updated: September 23rd, 2009 / Ross Johnson / 7 Comments

E-commerce Checkout, should we have steps or single page?

I had the pleasure of attending a uxnet meeting tonight organized by local information architect Dan Cooney. While I am more of a graphical designer by trade, I greatly value and put heavy emphasis on user experience design. While graphic design is about communication, user experience design is about human computer interaction, and on the web the ability to easily interact with what is essentially a piece of software is essential.

At the meeting I struck up an interesting conversation with a user experience designer about the e-commerce check out process and how best to optimize it for conversion.

In a situation like e-commerce every detail is critical to a users success in checkout and conversion. If at any point a user becomes stumped or is burdened by the process they are likely to leave and forgo the purchase all together or potentially purchase from someplace else.

The most critical of these points is the checkout process. The checkout process itself is quite cumbersome, and at this point there are no easily solutions to improve the process. In order to make a purchase the site must gather some minimum amount of data and then confirm to the user that everything from the billing, shipping, payment and purchase is accurate. With this level of complexity and the wide range of experience with the internet (and online shopping) it is no wonder that shopping cart abandonment rates are so high.

Because of the complexity of the process there have been several companies who have tried what they can to make the process easier. One of the attempts has been to take what is normally a 3 – 4 page process and turn it into a 1 – 2 page process. There has been much debate as to if this is an effective technique or not.

What the user experience expert was describing is that there are many problems with the single page approach.

  • First is that in most cases it does not actually reduce the amount of time. It really only reduces the perception of time/effort. However that is valid.
  • There are very few ways to show a user the data that has been entered while they are filling out such a long page of information. IE: After you have filled out your billing information, if you want to double check and make sure you didn’t accidentally order two products instead of one you have to scroll up to the top and back down again.
  • The best way to combat the issue above is to use AJAX, which has accessibility and bandwidth issues.
  • Ultimately people are used to a staged approach. After each stage they can be reminded of what they are purchasing, what the information they entered in the previous step was, and they know they didn’t make an error in the process.

At some point we may see an “openID” sort of payment system that improves the check out process. Additionally people will eventually get used to AJAX and dynamic pages. Until that time comes, with e-commerce it is better to keep things simple and predictable than try and improve things in a way that could ultimately confuse users.

7 thoughts E-commerce Checkout, should we have steps or single page?

  1. Man, I wish I could of made it because I would of loved talking about this. There isn’t a “Best Solution” for this. I think it really depends on the site and the target user that is browsing your site. Testing different paths in the checkout process would be key to finding out the best solution. Having split path test where some users see 3 steps while others see 2 and all that mess.

    I don’t think the one page checkout is really the best solution either. Although you can do it with AJAX and have a system like Magento’s one page checkout the user is still completing the same amount of steps as they would in your normal checkout. I have seen some one page checkouts that are just ugly. As long as you are clearly telling the user what step they are on in the process and allow them to navigate back and forth easily, then I think you are fine. But I would limit the steps to the cart page and up to 3 steps up to the “thank you” page.

    Allowing the user to be able to edit their information on the review page is also key in my opinion. After the user has got to the point where the next step is push the button and charge my credit card I should be able to edit what is in my cart.

    Also with this making sure the user gets all the information such as shipping costs, taxes, and other important information as early in the process as possible to eliminate any abandonment when the user suddenly finds out they don’t have free shipping or something else that might surprise them. Stuff like is a product backordered and if so when will it be in stock.

    AJAX and one page checkouts are nice but doesn’t stop the user from abandoning the cart because of not showing them all the information they need to know to make the purchase early in the process.

  2. Oh also I will add allowing as many methods of payment a long with your own checkout to make the user fill comfortable. There are tons of payment options out there such as Google Checkout, Amazon, PayPal, Billmelater, that can save you from a possible lost conversion.

    Although sometimes I think whether having 5 different payment options is really necessary and would like to see some stats on how much of an increase in conversion it really gives you.

  3. Great input Dan, thanks for the experience and knowledge. Like you have said a lot of it is very situational, and you must really weight the pro’s in con’s. Ultimately it comes down to testing and what the numbers prove works and/or doesn’t work. Even similar situations could be very different site to site.

    However some companies are not in the fortunate position as yours where they have the developers and designers on staff to constantly test. They can build their site and launch it, but don’t have the resources to tweak and test.

  4. I totally agree Ross. Resources is still the biggest problem with all ecommerce shops big or small. We also don’t have all the resources to put on testing our sites as we should. Mainly because of other company agendas.

    In my opinion if you just build a site and launch it but don’t have the budget to either outsource the work to different firms or hire in house teams then there is something wrong with the business you are getting in and you are not going to last long. I can understand at the beginning but somewhere you have to have a plan for maintenance and upgrades. Even if you are a small store selling products out of your house.

    Sure Changing how the checkout works is a huge task, something we aren’t even able to do right now but simple tests can also be set up. If you can increase your conversion rate by just 10% that frees up more money to work with.

    I think everyone would love to be able to just have a site built for them and let it sell sell sell and never have to do anything but that just isn’t possible especially with today’s economy.

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  6. I have been working through some of the problems above as I implement a new e-commerce set up for my company. I have been toying with the idea of a small box with an order summary that ‘floats’ on the side of the screen so that while filling out the form they can still see the order and it’s subtotal. Not sure if this is the best solution but I think it has it’s merits.

  7. Great article, in my personal opinion the best way is to give the user always an option to go back and before you let them hit the “Order” button, give them an option to review there data on the End. When I buy something on the net, that is the moment I really stop and review my data befor hitting “order”.

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