How to improve the purchasing process

I’m lucky. During the recent years I had the opportunity to work in the design and implementation of some of the most important Italian e-commerce websites.

It is interesting and instructive to work for an e-commerce website, because it’s not an end in itself, but it’s a support to the sale process and must not only work, but should work well, very well.

For those working in the field of user experience, an e-commerce website presents unique opportunities to propose and implement improvements to the site and check the result immediately.

Among the different areas of an e-commerce site I like to get to work on the checkout process because it represents a real challenge where each text, label, button must be filed and polished. The checkout process is composed by features that perform the dual purpose of proposing to the customer precise information about what it is supposed to do and to receive information on how she prefers to complete the purchase.

I think that performing multivariate testing sessions on a checkout process is an experience that every user experience specialist should have the possibility to try.

I planned several times to write about the checkout process with regards of user experience, but the topic is complex and an article of few paragraphs (or a chapter in a book) are likely to trivialize or don’t allow to appreciate the details and strategies that need to be addressed in designing a checkout process that works in all its aspects.

Even writing one or more checklists as a reference (I love checklists) makes little sense if they are not accompanied with a detailed document.

That’s why I prefer to present two interesting reports that analyze in detail the checkout process.

The first is E-Commerce Usability Checkout, written by Jamie Appleseed and Christian Holst of the Baymard Institute. It is based on sessions of usability tests that involved 10 users browsing 15 e-commerce sites: 1-800-Flowers, AllPosters, American Apparel, Amnesty Shop, Apple, HobbyTron, Levi’s, Newegg, Nordstrom, Oakley,, PetSmart, Thomann, Walmart and Zappos.

The result are 63 guidelines grouped into 6 categories (data input, copywriting, layout, navigation, flow, focus) that in 140 pages deal with a wealth of examples, both positive and negative, regarding the checkout process. Some guidelines are definitely known to those involved in user experience (such as the design of forms, a topic dealt with detail by Luke Wroblewski in Web Forms Design), others are perhaps less obvious.

It’s a pity that only few of the many examples are devoted to the cart page, since it is closely and logically related to the checkout process and so it’s perhaps the most important of the whole process.

Interesting it’s the inclusion in the appendix of a 4-page checklist ready to print.

The report costs $ 78.

The second study that I want to present is E-Commerce User Experience, vol. 4: Shopping Cart, Checkout and Registration written by Amy Schade and Jakob Nielsen of the Nielsen Norman Group. The file is one of a series of 13 other e-commerce reports, but it is sold individually for $ 98.

And it’s money spent well, because the authors do not skimp guidelines and examples, so that the report covers more than 300 pages full of screenshots, tables, in-depth analysis and best practices.

In this case the report is based on a previous version made in 2000 that has been updated with the results of user and eye tracking testing based in several European, American and Asian cities.

Compared to the report of the Institute Baymard, that of the Nielsen Norman Group is more thorough and therefore certainly requires some effort to be studied in all its parts. Often the most interesting indications are not so much in the guideline itself, but in the details presented in the text.

The report can’t however be defined boring to read, since the authors often quote the expressions used by the users during the test (just to give you an example: “That’s really a pain in the ass”).

Which one of the two reports buy? If it does not scare you to study more than 300 pages, the report of the Nielsen Norman Group is certainly thorough and detailed, but if you are interested in a briefer report, but still rich in examples, and a with a handy checklist ready to print and apply, the report of the Institute Baymard represents an excellent alternative, which also allows you to save a few bucks.

Recruitment and social networks

Two reports, published by Jobvite, analyze the relationship between social media and recruitment, with special regards to the American job market.

They are 33 essential recruiting stats and Job Seeker Social Survey 2011. In short:

  • 55% of the companies surveyed plan to invest more resources in the next year for recruiting with social networks
  • more than 80% of companies use LinkedIn, but just 30% of job seekers is in LinkedIn
  • 89% of the U.S. companies surveyed indicated their willingness to use social networking as a tool for recruiting
  • LinkedIn is confirmed, with 73% of usage, the largest social network in terms of recruitment, followed by Facebook (20%) and Twitter (7%)
  • 2/3 of the companies surveyed have hired thanks to social networks

On the same topic there are two interesting infographics published by Mashable, the first with suggestions on how to protect and improve the professional online presence, the second presenting the results of a survey based on recruiters and the relationship with social networks.

And, speaking of statistics and surveys, I remind you that also this year A List Apart published one for anyone who works with the web. Starting from the results of a previews survey, in 2008 I tried to give an interpretation to better understand the role of the web project manager.

PMBOK and agile development

A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK) is considered the bible of project management. Bible in that it deals with every facet of project management by means of 5 process groups (initiating, planning, executing, monitoring and controlling, closing). Bible also for its size, more than 400 pages packed with concepts that often scare who is studying to become a Project Management Professional.

Thanks to this reputation, concepts expressed in the PMBOK could seem far from the agile development methodology and some weeks ago I expressed my opinions regarding this topic in the Web Project Management FAQ.

And now Forrester publishes on its site an interesting (but not free) report, The PMBOK and agile: friends or foes?, that deepens these arguments.

Starting from the differences between PMBOK and agile development, the authors soon highlight several points of contact between these 2 approaches. But it’s the last part of the report, where they state that it’s possible to combine the strengths of both to optimize outcomes, the more interesting.

In particular, an agile developer can find in the PMBOK:

  • a help to clearly define project initiation and closeure;
  • a guide to effectively communicate with all the stakeholders;
  • clear directives for risk management.

Conversely, an agile methology can help traditional project managers in:

  • defining roles and responsibilities across teams, giving individuals the opportunity to learn from each others and to plan collectively;
  • encouraging teams to focus on detailed planning of smaller blocks and using that knowlegde to influence future planning;
  • building stronger relationships with customers;
  • writing the “right” amount of documentation.