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I've seen it around and I honestly find it quite frustrating. I've seen on a lot of ecommerce websites that when you put your cursor over an image, it automatically zooms in that box, and about half of them don't allow you to see the whole image at once. "Roll over image to zoom detail" they say.

I've seen some decent implementations of this on NewEgg and Amazon, but some really poor implementations on websites for more local stores. This page is a great example of a a frustrating and unnecessary setup.

This has been a trend I've been noticing for about a year and a half. Although I don't work with ecommerce, I am working on a project that will involve an image viewer in the future, and I'm just wondering why it's a thing. I likely won't use it, except maybe Amazon's style.

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it's probably because a marketing guy heard of a rule like the 3-click-rule and thought it means "fewer clicks are better". –  L. Möller Dec 6 '13 at 9:21
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They're especially frustrating when browsing sites on a touch device. –  JonW Dec 6 '13 at 9:31
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I doubt that this trend is related to UX at all. Some developer stumbled upon a nice technical solution, and added it as nice-to-have feature. Without any objections afterwards, and definitely without any user research up front. I bet that any quick'n'dirty DIY user test would prevent this. The need to see details are probably there, but the implementation/solution is just plain wrong. –  Jørn E. Angeltveit Dec 6 '13 at 16:59
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2 Answers

up vote 13 down vote accepted

The zoom feature mainly came into the picture to allow users to examine a product in detail and overcome the challenges involved in actually being able to handle the merchandise before buying it.This is especially common in sites which sell products like clothes or products where users might want to get a closer look at the product before making a purchase. To quote this article

One of the downsides of e-commerce is that no matter how hard you work on you product pages the customer will never be able to have the real product in his hand, as you normally can when going to a physical store. Therefore the customer can never feel the fine texture of the silk cloth, the sturdiness of the titanium lock, or the precise assembly quality of the camera. For some product categories (apparel comes to mind) these tactile experiences is a major part of the overall shopping experience and a decisive purchasing factor.

enter image description here

To close some of the gap between e-commerce and actually holding the product in your hand, textural images can be used. Textural images are extreme closeups that take the customer in so close that you can clearly see the texture and assembly quality. In practice this is often provided by either a zoom functionality for a high-resolution product image, or it is a separate image in the gallery providing a close-up of a part of the product.

That said, it is strongly recommended that multiple product pictures are always recommended to allow users see the product from different angles and close up shots and there seems to be a increasing trend of shops trying to avoid having to provide the functionality by just providing the zoom feature and hoping users will then discover the content by themselves. To quote this article about the importance of product photography

An over-reliance on hover/zoom images. Whilst these image types have their uses, they rely on the customer to do all of the work to find the detail, and they are not appropriate for many of the products they sell, meaning an inefficient experience for the customer. The nature of these images is very functional, so using a single hover/zoom image for a product means you miss out on the opportunity to really sell product features and design details.

Also add to the fact that there is no defined standard about how the zoom functionality should be implemented and shops or stores implement the basic functionality and expect it to serve the purpose that on clicking or hovering the product image starts to zoom in. That said, this article on smashing magazine recommends that products image zoom features should be clearly visible to users and should not be such t*hat they are accidentally discovered* by clicking or hovering over the image. To quote the article

Photo galleries are particularly critical in e-commerce industries such as apparel and consumer electronics. You might not need to see a wrench from three different angles when shopping at Home Depot, but more images are better when looking for clothes, shoes or a high-end smartphone or tablet. A few commonly used patterns are the swipeable gallery, “double-tap to zoom”, and thumbnails for selecting photos.

enter image description here

Payless wisely keeps its “Tap tap to zoom” call-out on the screen for several seconds, giving the shopper time to understand how to navigate the page and still notice it. The ability to zoom in to a photo to view a product’s details is critical for apparel and shoes.

In closing I think its just a case of a useful functionality which was just lumped on the site without really understanding how users could use it and what would be the usability issues users might face by an improper implementation (as Jonw pointed out, they can prove to be a nightmare on mobile devices as the zoom functionality gets activated by even an accidental tap)

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As Mervin said in the last paragraph of his excellent answer, it's functionality injected in the UI without considering the users.
I would say that almost anything in the Internet toolset (comes to mind the blinking text feature) is usability neutral, and depends on the developers (at large) to be good or to be bad.
The accesory kit example brought by Kavi is such an example. Firstly, it doesn't fulfill the purpose because the zooming is not enough and the pictures are low quality (dull, unsharp). The pictures don't convey the "gist" of the product.
Secondly, the cursor should be confined to the original image. Moving it over the original image border should leave the image in the state it was when the pointer crossed the border, instead of cancelling the zoom. Finally, this UI does not convey a sense of which part if the original image is being observed.
I could continue ... the size of the images is as it was in 1998 ...

These are all usability flaws, stemming from not considering the way the users use the UI. As it always was.

Thus, IMO there is no intrinsic badness in this kind of UI element. I'd say "look at the good ones, disregard the infinite tail if failed implementations.
For example, I purchase gizmos in dx.com and I find their zooming UI is usable. It has the two options: peep or overlay the huge image. Both might be handy depending on the user's purpose.

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