10 Steps To A More Usable Ecommerce Website

The ecommerce marketplace is a very competitive one and a rival site is never more than a click away. If you want to attract and retain customers, you need to make sure that your site is as usable as possible.

You could be selling the best products in the world, at unbelievably low prices, but if shoppers can’t find them or get confused along the way, you’re never going to reach your full potential in terms of sales.

Improving usability is all about making the buying process on your site as quick and easy as possible. The smallest of changes can have the most dramatic effect on conversion rates. The 10 steps explored below will all help to improve both sales and customer satisfaction. It’s not necessarily a case of employing all 10 of these steps on your site- some smaller merchants will find this nearly impossible. Pick the ones that you think will work best for you and don’t be afraid to try something new.

1. Let Shoppers Buy without Registering

Let Shoppers Buy without Registering
Every company wants shoppers to register for an account, but the lengthy registration process is a real turnoff for many visitors, especially those who believe (rightly or wrongly) that what they want from you is a one-off purchase.

It’s a good idea to allow ‘guests’ to add items to their carts and checkout without the hassle of registration. Once they’ve committed to their purchase, they should be given the option to ‘Sign Up’ to save time on their next visit. This method has been shown to increase sales, improve customer retention and lower cart abandonment. Remember, in many cases, a sale is more valuable than an email address.

2. Keep the Signup Simple

Keep the Signup Simple
How much information do you need from a customer when they sign up on your site? You might want as much as you can get, but in reality you need very little. Avoid lengthy signup forms which customers are likely to run a mile from as soon as they open. All you really require is an email address and a password.

Many sites ask for a username rather than an email address, but this can be a source of more confusion – usernames are easy to forget, email addresses are memorable; usernames are common, email addresses are unique.

3. Tell Users Where They Are

Tell Users Where They Are
Breadcrumb navigation is a must for all major ecommerce sites. When placing an order, customers need to know exactly where they stand in the purchase process – how many steps they’ve completed and how many are yet to come. Without such navigation, customers easily get bored, think the process is going to go on forever and abandon their purchase halfway.

Using breadcrumb navigation, customers can easily skip back to a previous step if they think they’ve made a mistake, rather than giving up altogether. If breadcrumb navigation is beyond your capabilities, numbering each step – e.g. Enter delivery address (step 1 of 4) – is the next best thing.

4. Make Shoppers Feel Safe

Make Shoppers Feel Safe
Quite rightly, lots of people worry about giving out credit card numbers and personal details online. Shoppers need to feel completely confident when they buy from you. You need to reassure your customers at every stage that your site is safe and that you are a reputable merchant who will protect their privacy and not share their information.

A great way to do this is to get a trust certificate from somewhere like Hacker Safe or VeriSign. You should also ensure that you have an updated SSL certificate.

5. Confirmation

Confirmation is an absolute necessity if you want to make your site as usable as possible. Not only does it reassure shoppers, it saves you time by reducing the number of queries you get from confused customers.

Effective confirmation should be split up into three parts:

  1. The last step in the order process should ask the customer to confirm their order. They should be presented with all the necessary information- order summary, total cost, delivery and tracking information etc. as well as an easy way to cancel their order if they’ve made a mistake.
  2. Once the order has been confirmed, the customer should be presented with an official order confirmation complete with order number, which can either be saved or printed.
  3. A copy of this confirmation should be emailed to the customer for their records.

6. Search Function

Search Function
Every ecommerce site needs a high visibility search box, preferably located in a clearly marked spot above the fold, which should allow customers to easily filter and refine their results to find what they want.

Search functionality reduces the time customers spend searching for items, making their shopping experience a happier one.

If your site offers a wide variety of products, you should strongly consider adding a search by category refinement, which not only quickens the search process, but reminds customers of the wide range of items you have for sale.

Letting shoppers search by colour, size etc (if applicable) is also a good idea. In addition, you might want to give your visitors the power to customise their search results, by letting them choose how many items are visible per page.

7. Specify Related Items

Specify Related Items
Nobody wants to feel pressured into buying more than they really want when they visit a website, but if used properly, specifying related items and cross-selling can prove very helpful for customers and very profitable for merchants.

If a shopper’s looking at a coat on a clothing site, for instance, they can be provided with suggestions for other items to complete the look. If they’re buying an electronic gadget, additional necessities like batteries and cables can be made easily available. Amazon’s method for suggesting related items has been shown to increase revenue and retention massively.

8. Call-to-Action Buttons

Call-to-Action Buttons
Never underestimate the power of the call-to-action button. Effective ‘add to cart’, ‘sign up’ and ‘proceed to checkout’ buttons can push your conversion rates through the roof and vastly improve your site’s usability.

