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Time for It to Take a Lead

Time for It to Take a Lead

The checkout process needs to be as simple as possible for customers to use. However, that shouldn’t be an excuse for retailers to be complacent and not to try new design approaches, advises Jonathan Wright

If there’s just one subject that just about everyone involved ecommerce can agree upon, it’s that the checkout process needs to be as smooth and easy for consumers as possible. Once a customer has decided to buy an item and he or she is headed for the digital till, trying to prolong the conversation may only result in the customer abandoning a shopping cart in frustration. Keep it simple (stupid) and sales will surely follow.

“Every single one of your customers has to complete the checkout to pay,” points out Mo Syed, head of user experience at ecommerce technology company Amplience . “That’s not true for every part of your site, for your home page or certain [product] categories, but it is true absolutely for every single part of your logged-in or guest checkout.”

Despite this, it’s surprising how many retailers appear to think little about the design of the checkout process. In the worst cases, even as the rest of the website is revamped, going to pay can be like suddenly visiting an earlier iteration of a site.

“It’s often hard for designers to snap themselves out of just sleepwalking through a design because there’s such an accepted format for the checkout,” continues Mo Syed. “They’re so similar that you rarely see an unusually different checkout. And that’s a really big missed opportunity because it is one of the areas where innovating or rethinking or experimenting through A/B testing or otherwise could potentially yield you massive returns.”

So how should retailers go about getting these returns? It’s a more difficult question than it might first appear. On the one hand, the elegantly straightforward Amazon sales funnel has been widely copied for a good reason, it works. Moreover, customers have become familiar with this way of doing things. Against this, there may be gains to be made from being innovative, but how do you guard against getting ahead of what consumers expect of the checkout process?

If that weren’t tricky enough in itself, retailers need to consider other developments too. Will the rise of crosschannel retail lead to changes in the way checkouts look and work? How will the adoption of new kinds of devices, from smartphones to smart TVs, affect things? What about the myriad delivery options that many retailers now offer – and indeed have to offer? How should retailers tackle new markets where, for example, consumers expect to see different payment options?

These aren’t abstract questions for designers, they’re live issues. As Jamus Driscoll , senior VP of marketing with ecommerce technology company Demandware notes as he explains why “responsiveness and adaptability” are key attributes for successful crosschannel retailers: “Opportunity is everywhere. Whether a retailer can take advantage is directly correlated to how fast they can move.”


Before moving on to look at the questions posed above in more detail, it’s worth pausing to emphasise that the basics really do matter here. “The simpler and easier the checkout process is for consumers, whatever the format of that checkout, the greater probability and propensity that they’re going to complete that checkout, and therefore that the purchase or sale is made,” advises Leigh Whitney, managing director of digital agency Design UK. “Any obstacles along that journey, or anything that distracts them or takes them away from that forward momentum in the checkout can lead to an exit and therefore a lost sale. A large part of getting checkouts right is about building and maintaining that forward momentum.” Of course, this was far simpler in an age when those shopping online could be relied upon to be using a PC. These days, customers jump between devices, doing research on a smartphone, for example, before buying via a PC and arranging to pick up goods from the store – and that’s a simple example of a cross-channel journey. Once you start to introduce these kinds of steps, it’s all too easy to loose that crucial momentum.

One way to tackle this problem is to think of the shopping basket as a kind of intermediate stage between browsing and committing to buying. At least where it’s possible to identify customers, retailers need to make it as easy as possible for customers to access items saved for later, something Amazon do well.

“It’s the kind of temporary holding place that would work well across channels, so if I go in and I speak to someone and my identity with that retailer is visible within an in-store kiosk, I can add it to my basket, save [an item] for later, and then come back and buy it a month later from my desktop PC,” says Mo Syed.

This also helps to get around the problem of customers using devices where it’s fiddly to key in details, something that’s only going to become more of an issue as smartphones and tablets increasingly supersede the PC as the devices of choice for ecommerce. “Because of mobile and tablet people are much more acutely aware of how painful it is to input stuff,” says Mo Syed. “Of course, it was always painful to input stuff…”

In great part because of this, designers at the very least need to be aware of the way payment technology is developing, to be keeping up with the plethora of e-wallets and new ideas that get around the keyboard problem – while at the same time recognising that not all of these will succeed.

