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.