Elliott Moody
0 min read

Commerce, code and collaboration: Commerce UI on their unique approach to design and development

Headquartered in the port city of Gdansk, Commerce UI is a design and technology-focused e-commerce agency for luxury brands. Their unique working model sees them openly partner with world-class digital designers to combine aesthetics with technology. On the back of the viral explosion of their website for Magda Butrym, we caught up with Co-founder Marcin Nogal to learn more about the past, present, and future of the agency.

EM Hi Marcin, can’t believe we’re more than halfway through 2023 already. How has it been for you and the team so far?

MN Hi Elliott, excited to chat! 2023 has been a rollercoaster, probably not just for us! Starting from the first two quarters being pretty unpredictable, and now seeing things rapidly back on track. But that’s how the agency world works, isn’t it?

EM For sure! You describe yourselves as a design-conscious technology partner. What does that mean?

MN A lot of different things coming together!

First, when we work with design studios, naturally their core strength is design, the technology part is usually a bit secondary to them. So maybe they work with freelancers or have a small development team internally. This is perfectly enough when you need to build a simple website but to be able to tackle a more mature e-commerce brand, you need an experienced technology partner you can trust. And that’s where you’d usually find us!

Second, when you hire developers most of them are not trained to work with high-quality design. So what we did internally is we set up some form of school of design for developers. It’s a long laborious process, but you can see a difference when working with developers who understand design, have an experimental mindset, and proactively suggest solutions.

And lastly, this works both ways. We create guidelines for designers on how to do a design handoff in a simple and efficient way, making your UI accessible and intuitive for customers. We observe this knowledge is highly desired in the design community, yet it’s not that easy to find with most of the design systems related content being too complex for an e-commerce project.

We clearly don’t believe in a ‘one size fits all’ approach.

EM Why do you decide to showcase your projects as design collaborations, whereby you communicate the designer you partnered with, instead of hiding them behind an agency package?

MN Great question! It’s probably due to our own experiences. In the past, we worked as a white-label development partner. We built lots of great projects and learned the craft and understanding of design, which we feel grateful for. But we couldn’t really speak loudly about these projects, and we felt like it blocked us from growing. That experience led us towards a more open, collaborative environment where instead of hiding designers behind, we actually do quite the opposite, emphasising this collaborative nature.

EM How does a new project typically initiate? Does the client find you first, or the designer?

MN It’s working both ways actually. More technical-savvy customers find us first, and then we look for a design partner for them. And vice versa – more design-led founders reach out to someone from our design network and then they recommend us. So thanks to this, we can approach both technology and design-driven e-commerce brands, which feels great.

EM What parts of your offering and process do you think set you apart from other e-commerce-focused agencies?

MN We clearly don’t believe in a ‘one size fits all’ approach. There are very few agencies that excel at both design and technology so you end up losing quality on one of these ends. That’s something we wanted to avoid so internally we are technology/e-commerce focused and for the creative part – we collaborate. So you can have this freedom of choice and really best of those two words, under one roof.

EM Looking back, why did you decide to start Commerce UI in 2011? What were you doing beforehand?

MN It’s been quite a journey, can’t believe it’s over 10 years now! Started as a branding agency, but then most clients wanted a website so I met my Co-founder Andrzej and we added this strong technology component. We experimented with becoming a digital transformation agency but that was early on and we were very young and inexperienced.

At some point, we decided to keep it simple and focus purely on web development. That was a moment when something clicked, we started working with top agencies, and world-class projects, all remotely. We learned the craft and the designer’s mindset. After a few years, we decided to pivot again and focus entirely on e-commerce, be more client-facing, and build our own e-commerce agency. Still, balancing this technology and design edge remains unchanged since the beginning.

EM How has the agency and the work you do evolved from then until now?

MN This might sound like a cliché, but we’ve been always quality-oriented and obsessed with the details. Now we understand quality in a more holistic way. It’s not just the visual layer, but also site speed, usability of the back office for our customers, data layer and more analytical side of e-commerce, stability of the website (especially in e-commerce every downtime costs a lot), and modular architecture to be able to quickly adapt to ever-changing environment.

Our team is still small (love that) but recently has grown a bit – now there are 16 people on board. We had to adjust our internal processes to keep the quality level we had once being a team of four. There is no silver bullet for that, no process would replace truly experienced people. We keep hiring the best developers on the market and have an insane 1:2 senior-to-middle developer ratio.

Working at high velocity is important.

EM How about the e-commerce industry and its requirements, in general?

MN I think after the COVID boom in the e-commerce space, brands are more conscious of where they invest their money and what are the results for the business, which is great as we strongly believe in efficiency. You probably don’t need a team of 15 developers working on your e-commerce for 10 months. That’s why we intentionally keep our teams small, put two max three experienced developers in the project, and give them roughly four months to go live. Working at high velocity is important and we expect more e-commerce brands to adopt such an approach.

If you compare e-commerce to more general web development, it’s clearly more focused on things like conversion or usability. Accessibility is a big topic too. Due to these requirements, it’s way less animated and experimental. Hovewer, we’re trying to find these playful moments eg. with our recent handbags campaign page and Apple-like rotating bag on scroll effect.

EM Which projects have played the biggest role in making Commerce UI what it is today?

MN If I were to mention one, it’d be a project for a high fashion brand Magda Butrym. It has been a breaking point for a few reasons. One, we established our partnership with the design agency Ania et Lucie, and we have been working together since then.

Two, Magda Butrym’s website has been extremely successful, positioning the brand among fashion giants like Hermès and Louis Vuitton. We built a video-first Product Details Page, with runaway-style videos, nobody did this before. Recently, it went viral on Twitter, and even Shopify’s CEO Tobi Lutke reposted our project, highly satisfying!

We built a video-first Product Details Page, with runaway-style videos, nobody did this before.

EM And which project was the most challenging?

MN Well, every project is challenging in its own way, a good example of that is our collaboration with Aether Apparel (designed by amazing Evan Backes). They are an outdoor fashion retailer from LA, founded by ex-Hollywood producers. Storytelling is essential for the brand, so we decided to develop the whole architecture around that aspect.

Their team can publish any kind of story without development assistance. For example, they recently introduced a collaboration with Bamford Watches and they were able to create a custom landing themselves. Or, they also have this yearly event Aether Rally, and they were able to tell this story in a unique way or sell tickets and accommodation through their e-commerce.

But the most impressive part is that every single product on their website has a story of its own. This is pretty insane process, as they produce hundreds of dedicated photoshoots in amazing outdoor scenery for every single product page, then assemble that content into beautiful storytelling, on every single PDP (300+ products).

EM What do you have planned for the rest of the year and beyond? Any sneak peeks you can share with us?

MN We are very excited about the new Shopify framework called Hydrogen. It’s opening up new possibilities, especially for more mature retainers. It’s really early – there are just a few projects worldwide, and most of them are experimental. We started working with a fashion brand from Paris for whom we built the entire experience using this new framework. And we can’t wait to show the results to the public. Especially since it pushes the boundaries for both digital design and technology – those projects are always the most rewarding ones.

Web Development

Commerce UI