There is no feeling worse than the one of being used. It brings forth thoughts of betrayal, and even retribution – certainly not the sentiments we want to evoke if the aim is to stay in business. Online shoppers routinely feel such emotions after visiting web sites to make purchases. Shoppers often find that information is outdated, irrelevant or difficult to locate. According to experts, up to 70% of shoppers to abandon their carts before completing the purchase.

E-tailers trying to address the issue are often putting the cart before the problem.

While one possible explanation for this dramatic abandonment rate could be that many shoppers are simply comparison shopping; the concern remains, however, that online shopping is not as compelling as it needs to be. E-tailers trying to address the issue are often putting the cart before the problem. User experience architects need to start thinking differently and review or even challenge the marketing department’s attitudes on pricing, promotions, product bundling or unbundling, message clarity, and many other elements that can draw shoppers to the site and, most importantly, keep them there. In many ways, UX professionals need to be as knowledgeable as marketers.

Where in the process are shoppers abandoning the cart? Are the screens preceding the checkout confusing? Was there an unfortunate surprise at checkout, such as high shipping costs or an unclear return/exchange policy? Is there a general fear of fraud or identify theft among the target audience? These are simple tactical troubleshooting questions, crucial to rectifying the abandonment trends.

Unsurprisingly, most shoppers are drawn to sites that engender feelings of professionalism and credibility. A poorly designed site will turn away buyers no matter how functional and secure it is. As simple as this may seem, this concept is frequently overlooked when designing technical functionality. Form and function need to be equally weighted when it comes to providing a positive user experience in e-commerce transactions. For example, buyers need to know if a product is available in a different color before spending time filling out a form.

Shoppers need to feel safe when handing over their information. The usual three-page security policy, written by lawyers in a seven-point font, is not usable by average customers and won’t help inform them as to why their transaction will be safe. While the legal form is necessary and contains elements that educate the consumer, there are other indicators throughout the shopping cart experience that can make a tremendous difference: placing privacy policies next to each email field or offering a basic explanation of the policy’s benefits helps put shoppers’ minds at ease. Including a telephone number will indicate to customers that they can always reach a person if they have any concerns or questions.

Here are a few of my other favorites for creating the right environment for the user:

  • Use the KISS approach for field entry. For example, don’t make them worry about whether to include dashes while entering their telephone numbers. Simplicity will help retain shoppers throughout the process.
  • No sloppy seconds with data entry. Try to keep information persistent so that if a user goes to a previous screen and then forward again his/her data is still there. It’s extremely frustrating to have to input something twice.
  • Are we there yet? Prominently display a progress indicator to let users know how far they’ve come and much further they have to go.
  • Think before you link. If buyers are on the action page, don’t distract them with lots of links. You are only helping them abandon their cart. Links of product images on other pages, however, can drive users to the action page.
  • Use English. If you mean “place order now” don’t write “submit” — similarly, offer helpful error messages in plain and informative language. If users have input too few digits for the credit card number, simply tell them it should have 16 characters. Also, over-zealous error messages with icons like skulls, bombs, or nuclear waste disposal signs all unnecessarily imply a doomsday scenario and undermine shoppers’ confidence.
  • Give a sneak peak. Before they place the order, show buyers a receipt that outlines what they will buy, when it will ship and where to, and costs with taxes and shipping and handling. Let them make changes on this confirmation screen, too.
  • Let them checkout! Cross-selling at the last minute can tempt buyers away from hitting the order button so any other offer needs to be integrated into the work-flow earlier in the process.

Problems with e-commerce transactions don’t lie with the customer. Remember that people are handing over their credit card numbers and are spending billions of dollars online. Instead, the challenges are within the design of the user experience. It requires best practices in terms of design and application ease-of-use, and it may also demand that user experience executives become customer experience experts in order to ensure the soundness of the e-tailer’s approach to the market.

About the author: Giovanni Calabro is User Experience Manager at Siteworx, “a different kind of web company” that combines design and technology in a way that creates maximum value for members and customers.