurator. Really, you’ll want to ask “What do you want to do with the configurator after it’s been created?”

With off-the-shelf solutions, there are a number of SaaS tools that can build the configurator inside their platform which you will then embed on your site. Essentially you are visualizing the product, but customers won’t necessarily be able to add the resulting product to the cart. Doing so will likely require a developer. 

If you want customers to be able to do something with the resulting product (ie. add it to their cart), then you’ll likely need to build out a tool. But you’ll also need to consider maintenance (browser support, ecommerce platform changes, etc.). 

Taking the time to consider these questions, among others, will help your team create a configurator that helps customers find the product they want, as opposed to providing them a poor experience that actually turns them away from your site.

Trends & Future

When it comes to the future of ecommerce, there are always new tools popping up. In regards to product configurators, this includes 3D options, augmented reality, and virtual reality. 

Right now, having 3D renderings of all your products likely is a financial hurdle you’re not willing to take on at the moment. It’s highly likely in the future that this technology will get cheaper and cheaper, making it easier to include 3D renderings on your site. 

Lovesac product configurator
Lovesac.com 3D renderings

These 2D and 3D options can help illustrate how a customizable item will look to a customer. Rather than needing a full product configurator, a 2D rendering can show a customer, for example, how a couch will look with 50 different fabric types. This also reduces the need for taking 50 different photos.

Augmented reality in ecommerce continues to grow. Stores like Ikea offer the ability to use your phone to show a piece of furniture in your home. The technology is still gaining adoption, and is not widely used by customers just yet but that will likely change as more stores implement it. The benefit of AR tools is that customers can feel more confident in purchasing certain items because they have at least some idea of what it could look like. This is mainly being used for furniture but could expand to industries where visitors often want to see or test out the items in person like apparel, accessories (watches, jewelry, shoes), and beauty. 

Virtual reality is the most nascent trend. VR is still not widely adopted by consumers, since there are not a ton of applications aside from gaming. But as VR becomes more and more common for communicating with friends, using it in the workplace, etc. we will likely see its usage grow in ecommerce. According to eMarketer, they believe that by the end of 2022, 64 million people will use VR. 

There are a few different ways this technology can be used: virtual stores, live events, education, and try-on. Companies like Obsess are creating “Metaverse stores for brands” alongside clients like Coach, Fendi, and Mattel. This could be a growing way visitors shop if the metaverse and other virtual reality experiences take off.