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The Road to eCommerce Ruin (or Nirvana) is Paved with "In-Betweens"

Last week, I bought a washer/dryer online from a large home goods store.

It was a terrible idea.

But it didn't have to be, had the home goods store not overlooked the importance of user-centric design in the checkout flow.

Ecommerce becomes a bigger business every day. These days, items of all shapes, sizes and intricacies are sold online. Due to this, it becomes ever more important to mind the details within a shopping experience. A particular user-centric element that's important to look for, measure and design to are the tiny details Lou Rosenfeld calls, “the in-betweens. "In-betweens" are the myriad bits of information users need to be aware of while shopping online that, when present, can make their experience sublime. Bits like smart cross-promotions, necessary add-ons, optional add-ons - any sort of important "connection" that a user should be (or could be) making while he or she is trying to successfully buy something online.

When any of those key "connections" are missing on the road to purchase, it can result in an unseen multi-car pileup just around the corner.

Lacking the In-Between

My multi-car pileup started with the first missing user-centric connection. It occurred when I put a washer in my cart. Instead of immediately being given the option to purchase the washer's counterpart, I was met with a zip code entry and then a warranty selector. Before going too far, I backed out, looking for the dryer pair. It wasn't clearly marked on the product page either. I think I found it under the sidebar "Shoppers who viewed this item purchased…" after weeding through other meaningless suggestions.

This was a fantastic opportunity for the company to recognize a specific situation that needed a specific piece of functionality - an "in-between." As a user, I needed an explicit, separate and clear link to purchase the product's natural pair, at least as an option. (Spoiler alert: I hadn't actually found the correct dryer.)

Not Recognizing the Emotional State of Your Users

The second missing user-centric connection occurred when I finally went through the cart process. I was met with a series of decision pages. First, the warranty, then a page with a list of "Required Parts and Services," followed by a list of "Optional Parts and Services." This was good. Putting aside where and how, it is generally a good experience to step the user through any pieces that are necessary to the purchase at some point in the process. These are "connections." As we've learned, they're important.

So because the site had these pages, I immediately felt at ease. I trusted that this large company had done their homework, had learned what they needed to offer when a user put a washer/dryer in his cart, and all I needed to do was check the boxes and I'd be good as gold.

As an aside, a more nuanced aspect of designing for the user experience in e-commerce is recognizing and respecting the emotional state of the user. Realize that you, the behemoth, money-flush company who has been well-established in the industry, is a steward of the user's trust because of that. Users want to, should be able to (indeed, are forced to) believe these companies have spent some of that cash on making their e-commerce site a 100% perfect experience. It doesn't seem like a far fetched thing to ask of them. "If company X is offering the ability to buy online, they must be sure it'll work, right?"

So I was in trust mode at this point. I trusted that I was looking at the necessary pieces needed to install the particular items I had in my cart. I happily clicked the boxes for a couple of installation parts. For the optional selections, I even more happily clicked the "haul-away" option and nothing else.

Fast forward a week to the day two guys lugged a washer and dryer into my kitchen, took one look at the gas line running to the old dryer and said, "we can't touch this." To which I said, "huh?"

I knew it was a gas dryer. I even made sure the new one I bought was gas as well, I even happily clicked the little box that said, "Gas Dryer Installation Kit" in the checkout. I had done everything right to ensure a smooth installation, at least as far as I could know. Turns out the second missing user-experience connection was that "Gas Dryer Installation Kit" was not all it appeared to be. I found this out after the guys had left, two uninstalled appliances sat in my kitchen, two old appliances sat still installed in my wash room, and I was on the phone with the large home goods store for an hour.

What the checkout had not made clear was that "Gas Dryer Installation Kit" was simply the "kit," not the actual "installation." In fact, the installation was another option, one which I pointed out to the (admittedly kind) customer service person was not in the "required parts" list that I had trusted to give me the full picture of this transaction. This was met with confusion, until she did a little digging and realized that the reason it was not in the list was because of that little zip code thing I had breezed right through. In Massachusetts, no one but a licensed plumber can touch a gas line.

So the actual "installation" of the dryer was never going to happen, regardless of what I happily selected on that checkout page. The system was smart enough to know what not to show me, but never bothered to tell me what I truly needed to understand. It was a very important missing "in-between."

Putting the Pieces Together

After I haggled my way to future plans to clean up this mess, I noticed that the washer/dryer sitting alone in my kitchen sported separate series numbers. This is when I realized that missing user-experience connection number one had reared it's ugly head and left me with a slightly mismatched pair of appliances.

This mattered because the third missing user-experience connection was that the site had neglected to include in it's list of necessary items to purchase: a stacking kit. This was presumably because the system didn't know that I was trying to buy a matching pair and/or knew I hadn't picked a matching pair and/or whatever…the net result was that I had no stacking kit when and if I ever got someone to install these things for me.

I ended up going out myself to buy the stacking kit (not knowing for sure if it would work on a mismatched pair) so that my local plumbing company could come in and finally clean up the mess. Luckily, it worked and another week later, the entire transaction was, finally, complete.

Rosenfeld referred to the in-betweens as "missing metrics." They are the tiny connections born of user expectation, trust and the specific purchasing situation that users expect to see as they are purchasing specific items on your site. They go missing because they require close user research and a dedication to constantly studying your approach to catch them - a commitment many large companies (and even UX professionals) simply don't (or can't) make, even though most users expect they have.

I've worked on large e-commerce sites long enough to understand the incredible amounts of tiny, intricate connections and data a large company has to keep track of for a transaction like mine to go completely smoothly. It's hard. But isn't it worth it? I may never shop at this place again because of this experience. I may disparage this brand to my friends and family. I suppose that may not hurt their bottom line all that much, but multiply it by all their users, and it might. If a brand wins over every user with a great online shopping experience, that translates to huge dividends.

And while there is a lot to keep track of, a lot that can go wrong, it's also not rocket science. It simply requires a commitment to getting in the head of your users. Study what you're doing, talk to them, hire a UX professional.

For both companies selling online and for UX professionals working to help them sell online, spending time on the metrics of the "in-betweens" is a connection not to be missed.

 

By: Scott Sonia
Date Published: September 29, 2011


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