With Christmas fast approaching, it looks like retailers will need to fight for every penny. One surefire way of increasing profits is to focus on the usability of your checkout, since the average cart abandonment rate is reported to be around 60%.

But since we're already in December, it's unlikely you've got time to run a usability test on your own checkout before the Christmas rush. Don't panic, here's a list of 9 guidelines that we've derived from observing participants in usability tests of dozens of e-commerce checkouts.

  • Ask the minimum number of questions
  • Address security concerns
  • Use consistent and standard form controls
  • Place error messages next to the entries that need correcting
  • Once in the checkout, remove site-wide navigation
  • Ask questions in a logical order with the easy questions first
  • Confirm the order before and after submission
  • Remove sales barriers by addressing common questions
  • Recognise loyal customers

Ask the minimum number of questions

How many times have you been asked to complete a form during checkout and thought, "Why is it asking me that?" Every extra form field is an opportunity for the customer to both make a mistake and decide that the transaction isn't worth the effort. In particular, we've observed that asking the customer for what might be perceived as irrelevant information (such as asking for "business name" when buying a book) can cause the customer to abort the transaction. Your form should ask for the absolute minimum amount of information needed to complete the transaction.

Address security concerns

Security concerns are an important barrier to online sales and we're noticing that customers are increasingly wary about providing personal information. Customers will expect you to prove that your site is secure and that other people cannot access their personal details. You can address these concerns by explaining how customer details will be used (in your site's privacy policy), and by giving visual feedback to the customer that the connection is secure (i.e. the "padlock" icon with an https connection). In our tests, people look out for these features and comment positively on them.

Use consistent and standard form controls

You can design virtually any form with these five standard HTML form elements:

  • Drop-down menus
  • Radio buttons
  • Check boxes
  • Text entry fields
  • Command buttons

In our tests, sites that use these standard form elements always perform better than sites that use custom widgets or a non-HTML, Flash-based checkout. And when you use these form elements, use them properly: for example, use radio buttons when the user must select 1 from n options and check boxes when the user can select more than one option. Also be sure to use text fields only for freeform text, like names and passwords. Many common fields (like post codes and phone numbers) have an underlying data structure that you can echo in the design of the form and reduce the need for data validation.

Place error messages next to the entries that need correcting

If the user has entered incorrect data or forgotten to complete a field, get the web page to highlight the specific fields that need to be fixed. Don't ask the user to scroll through the form to find the error. And explain to the user why the entry is wrong or needed, perhaps with an example. We've seen people resubmit the same form several times because they can't work out what they are meant to do to make the error message disappear.

Once in the checkout, remove site-wide navigation

Once customers are in the checkout on route to purchase, ruthlessly eradicate distractions. When customers make a purchase, we've found that site navigation serves only to distract customers from completing their order. Removing it eliminates a key distracter and helps the customer to focus on the checkout process and complete the purchase.

Ask questions in a logical order with the easy questions first

When customers enter a checkout process they have expectations about the order in which they will be asked for information. For example, customers will expect to be asked for their name before their address and for their address details before their payment details. Make sure your design follows these expectations. Just as importantly, customers need to be drawn into the checkout process with easy questions. Asking a customer for his or her name is an easy question that requires virtually no thought. In contrast, if the first question you ask customers is "Do you want to receive marketing communication from ourselves and our trusted partners?" the customer will need to think through what this means and this will cause some customers to abandon their basket. It's OK to ask this question later in the process; just make sure the first few questions are easy ones.

Confirm the order before and after submission

Before customers commit to their order they will want to review it and amend it if necessary. So explain clearly what has been ordered, how much it will cost and when and where it will be delivered, and allow customers to change these options. Once the order has been completed, customers again need confirmation that the order is being processed. So show a confirmation page describing the contents of the order and the expected delivery date. Provide customers with an order number with a link to a printable version of the order and confirm the order by e-mail.

Remove sales barriers by addressing common questions

When you make a purchase in a high street store, you sometimes have a question for the sales person (such as, "Can I return it if it doesn't fit?", "Can I pay by credit card?", and "Can you gift wrap it?") When you make a purchase on the internet, you have the same questions, plus a few more (such as, "What is the postage charge?", "What are my shipping options?" and "How long will it take to arrive?"). Without a salesperson to answer these questions, your web site has to answer them at the right point of the transaction. Sites that anticipate likely barriers to a sale (such as the returns policy) do much better in our tests than sites that don't. Because you can never anticipate every question, make sure you include a telephone number that customers can call for support.

Recognise loyal customers

Loyal customers generate repeat business, demonstrate immunity to the competition, provide higher margins and are less price sensitive. You need to make it as easy as possible for these customers to do business with you. For a checkout process, this means providing "one click" purchase functionality, remembering details such as home and delivery addresses, and auto-completing forms.

If you want to increase your profits this Christmas, you'll find it's much cheaper to double your conversion rate through improved usability than to fund the necessary marketing efforts required to double your audience. For example, research by Jakob Nielsen shows that spending 10% of your development budget on usability will improve your conversion rate by 83%. So test your checkout against these 9 guidelines and spot areas for improvement.


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