Why the CEO of an ecommerce site with 11+ million users designs for 'drunk toddlers'

It’s an important product mantra that you should always “know your users.”

The social e-commerce site Wanelo, popular among younger, female millennials, follows that rule, but with a twist. When designing the site’s mobile and desktop experience, Wanelo’s team envisions its users as a bunch of drunk toddlers.

“You should be able to squint and find and point to the one important thing on the page,” Wanelo founder Deena Varshavskaya said on stage at SXSW Saturday afternoon, miming a dramatized pointing motion. “A drunk toddler should be able to find that thing.”

Wanelo used to have a bunch of different things going on on its homepage, Varshavskaya says, and it wasn’t until she basically took everything but the bare basics away that the site really started gaining traction. Now, it’s homepage looks like a simple grid of popular products — very much like Pinterest, but more specifically designed to get users to make purchases, not just pretty boards. In one year — from August 2013 to August 2014 — the site swelled from 1 million to 11 million members.

“Users don’t care to read your website top-to-bottom very carefully,” Varshavskaya says. “They just want to use it very lazily. That’s why ‘drunk toddler’ is a really good filter. What would happen if you didn’t have all of your mental presence to use a product? It needs to be that simple.”

Varshavskaya launched Wanelo (which stands for want, need, love) in 2011, and got her first outside capital the following year, after getting rejected for seed funding 40 times (to get through all the turn-downs, she and her sister would eat ice cream and drink vodka in their apartment while writing emails). The idea really took off in 2012, when Wanelo’s app broke into the top ten on the App Store’s free lifestyle apps list. It stayed there for almost a year, but now doesn’t rank within the top 100.

The site used to make most of its revenue through affiliate links (when users clicked through to buy a product on the website that sold it), but launched an on-site “Buy” button last fall (typically, that means a bigger revenue cut).

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