Christmas Shopping Online Isn't More Enjoyable Than The High Street, Yet

As it’s Christmas and we’re all spending a large amount of time shopping online you’d hope it would be more pain free than standing prone in Marks and Spencer on a cold Saturday afternoon. (Aside: Why is it that you always dress up for a cold day pounding the High Street but actually spend 90% of your time inside super-heated stores feeling queasy?)

The trouble is, the online experience still, too often, collapses into a farce as soon as you click the ‘checkout’ link/button. Ignoring the usability crimes that permeate the browsing and selecting process, it is the interminable form-filling that I hate. I must have registered now on so many sites. Really I only want to register on sites that I use a lot. Imagine the hassle of having to register to enter a shop on the High Street? “Sorry sir, you’re a new visitor, please take the time to fill out this form and provide us with your email address and password before you come through the door. “

Alongside the sheer time and effort that is involved in doing this, it’s desperately insecure. The human mind being what it is we’re more than likely to use the same email address and password combination all over the web as it’s simply too much hassle to generate new ones each time. Various people have offered solutions to this problem: e.g. have one Excel file that’s password protected and contains a list of all your log-ins which is still more hassle than not having to register … which is my preferred solution.

Why can it not be possible to visit a shop online and buy one item and leave without leaving them all your details. I don’t truly value a personalised portal experience on every site. Granted, on Amazon it’s started to be a powerful tool … but that’s because I’ve invested hours tweaking my recommendations and rating my purchases. It’s unrealistic to expect me to do that on every site.

One thing I can’t make my mind up over is the multi-part form. Do I want to fill out a form that’s all on one page (so I can see all the fields) or do I want to do a step-by-step form where I perceive that I’m going through small chunks of the form (and possibly only being shown the most relevant fields). I’m not sure. It depends on whether there’s enough of a progress indicator on the step form. It might say I’m step three of five for example but it might be that step four is a huge time-consuming chore. That’s why I prefer time-related progress indicators: “you’re two minutes away from checking out” If this is timed on the lowest common denominator then you’re going to exceed expectations – invariably A Good Thing™.

Worst of all however is when a form tells me I’ve done something wrong and then fails to either show me where this error is or identify how I might correct it. PostCodes are a classic example: “PostCode not recognised”? It could be that the PostCode is three steps back in the form requiring me to skip back through the process (hoping that the session has cached all my input) and, even then, I still think I’ve input it correctly. The answer is that the back-end can’t actually recognise the spacing so XX1 1YY should be input as XX11YY. If you want the PostCode in a certain format then say so, otherwise introduce scripting to account for the multiple variations in the way that users input it – the same is true of phone numbers, dates of birth and credit card numbers.

I wonder how much all this would have bugged me were it not for the fact that I’ve been reading these usability books?

I’ll keep a log of my best online e-tailing experiences and post them after Christmas.
In other usability news
Meanwhile Google are being incredibly proactive (and maybe a bit Big Brother) in opening a Google Space usability lab at Heathrow where they can assess a large volume of user experiences. Jesper Rønn-Jensen and Thomas Watson Steen alerted me to this through their Standards & Usability blog
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