10 ways to improve the usability of your e-commerce site

10 ways to improve the usability of your e-commerce websiteWith more and more consumers spending time on the web looking for online bargains (let’s be honest, if I see a game for £27.99 online but £34.99 in shops then I wouldn’t be thinking twice either) instead of shops, companies must ask themselves if their website is not only showing the right prices, but is also usable enough to order items from.

In 2005 there was a huge wave of online shops reworking their ordering processes to make them more usable and accessible to people, which was a sounding success for many companies. These days however more offline stores are trying to expand to the web and are asking for advice. Here are ten ways to improve the usability of your e-commerce site to maximise your conversion rate and help convert ‘browsing your wares’ into ‘placing an order’:

1. Make your products stand out

One of the most important factors of an e-commerce site is the products – people come to your site because of them, so make sure you display them properly. Each product requires an image, a description, technical information (if applicable) and ideally more than one image to show the customer what it is and what it does. Some e-commerce websites are still trying to get away with showing as little as possible – well, those are the ones with the low number of online sales.

2. Relate to the products

Aside from the usual product information highlighted above, it makes sense to give the customer additional information before he / she can make a decision and buy a product. Information such as “Other products you may like” or “People who ordered this item also ordered…” are very helpful. If you want to add even more value, why not allow users to rate or review products?

3. Break up the ordering process

Depending on your website and what requirements you have to order, the ordering process can be quite complex. Typically, users enter a delivery address, a delivery method, enter payment details and confirm the order. I have seen a couple of new e-commerce websites that try to put everything into one screen. This will look daunting, and error recovery (as mentioned here) can become a big problem for users.

Breaking the ordering process up into smaller chunks allows users to go through every required task one step at a time. They will have less to think about and more chance of making sure everything is right.

Your standard ordering process may look like this:

  1. Login
  2. Choose a delivery method
  3. Choose a delivery address
  4. Enter payment details
  5. Review and confirm the order


4. Where are they? Where do they go? – show progress

One of the 10 usability heuristics is: “user control” -> a user should always know where they are and how many steps are still required to complete a process.

Users wanting to purchase an item online would need to know how long they are likely to spend on a website still. Let your users know where they are in the ordering / booking process, and what steps they still need to go through. A simple process as illustrated below may do the trick:

Sample booking steps
Sample booking steps


5. Simplify the ordering process (if possible)

Some e-commerce websites tend to overcomplicate the buying process slightly by asking users to enter their credit card details with dashes (i.e. “1234-5678-9012-3456” instead of “1234567890123456”) or having to enter each batch of 4 digits into their own little box, or having to enter the month in the expiry date (i.e. “Mar 10” instead of “03 / 10”).

It may not sound that different, but it requires a user to think about what they are doing, having to pause for a moment, having to check the fields and – if they made a mistake – having to go back and click on another box to change an entry.

If a customer is already planning to spend money with you, then at least think about how the step could be simplified.

6. Provide help

Throughout the ordering / booking process users may have questions:

Why is that there? What do I need to enter here? Why do I need to enter that piece of information?

Think about the ordering process, does it make sense to you? Can you make certain steps easier by adding a line of text or a notes-field next to it? This is where usability testing does definetly come in handy – let someone other than those working on the site to have a go at it, observe where they stumble, ask a question or are entering the wrong information. If you are asking for a contact number for a person not going on holiday then why not tell them that this is purely for the worst-case scenario if anything happens.

7. Highlight requirements

As with every form we have to fill out, we ask yourselves “Do we need to enter all that??” There is nothing more annoying than having filled out a form, pressing “next” or “submit”, just to find out we didn’t enter a certain field and the form is not validating.

Please highlight required fields, be it through the use of a red asterisk or changing the colour of the text field to a different colour (both ways are very common).

8. Be flexible

One thing that comes always back during user-testing of booking forms is the “post code lookup” section of a form. Some prefer to just enter the details right there and then, others are happy with entering the post code and entering “look up”. I encountered one user who had a post code that did not list her house number for her post code, meaning she could not continue with the booking process, meaning loss of a £360 booking for the website.

Make sure your ordering or booking process is as flexible as possible, potentially even allow users only to enter the bare minimum to complete an order (as in name, address, card details, that’s it).

9. Provide security

Online shopping has been shaken up a couple of years ago with more and more e-commerce sites pretending to be “legit” or having bad security measures in place to ensure your contact and (more importantly) your payment details are safe and secure between you and the company.

It is important that you put users’ security concerns at ease. Make sure you tell users that the ordering process is secure, don’t only tell them that in your privacy policy, but why not also display that piece of information right next to the “payment details” section?

10. Provide a means of confirmation prior to and after the booking / purchase

How often did you go through an online booking or ordering process, just to remember at the last minute that you also needed to buy something else or that you accidentally clicked on the wrong seat or entered the wrong return date?

Having a final confirmation step prior to submitting the order / booking should always be provided, so that users know what they ordered, what they are getting and when the order is coming / when they are going on holiday. This should include information such as:

  • The products / services ordered
  • The order number / booking reference number
  • Confirmed travellers
  • The travel dates and flight information
  • Tracking information
  • Payment information (end digits of the card, costs, vat, delivery charges, etc)

Once a user has placed their order or made a booking, a confirmation e-mail should be sent out to the email address provided. This email should contain all the information listed above and provide an email address and (preferably) a contact telephone number for any questions.


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  • Westley Knight

    March 9, 2009

    A very good list of points, but, yep, you’ve guessed it, I would add one more to it; Remove the need for a user to register with the website.

    It’s quite surprising the amount of users who find your e-commerce website, find what they’re looking for, off they go to the checkout and are then confronted with the ‘Register’ button, and trot off somewhere else to buy their goods.

    There are a great deal of users out there who want to buy things but don’t want to form a relationship with the website they buy from.

    Replacing register with a phrase like ‘Continue’, or giving the option for a user to register or buy something as a ‘Guest’ will allow the user the feeling of freedom to purchase without having to ‘commit themselves to the relationship’.

    I think this relates to the usability of an e-commerce site, since this is something that can actually prevent a user from completing the shopping cart process, albeit on the part of the user. It might also boost your sales a bit

  • Brett

    June 1, 2009

    Hi, yes in my experience, the register button does tend to put people off buying ‘right at the last minute’. At least give them the option of not registering. I’ve found there are two main types of people who will visit your e-commerec site. Those who are not bothered about your site but have a need to buy something at the best possible price and those who like your site and maybe the way you do business and are interested enough to want to come back, but may not have the intension (or need) to buy something there and then. It is the latter of these who will (and will gladly) register, but usually you don’t get both.

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