Ecommerce checkout best practice: trends and common mistakes

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Last week, we launched ClickZ Intelligence, through which we’ll be offering best practice guides, digital market data and trends. 

One of the report we launched with is the excellent Ecommerce Checkout Best Practice Guide, written by James Gurd, with contributions from many ecommerce practitioners.

I’ve been asking James about the new report, how checkout optimisation has developed over the past decade, and the mistakes retailers are still making…

How has checkout best practice evolved over the past ten years?

There has been a rapid increase in the level of understanding of user experience design across ecommerce teams, and the rise of in-house CX specialists is helping digital teams focus checkout design and optimisation around user journeys, based on user-cantered design.

More recently, two key factors have been shaping checkout optimisation: mobile and internationalisation. Mobile growth has increased the demand on ecommerce teams to streamline the checkout and understand the different user needs in a mobile journey, such as mobile payment options.

More brands are selling beyond their borders now as the barriers to international commerce are lower online. This adds complexity in terms of content localisation, local payment methods and international taxes. As more companies embrace mobile and international, there is more learning in the market for other brands to learn from, which accelerates improvements in core good practice.

What are the biggest challenges in checkout optimisation?

The first is knowing what’s not working and why. Analytics data can pinpoint issues but you need a wider data set to understand why they’re happening. This means using techniques like usability studies and user testing to add context.

The second big challenge is deciding where to prioritise investment in improvements. To do this you need to understand the impact of change on your KPIs, which means having a robust data set and all key data points mapped, including full funnel visibility. You need to identify which levers to press to drive the biggest improvements.

The third is establishing a sensible mechanism for testing changes. The checkout is such a critical part of an ecommerce website that you shouldn’t just go ahead and make changes without first testing the impact and validating that they deliver incremental improvements, and don’t just improve one thing whilst worsening another.

Are there still obvious mistakes that retailers are making during checkout?

Oh yes, far too many! Here’s my top six annoyances:

  1. Pages not optimised for mobile, simply using the desktop version shrunk into a mobile browser viewport
  2. Poor form structure and validation e.g. don’t flag errors until the entire form is submitted
  3. Not making it clear that you don’t ship to my country until I’m halfway through the checkout.
  4. Hidden payment charges that spike the order value e.g. AXS events adding a ‘convenience charge’ when buying etickets.AXS surcharge
  5. Forcing users to enter full addresses manually without using a lookup and validation tool.
  6. Useless error messages e.g. Payment fails and you’re taken to a new page with a long text message saying you need to try again – why?

Have you seen much innovation in checkout design, or is this an area where departing from the norm is risky? 

Not huge amounts, it’s more about seeing websites iteratively test the UX and design and make gradual improvements. Much is made of AO.com’s single page checkout, and it works really well, but I’ve also seen multi-step checkouts that are easy to use.

There are some basic expectations amongst consumers, so you don’t want to deviate too far from the norm. For me it’s the little light bulb moments where a brand has realised that a core checkout feature can be radically improved by rethinking the user journey.

A good example is PayPal – it was initially left to the payment page, which doesn’t make sense as PayPal already has all the user data needed to make the transaction.

PayPal then started appearing as a CTA on the basket page to speed up checkout, which can work wonders on mobile. It can add data flow complexity for the development team but it’s the cleanest design in terms of UX.

paypal cta

Who is the checkout guide aimed at? 

The primary audience is ecommerce practitioners who have a responsibility for online trading and conversion, from managers through to Directors. It’s also a handy reference guide for agencies and consultants who support client-side ecommerce teams.

There’s a mix of client side ecommerce experts from brands including Coast, Joseph Joseph and Pets Pyjamas, and specialist digital agencies and consultants, including GPMD, Graphitas, Evosite, Ampersand and Blueleaf.

How can ecommerce teams use this report?

checkout packshot

We’ve designed it to be capability based, rather than general trends and insights. So the modern checkout is broken down into 34 core capabilities, and each is structured to provide insight into best practice, provide key tips and a take-away checklist.

This enables ecommerce teams to objectively evaluate their current checkout and create a benchmark against these good practice guidelines. It can also help inform testing and optimisation plans, by providing a baseline against which to assess current strength and weaknesses, and identify gaps in UX.

Because the report is modular, you can dip in to specific capabilities, or read the entire report. This means it’s a flexible reference guide that can be used as and when needed, and different people in your business can use different sections depending on what their learning objectives are.

Stats in the checkout report show abandonment rates on the increase, why do you think this is?

More and more people turning to mobile where conversion rates still lag, though I expect the gap to close.

Greater savviness on the part of consumers in terms of how to buy online and how to get the best prices – leads to more baskets being created as ‘holding pens’ where the user won’t commit until they’re sure they can’t get a better price

What can firms do to the checkout process to attract more repeat business? How do you balance this with the need for smooth transactions?

Make it as quick and easy as possible to sign in to an existing account and pay.

This includes:

  1. Support social sign-in (If relevant to your audience) and let users link social accounts to registered accounts – ASOS does this really well.asos social sign in
  2. Let users store card details for quick payment – this doesn’t have to add PCI DSS compliance requirements, can be done through a PCI DSS compliant payment gateway.
  3. Ensure users can set default billing and delivery addresses so these can be pre-set on the next checkout (and that they can be edited before final payment is made).
  4. If a user has selected delivery to store in previous orders, remember which stores so these can be shown in a convenient list for quick selection.
  5. For users with loyalty cards, ensure these can be saved against the online account and online purchase automatically collect points (and the card can be used to redeem points before making payment)

How you you approach checkout optimisation with clients? What has worked for you?

Start by understanding the situation – platform, checkout flow, development challenges, known barriers, customer insights etc. Speak to people who can give anecdotal, or structured, feedback e.g. Customer service team field lots of customer enquiries, so what can we learn?

  • Look at the data – what is happening, where, what can we learn and what issues can we identify?
  • UX assessment vs. competitors – walk the checkout on different devices and browsers as if you are a customer, and see what they see (sometimes I ask friends to do a dummy order and give me free feedback).
  • Optimisation hypotheses – crunch all the data points to come up with hypotheses for ‘why’ the issues are happening, then start to look at what potential solutions might be.
  • Testing – run tests to validate hypotheses, which can include doing usability studies before putting tests live online (usability can help with hypothesis validation)

What works is to keep good practice in mind but not make assumptions before you’ve looked at the situation and context.

Sometimes there are genuine reasons why a website is doing something that at face value doesn’t look like it ticks the good practice box.

For example, some companies need a user to register before placing an order which is counter-intuitive to the guest checkout mantra we preach.

For more information on our Checkout Best Practice Guide, as well as guides on mobile commerce, customer experience, and social customer service, head to ClickZ Intelligence

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