How Brands Can Know If 3D Is Right For Them

0aaaBen Houston ThreeKit

In 2017, more than 1 trillion photos were captured, mostly on digital devices like smartphones. That’s up from 380 billion just five years before and a mere 57 billion in 1990. We’ve become increasingly visual and we’re only getting more so. For brands, this means two things: first, that product imaging is vitally important to communicating your offering with customers; and second, that image type and quality matter. A lot.

Today, brands have more options than ever for creating high-quality visuals. I’ll examine how one of those options, interactive 3D, can fit into a retailer’s mix of product assets, offering insight on the benefits and drawbacks of 3D visuals and where they tend to perform best.

Background: What Is Interactive 3D?

Three-dimensional (3D) visualization refers to the computer rendering of images such that customers can manipulate those images to see them from every angle.


Interactive 3D is made possible by software that translates information from CADs and other file types into visual outputs. Some software also allows real-time personalization or configuration of products, so that customers can add a monogram, say, or switch out product features — and see an updated 3D product rendering in real time.

The Impact Of Interactive 3D On E-Commerce

If you’re like most people I tell about interactive 3D, you’re probably thinking it sounds pretty cool. But what matters to retail brands is that this type of imagery is not just cool — it also has a powerful impact on the way people shop and buy online.

Unlike static images or product descriptions, hyper-realistic 3D gives shoppers the chance to examine a product from every possible angle. It lets them see what various configurations will look like. When they receive an item in the mail after shopping with interactive 3D, there are no surprises about what they’re getting.

Our customers have seen this shopping experience change their e-Commerce performance dramatically. Average results from implementing visual product configuration like interactive 3D include:

  • 40% improvement in conversion rates;
  • 20% increase in average total sale amount;
  • 40% reduction in order errors; and
  • 80% reduction in returns.

That last figure alone might be enough to make interactive 3D compelling for online retailers. E-Commerce return rates average about 20% — at least double the rates that brick-and-mortar shops see. When high-end products are involved, return rates climb to as much as 50%, making interactive 3D one of the most effective ways to manage what Shopify has called the “plague” of online returns.

But the usefulness of interactive 3D doesn’t end when an order arrives at a customer’s door.

Beyond The Sale: Interactive 3D As Customer Support

The power of 3D is its ability to communicate better than still photos or text. During the shopping process, that helps customers understand which product they want to buy and give them confidence in what they’re spending money on.

After they’ve paid, though, interactive 3D continues to offer benefits. Imagine a complex product like an office printer — lots of moving parts, lots of opportunities to break down. With interactive 3D capabilities, the retailer of this product can create a kind of interactive user manual that shows customers how to work (and even fix) each part.

Instead of dialing customer support or logging on to an online chat, customers could first pull up the 3D product guide, zoom into the paper feed and see a guide of exactly which parts to adjust to fix the jam. That means faster problem resolution for your customers and fewer demands on your customer service team.

Or try this: imagine 3D assembly guidelines for self-assemble furniture or toys. Think about the difference they could make on Christmas Eve — parents might actually get to bed on time!

Mobile Users And The User Experience

At any phase of the customer lifecycle — browsing, shopping, viewing support materials, etc. — 3D offers particular benefits for mobile phone users. Limited screen real estate means retailers have to make the most of whatever content they choose to present; interactive 3D stands head and shoulders above still images and text for communicating the details of a product.

The other important consideration for mobile users, of course, is data use and page speed. To ensure that 3D product imagery doesn’t slow the mobile experience or eat up too much data, retailers should pay attention to file format. Like any other web site element, interactive 3D can be optimized — and like any other element, too-heavy files can weigh down a web site.

The importance of optimizing 3D for page speed can’t be overstated; a page that takes five seconds to load is likely to see a 90% bounce rate. To enjoy the full benefits of interactive 3D, then, retailers should include developers with an understanding of UX and SEO in the process of adding 3D to an e-Commerce site.

Where 3D Can Have The Biggest Impact

While interactive 3D has the potential to improve conversions and reduce returns in nearly any e-Commerce context, it holds particular promise for certain retailers. Those that stand to benefit the most include those selling:

  • Personalized products, which let customers make one-off creations (like adding a photo to a mug), so that they can see a rendering of the actual product they’ll receive as they create it.
  • Configurable products, which let customers choose from a limited menu of options, so that they can verify that they like the outcome of the choices they’re making.
  • Luxury goods, where customers may want a higher level of certainty before making a purchase and where returns tend to be higher than the overall e-Commerce average.
  • Mechanical parts or anything highly detailed, where 3D would let customers verify that they’re ordering the exact piece they need.

In each of these verticals, 3D imagery serves as a sort of virtual sales concierge that helps give customers the confidence they need to hit the “buy” button.

Leading The Charge With Interactive 3D

Look at magazine advertisements from the 1920s, and you’ll be shocked by how much more work the text is doing than the imagery. Our ability to capture and transmit images has exploded in the last hundred years, and today’s shoppers expect not only more images but images that are beautiful and highly communicative.

As our technology improves, so will our demand for excellent visual representations. Retailers can stay ahead of the curve by adopting technology that lets them convey their products’ features and benefits to customers as richly as holding a sample in a store. Before long, shoppers will come to expect it.


Ben Houston is the CTO of ThreeKit, a software platform that helps online shoppers explore products in 3D, Virtual Photography, Augmented Reality and VR. ThreeKit enables an immersive experience so e-Commerce retailers can drive engagement, trust and more sales.

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