To make these buttons stand out you need to think carefully about their size, colour, font, wording and positioning. They need to be large, clear and in a colour that will stand out against your site’s background. ‘Add to cart’ should be used instead of ‘buy now’, which can scare away some people. Local language should be taken into consideration when designing call-to-action buttons. For example, Americans are more accustomed to ‘add to cart’, while a British shopper would be more familiar with ‘add to basket’. If possible, use IP delivery to serve custom versions based on the customer’s geographic location.

9. Avoid Hidden Charges

Avoid Hidden Charges
If there’s one thing that angers customers more than anything else, it’s hidden costs. Make sure that you display prices, taxes, shipping charges (and money saved if applicable) as early in the purchase process as possible. People tend to shop on a budget and want to know their genuine totals before adding other items to their cart.

If they’re presented with a load of extra costs when they finally come to pay, they’re more than likely to abandon ship, trust will be broken and repeat orders lost.

10. Keep the Cart Accessible

Keep the Cart Accessible
The cart should be visible to a customer at all times, on every page. It should appear above the fold, at the top or on the right, so that customers need not navigate away to view their cart contents and the total order cost. To increase usability further, customers should be able to edit their cart, adding and removing items, at any stage, on any page, without having to update or refresh.

A ‘proceed to checkout’ button should be positioned inside the cart, making the order process that little bit quicker.

Your Turn To Talk

Did we forget something? Please take a minute to leave a comment below and share your own tips and tricks with the rest of us ;)


  1. says

    A note on suggestion #4…

    There are some things you might want to take into account in regards to online shopping. Well more then just utilizing an SSL signed certificate from Verisign® or other certificate authority.

    Research the company, research the shopping cart being used by any particular site, ask questions of the cart maintainers in regards to data storage, retention policies etc.

    I would recommend reading the following document for more information on this: http://www.ftc.gov/bcp/edu/pubs/business/idtheft/bus54.shtm

  2. says


    Your remarks are not directly related to the intended understanding of this article. It’s all about “usability” and how the user will digest and interpret the information; which makes their visit enjoyable and as pain free as possible.

    I will agree with the author that one of those feelings is a sense of security if he/she is buying something online. However, the ‘type’ of shopping cart & data storage is irrelevant in the mind of the user.

    The user says, “I don’t care how it’s built. Just get me to what I need now with as little hassle as possible.”

  3. says

    The only item that eCom sites I’ve made haven’t employed is #7, and that’s only because the software I use didn’t have that feature the last time I used it. I use Ubercart with Drupal 5 and 6. Ubercart is growing, and new features are rolling out every time I turn around. And, if that isn’t what I need, the unofficial-official Drupal eCom module is also there with a lot of functionality.

  4. says

    Thanks for the tips, every successful ecommerce website should you using these techniques. I would also add that for customers it should be easy to pay and multiple payment methods should be available.

  5. Tina Olstorn says

    This is great, but do you have numbers on how these steps increase conversion rate?

  6. says

    Well … #1 wont work in most cases. Where to ship the product if you aint got the customers address? And how to certify his or her order is really theirs if you aint got no email address to send eg. a 48h authentification link to?

    Of course, all of this could be still achieved w/o registration, but then you could also automatically generate a user account, which would improve the speed of processing the order of the customer a lot.

    And those who are out for someones email address: Sorry, but in the EU, esp. Germany, spammer die a hard and painful (virtual) death. It’s not worth the effort spamming your former customers. Instead, save this wasted effort by instead improving (ie. simplify) your checkout process and your overall product(s) ;)

    cu, w0lf.

  7. says

    Great advice. I especially like the tip about keeping the shopping cart visible. There’s nothing worse than having to search around to find your shopping cart and not being bale to edit it once you’ve selected a few items to buy.

  8. says

    There is some great info here. I think one of the worst things I see are Ecommerce sites that are filled with advertisements – yep, even adsense. How do you expect me to buy anything if I have to get around all your adsense just to read about the product.

    People have to make up their mind…Either run an ecommerce store or run an adsense-site.

    Great post…If only more people were to read it they may be making more money :)

  9. says

    Great tips – I love the one about related items. We’ve been working on a system that does so many different kinds of recommendations, so that retailers don’t have to spend all their time trying to manually match up items that relate to each other. I really do find that cross-sells help increase one’s AOV (average order value).

  10. says

    Avoiding hidden costs and eliminating add-ons and shipping when possible leads to more conversions and return customers, probably more than anything else on here in my experience.

  11. says

    Great post! I think the most important feature of an ecommerce site is gaining the trust of the visitor, as online purchases can be very risky, if you use something other than ebay or amazon.

  12. says

    Trust always. I’ve seen some great legit ecommerce stores and they’ve sold nothing because their design was bad and no mention of security.

  13. says

    Make sure your contact details are no more than 1 click away. Try to fit your phone number on your home page. This is what I always verify before buying.

  14. says

    All great pointers! There are so many aspects to a great ecommerce site. The worst is feeling unsafe or lost when entering your CC information on a random site. Things should be obvious and clear!


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