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Aug 2006

The Frustration of E-Commerce

One of the most frustrating online experiences is, without a doubt, completing an online transaction without knowing for sure whether the transaction has been properly concluded. Our team had this frustrating experience twice in one morning this week. I tried to buy a book online (traditional paper format) and Joëlle tried to buy an electronic document. We went to two different sites and followed two different processes, but we got the same result: lack of data confirming the transaction.

This type of experience is frustrating because it’s a clear task with a clear goal and a result the user expects; all the more so because it’s a financial transaction. In Brazil, they say that our pockets are the most sensitive parts of our bodies ;=)

An online purchase involves a significant number of variables, meaning that the possibility for errors is great. Further, this is not the type of experience that ends on the site when the user clicks the last button: the transaction is not truly concluded until the product is received. If something doesn’t work like it should, the user feels powerless; not knowing to whom to turn for help (Site administrators? The bank? The credit card company? The mail company?)

Error management and recovery is one of the most important usability criteria. In e-commerce, it is absolutely crucial.

On-screen instructions are key, but instructions should also always be sent by email. Your screens may disappear but an email continues to exist in the user’s inbox. A clear email is one easy way to improve the user’s experience.

Ten years after the birth of the Web, many e-commerce sites communicate well, but not to the best of their abilities. They work well and manage the most obvious errors, but they have not evolved to deal with new situations arising from contemporary Web use.

Here are two examples:

Anti-spam products have become more and more aggressive. If your site doesn’t send a well-written message, with an especially clear title, it could easily find itself in the Bulk bin along with the flood of unsolicited messages.

The multiplicity of systems and technical incompatibilities (Windows vs Mac, IE vs Firefox, PC vs handheld units,…) can cause a transaction to be interrupted. Users should be informed of such errors and have the ability to pick up the transaction where they left off, simply by clicking on a link in an email for example.

In any case, you should plan for situations arising from the reality of the new Internet. Only then will your users be able to work with your site without the usual stress, frustration or anxiety.

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