We've learned that using a web site is a progressive process. Each user transitions from one stage to the next, as they work to accomplish their goal.

The most pronounced transitions we've seen are on e-commerce sites. When we watch shoppers focusing on buying a product, we can clearly see each stage and when the transitions fail or succeed. By understanding the stages and how they work, we can learn a lot about building better sites.

The stages act as a sieve: each stage inadvertently filtering shoppers out before they reach the next stage. By focusing on this filtering, we can see more users accomplish their goals.

To really see the sieve clearly, we study those shoppers who are completely intent on buying a product. They know what product they want, the web site has it, and they are ready to purchase.

Theoretically, every one of these shoppers should end up making a purchase. However, in our studies, sites frequently prevent these shoppers from completing transactions. By looking closely at the sieve, we can see where things are going wrong and get clues on what to fix.

The sieve can be divided into six stages:

  1. The Home Page Stage
  2. The Location Stage
  3. The Product List Stage
  4. The Product Evaluation Stage
  5. The Checkout Stage
  6. The Receipt and Acceptance Stage

[We should note that, while these stages are all specific to e-commerce sites, there are equivalent stages on other types of sites.]

Let's look at each stage:

1) The Home Page Stage

When a purchase-ready customer comes to a home page, the goal of that page is to get them to the product they desire. And in our studies, the home page typically does a good job at this.

Users who know what they want are typically faced with three choices on an e-commerce home page: (a) use the search engine, (b) choose one of the featured products, or (c) use the list of categories.

The very few people who choose (b) in our study go straight to the Product Evaluation Stage. We see only 1 in 237 home page visits result in a purchase this way.

Everyone else either uses search or the categories and progresses on to the Location Stage. For almost all of our purchase-ready shoppers, the home page does it's job quickly and efficiently.

2) The Location Stage

In this stage, the user either uses search or categories. Occasionally, they'll bounce between the two.

We group search and categories together because, from a behavioral perspective, they are essentially the same. In both cases, the user is trying to get to a list of products to choose from.

We've found that 9% of the users stop at this stage. If 100 users started the process, only 91 will continue from this stage.

When users can't identify the right category, they'll often go into search. When search returns a "No Results", they are stuck. (Users rarely try multiple searches. As we described in our article, Users Don't Learn to Search Better, multiple searches don't help.)

3) The Product List Stage

Shoppers who successfully transition from the Location Stage end up here. The activity for the user changes substantially at this point. The user is faced with a list of products for which they need to isolate the one they are most interested in.

About 8% of the users stop at this stage, failing to move forward and make a purchase. Of the 91 users who made it this far, only 83 will continue on.

It is here that we see the behavior we call Pogosticking. Pogosticking is when the user repeatedly visits a product description page, then hits the back button to return to the list.

The more pogosticking we see in a clickstream, the less likely that user will buy a product from that site. So, the best sites prevent pogosticking by providing as much information as they can in the product list.

Some users will end up going back to the Location Stage because none of the products displayed are what they want. These users are significantly less likely to end up purchasing anything than those users who move onto the Product Evaluation Stage. And many users give up at this stage.

4) The Product Evaluation Stage

This is the place where we see the most filtering of our users — a whopping 25% stop here. Only 58 will continue after this stage.

While some of them stop because none of the products they evaluate fit their needs, most stop because they can't tell if the products are good enough.

Often, there isn't enough information or the right information isn't present. After observing hundreds of shopping expeditions, we've found people want to know lots of different things.

In clothing, for example, the fabric used is important. Is it cotton or a blend? We've had users who wanted to know the thread count for sheets.

Pictures play a big role here. Our initial analysis of some recent data suggests that the larger the picture, the more likely the user will purchase.

We've found that sites with similar product lines have dramatically different success rates at this stage. That tells us that the design of the product pages play a huge role in whether people continue or not.

5) The Checkout Stage

People reach this page when they add a product to their cart and start the checkout process.

Almost everything that has been written about e-commerce usability focuses on this stage. And, we see a lot of drop outs at this point — about 13%, leaving 45 people to finish the checkout process successfully.

But, the most interesting thing is that the vast majority of dropouts here come from two factors: required registration and poor shipping charge policies.

While we see usability problems at this stage, often manifesting themselves as input errors in the myriad of data entry fields that users need to fill out, we rarely see these problems causing users to abandon. Users seem content to keep pounding away at the site until it finally relinquishes and processes their purchase.

6) The Receipt and Acceptance Stage

When we first started looking at e-commerce, we thought after the user has completed checkout, that everything was done.

We were shocked to find out that 11% of our users were so unhappy with a product they received that they returned it. In many cases, they didn't receive the product at all or it was the wrong product.

In a recent study, 8 out of 44 users told us they were unhappy with products they purchased but didn't want the hassle of returning them.

Some shoppers told us they returned a product because it wasn't what they expected. While these failures showed up in the Receipt stage, they are more likely failures of the Product Evaluation Stage — the descriptions didn't set the right expectations.

Out of our original 100 purchase-ready shoppers, only 34 people actually got what they wanted.

As we learn more about the different stages and why users give up, we can hone our craft while, simultaneously, increasing the success of our users and our businesses. •

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