“We don’t know yet how the new payment types are going to be working,” says Jamus Driscoll. “PayPal, certainly, is making a great push on stores: but how well will that be absorbed? We don’t know yet, but we know that it’s not unlikely change is going to happen very, very quickly. We think everyone needs to be thinking with highly responsive architectures in mind.”


Driscoll’s emphasis on reacting quickly to change is pertinent here because it captures the tension between a design imperative towards simplicity and the complexities introduced by new kinds of customer behaviour. This isn’t just down to the burgeoning cross-channel world. Even the question of how to present delivery options can trip up unwary retailers. “You can have store delivery, you can have [goods] delivered to the post office, you can have delivered to the local newsagent in the form of a Collect+ delivery,” points out Leigh Whitney. “You’ve got am, pm, same day, avoid school run, next-day delivery, three-days delivery, Saturday delivery, man-on-a-running-bike delivery, sameday-within-the-M25 delivery. All those delivery options and electronic delivery as well, and all of those delivery options require different information or certain sets of information to be provided in order to deliver that fulfilment.”

None of this exactly encourages simplicity within the checkout process. “As soon as you want to offer this breadth of delivery options to the consumer, you need space within the design to do it,” adds Whitney.


These kinds of design problems only multiply when companies look overseas. While the UK and US checkout model is even now based primarily around credit and debit cards, that’s not necessarily the case even elsewhere within the developed world. In Germany, for example, many customers prefer to pay by cheque or bank transfer.

Designing checkouts and payment routes that are specific to different territories can be an expensive business. However, cost considerations need to be balanced against the fact that customers presented with unfamiliar payment options will often become suspicious, a sure route to shopping cart abandonment.

“What we see in the minds of retailers who are looking at running in lots of different countries is how do they manage the complexity of having lots of different payment options and having countries, and having country-specific and/or cultural-specific payments without really inflating the cost of operating and running the business?” says Jamus Driscoll. “Historically, payments have been a very big challenge and create a lot of complexity when you’re trying to go into five, 10, 15 different markets.

“We’re seeing a lot of emphasis from our retailers on how do they adopt ‘right’ in-market payments in a way that is a lot more flexible, a lot more agile than historically has been the norm.”

Again, it’s a remark that might be applied more generally to the design of digital checkouts because, while the idea of the slick, easy-to-use sales funnel hasn’t gone away, it’s increasingly clear that it’s not enough in itself simply to rely on received wisdom around best practice here.

If that sounds an obvious point to make – it’s hardly rocket science to suggest that companies need to monitor business practices as a guard against complacency – it’s worth returning to the first point we made here, that too often retailers don’t focus enough on the checkout process. One of the reasons this feature doesn’t focus more on the brave new world of service design, e-wallets, smartphones and how to present alternative payment options is because of this.

“The checkout is not about communicating the quality of your products, the checkout is about one thing and one thing alone, and that’s reducing the interaction costs of completing the payment, completing the transaction process,” says Mo Syed.

“That’s what the checkout is for, and that type of deign, where you’re just ruthlessly squeezing, and refining and refining and refining, and removing interaction costs and friction in that process, that’s something that people in ecommerce don’t really do that much.”

Speaking from Experience



“I would be very transparent about what [a site’s] security requirements are. A lot of legitimate customers will try and deliver to a work address, or try and deliver to a relative’s address. They might expect to be able to do that because a form doesn’t implicitly say something otherwise. And they’ll trip a fraud constraint, and the transaction will either get stuck in limbo, where it’ll need to be manually authorised, which is a really bad experience, or it’ll just be marked off as fraud.

Mo Syed, head of usability, Amplience



“We have a checkout model which we’ve spent years and years developing now. It’s not something you can do on a project, you have to spend quite a lot of time doing it, and you end up far more with a standardised model where you can swap different payment methods, payment devices, or delivery methods and delivery devices, subject to what the geography is you’re trying to target.”

Leigh Whitney, managing director, Design UK



“I think the most exciting methods of payment for cross-channel are still out there a ways. When we start talking about near-field communication and payment by phone, and things of that nature, things really become dynamic. We haven’t quite got there yet.”

Jamus Driscoll, senior VP of marketing, Demandware

What’s changed

Not enough. Even as ecommerce and old-fashioned shopping evolve into cross-channel retail, and we enter a world where all kinds of different devices will be connected to the internet, too many designers still don’t take the checkout process seriously enough. A key message from the usability experts we interviewed for this feature is clear: innovate and test, and then innovate and test again.

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