Most common checkout usability issue ever?

by Philip Webb on 13 December 2011

There’s a usability issue so common that I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen customers stumble on it. At first glance it might not be an obvious usability issue, but years of user testing and user research later it proves to be a problem for a large proportion of users across a broad spectrum of profiles. It happens right at the start of the checkout process with the form to either log in or register:

When presented with a log-in form, users are often naturally drawn to start filling in the edit boxes on the left to sign-in. They don’t read the surrounding text – they’re only interested in getting through the checkout process quickly so they can complete the purchase. They don’t even notice the button on the right that is for new customers who don’t have an account already.

This is fine for existing customers, but new customers are likely to believe that the sign-in fields are the start of the registration process and if they have an account or not they would expect to move the process forward without entering new information on a new form. This is often not the case.

Providing an error message stating that ‘details don’t match the system’ may not resolve the situation. For customers that have many online accounts it’s feasible that they won’t remember if they have an account or not, but the error message assumes the customer is doing the right thing in trying to sign in; it suggests that an account with this email address exists and that the password is wrong. Perhaps the customer will enter the password again or a different password, and may not realise the issue lies because they are filling in the wrong form.

Meanwhile, customer frustration and anxiety increase and the item remains tantalisingly unpaid for, increasing the likelihood of checkout abandonment. This is where a usability and user experience show their worth time and time again – no retailer should have this issue on their website if they are looking to optimise their sales and conversion.

It’s likely to be less of an issue if the new customer register button is on the left and the login fields are on the right because, since users naturally scan a screen top left to bottom right, they’re more likely to notice the button and decide if it’s relevant for them. But it still forces customers to decide whether they should register or log in, and the choice isn’t visually equal or obvious – it’s still tempting just to fill in those edit boxes. To try to eliminate this checkout usability issue, the choice has to be translated into the question ‘Do I already have an account with this company or not?’

Surprisingly, in our Ecommerce Retail report only 2 companies out of 15 presented the login/registration in a design that we recommend to our clients to resolve this issue:

Integrating the login/registration into 1 form means customers aren’t faced with the choice of whether to log in or register. They have to enter their email address in either situation, so that’s a no-brainer. Instead, the choice is presented as a simple question: ‘Do you have a password?’

Of course, they still have to remember if they have a password or not, but the particular confusion generated by the Next form and not knowing if it is your password that is wrong, or the fact you don’t actually have an account can’t happen. By answering ‘No’ they signal their intent to be a new customer. By answering ‘Yes’ they’re declaring they have an existing account – they’ll make sense of any error messages subsequently generated for a wrong password or non-existent account in this light.

Because the design is more streamlined, there’s less visual clutter, and less for the customer to consider. Customers will always make mistakes but the checkout process should be as smooth and short as possible.

So, why do so many companies persist with the clunky Next-style form that could see customers entering password after password and then when realising they perhaps don’t have an account having to re-fill a different form to sign up? I don’t know! But giant of Ecommerce, Amazon, go with the streamlined design as we recommend to our clients, which says it all.

Have you come across this checkout usability issue? Have you been stuck in the sign in or register loop and ended up typing in your details numerous times into different forms just to be able to buy something? Let us know in the comments below!

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