Usability Analysis: E-Commerce Order Points

[[[900 words, 16 embedded images   —Bob Stein,]]]

If you look down the left-hand column at the pages reduced to 20% original size, your conscious eye can see things that would normally register only subliminally. Without verbiage to distract the left-brain, see where the right-brain's gaze is drawn. The second column shows excerpts of where users are supposed to click to order.

Order Page,
Bird's Eye View

Here are some high power
e-commerce order pages.
Notice where the
subconscious eye is drawn.
The All-Important 
Order Click-Point

Here's a close-up of the spots
where all the fortunes and 
livelihoods rely on users taking
action. No click, no gain. Note the bold break with a conservative color scheme to yank the eye toward the order buttons.

The price is relatively far from the order point on this page.

CDNOW CDNOW Note the gratuitous verbal clues as to where to click to lay one's money down.

Of course, users would be foolish to purchase this obscure album (by little-known artist Cindy Kallet). No, the discerning user would much prefer having sex with elves. Brought to you courtesy of BANNERNOW oops I mean CDNOW.

This order page had the closest proximity of all of price to order point: a hyperlinked price.

Digi-Key Digi-Key There isn't much to draw the eye to this unpretentious order point, a rare non-graphics order button on the nerdly Digi-Key electronics parts order form. Note however that the company name stands out well. The link below the button gives product details in PDF. Above and to the right is the price/quantity breakdown.
Gaiam Gaiam Shrewd use of orange stimulates appetite at this health food-ordering site. You would want users to be hungry in order to find the order point.
MicroWarehouse MicroWarehouse Note, from the bird's eye view the unmistakable red attraction spots in the company name and at the order point. Note also the gratuitous use of white space around the order point. Impulse buyers of obscure computer components must surely be compelled. This is the only site I found with dual graphics and text order points. Also unique in the enlarged price. Almost all others shrank it. Here again, the bird's eye view clearly reveals a subliminal attraction toward the order point, which is simple, brief and direct.
Quill Quill The order buttons have very faint lizard-brain attraction but not as much as the product description and price in red, or the nav bars in electric blue. Or the related purchase box, which has prices and order buttons of its own in fact!  I am sure people often order the wrong product at this site, thinking the price and order buttons in the box on the right apply to the product on the left.

I confess to some serious throwing-up-of-hands here. I went through this exercise to find out what successful e-commerce sites had in common in the way of visual cues. Must be successful for a reason. And all that success is bound to influence some consistency, right? Well it sure seems to me these order pages have hardly anything in common. Well there is something resembling a left-hand navigation bar, as Erica Nelson recommends. But the layout of price, quantity, description and order click-point are all over the map. I'm aghast at all this diversity on arguably the most critical focal point in all of web design: closing the sale. I'm not ranting, just darn perplexed. (As you'll see below, ranting would be hypocritical.)

Perhaps this reflects market diversity, user technical depth, impulsiveness, return-purchases. What I fear is that it reveals an unsettling diversity in designer whim. Or perhaps the diversity in the tools and skills needed to create and maintain online sales. I wonder whether this can persist, or whether some kind of uniformity will emerge, some conventions to make purchasing online a little more consistent and less tedious.

My impetus for this research was to improve the usability of my own order page. Two customers in the last two months have mentioned they couldn't figure out where to click to order. Few wake-up calls are as rousing. I thought my page had some pretty good subliminal attraction already. But one customer said she thought the buttons were just decoration, not clickable. So I added text links below each order button and "CREDIT CARD ORDER BUTTONS" above. Here's the current order page for the HTML Card:


I think I may have found the answer I was after. Divining the truth behind user feedback is a Zen feat. Every complaint is a riddle, a perversely twisted clue to significant usability improvement. "The customer is always right." is of course literally false, but figuratively it captures some profound wisdom.

It wasn't until I wrote this article that the obvious finally dawned on me. In every order page I saw, the order buttons were within one screen from the top. Users did not have to scroll down to order. If you look at the 20% screen-shots on the left very closely you can see the scrollbar on the right-hand side. My order page is scrolled down. None of the seven test cases are.

That's something I'll definitely have to correct when I have the courage to do the order pages over.