'Online user experience is the holy grail': Applying behavioral science to e-commerce

Online user experience is the holy grail of interaction with customers. So many things matter, such as educating about your brand, showing relevant products, and creating a good impression. And with the proliferation of e-commerce businesses, competition, and therefore, choice, has increased.  

Yet despite this, many websites still use the old-school model of enforcing a fixed or rigid process before a visitor can order. For example, forcing visitors to see deals and offers or to create an account. Now, this may be necessary in some cases, but the prize will go to those who can make it both relevant and easy.

How might you reimagine the online shopping experience?

Question what visitors are here to do

It’s important for you and your team to know what you are designing for. What type of customer do you expect to attract? What type of buying patterns, demographics, and preferences do they have? Also, what are their behaviors and attitudes, and what type of journey might they take before and after landing on your website? Preparing for such scenarios helps you know not only what to expect, but also how to prepare.

Let’s use a simple example: assume you’re a well known local pizza restaurant in a relatively small city, you could make the menu page the first thing your customers see when they land on your website. What is the thought process here?

- The majority of our visitors already know us
- Let’s immediately show our customers pizzas, which is the reason they are here
- Most people probably want their pizza quickly. Let’s make it easy to checkout

Going from 2D to 3D

You might say… this is interesting but quite binary. In my business, I have different types of customers and lots of different products. My home page is, therefore necessary to show first as it allows me to educate about my brand and market key products.

This is a great point. But the problem is that many sites show the exact same thing to all first-time shoppers, despite these shoppers having different needs and behaviors. We’ve taken for granted using the same two dimensional, one-size-fits-all approach.

What if we ask new visitors a couple of questions as soon as they land on our site, to quickly find out exactly what they’re trying to do. We could then adapt and show each a different version of our site, based exactly on the needs they’ve just shared with us - this is a three-dimensional approach, a more relevant experience for each type of customer.

For example, here’s how answering two questions early in the journey can unlock a better customer experience.

1. Where are you shopping from? - allows us to use more localised content and products
2. What are you here to do?
- “Find out more about your brand” - take them to your ‘about us’ page
- “Just having a look” - tell them about your product categories
- “Looking for a deal” - take them to your offers page 
- “I need to find something quickly” - take them to straight to the search bar

The basic point here is that it’s difficult to serve different types of customers using the same experience. For visitors who don’t have an account or saved preferences, we’ve been guessing and showing everyone the same thing. By asking the questions upfront, you allow the customer to tell you exactly what they want, increasing the odds that you’ll provide a relevant and positive experience. It also allows the same customer to experience your website differently on different occasions, depending on what they need and how they might be feeling each time.

For example, think of when you go to the supermarket, do you always have the same needs every time you are there? On some visits, you might want to quickly pick up a bottle of olive oil and use the express checkout kiosk.  On others, you might be doing a weekend shop with the family and want to take your sweet time browsing new products. There’s no reason a web experience can’t let us do the same.

Order of presentation matters

We should also consider the impact of order. Simply doing all the right things is not enough, It’s also about the order in which they are presented.

A great example is asking customers to create an account before they are able to checkout - a pet peeve of mine. You might say that creating an account would solve many of the problems we’ve been discussing.  

But asking someone to do “work” before they’ve ordered triggers other emotional behaviors. It might seem like a waste of time to a customer who simply wants to buy something, and not enter a relationship; it might make a customer hesitant, thinking they’re going to receive marketing emails; and it might frustrate a customer because they already have an account but can’t remember the email address they used to sign up, or their password. And maybe, just maybe, all they really want to do is just check out!

I’ve abandoned my shopping cart plenty of times because I was asked to create an account or provide additional information I didn’t feel was necessary - especially for non-essential purchases. We are impulsive and emotional, not necessarily logical.

There’s a brilliant experiment called ‘The $300m button’ that I came across in Rory Sutherland’s book, Alchemy. It turns out that many first-time shoppers DO resent having to register.  And after a “Guest Checkout” button was added to a certain website’s experience, the number of customers completing purchases increased by 45%. The strange aspect to the story is that over 90% of these customers were happy to create an account ONCE they had made their purchase, showing that it wasn’t the issue of an account itself but the order when, in which it was brought up. 

Providing my personal details before I’ve committed to order is annoying. Providing them to instruct where my new iPad should be delivered makes sense.

The takeaway here is that we might be inclined to think logically about what serves our interests. For instance, how can I get customers to spend more time on my website? And how do I fill every piece of space and process with an opportunity?

And while you might force customers to do what you want in the short term, if they don’t have a pleasant experience, they might not come back, which is a problem for the long-term. The “lock-ins” of the past are changing, with the benefit going to those who can make it easy and relevant.

The importance of layout architecture

Alongside order is also layout, which says that it’s not only a matter of providing something, but also about making it easy.

You might be familiar with the nudge experiment in which children in a school cafeteria became more likely to choose vegetables over french fries when the vegetables were placed in closer reach. Initially, it might have been easy to conclude that children simply don’t want to eat vegetables, but this conclusion is incorrect. Children are less likely to choose vegetables if the decision is not easy. Our actions are not absolute and we are influenced by the design of the environment in which we are making decisions. The psychology behind a decision matters. 

Implementing these changes

At what3words, we work with plenty of e-commerce businesses. We’ve spent a lot of time thinking about our products. Here are some examples of what we’ve done to make it easy:

- what3words addresses are short and memorable, and they never change 
- A what3words address is always optional at checkout
- We make it easy for customers by suggesting the most likely possibilities, accounting even for misspellings and location
- Once the address is entered at checkout, we show a green tick to let the customer know they’ve done it correctly

The next time you are designing a process, ask yourself: What are your users trying to achieve? What are THEIR goals? What might your users be thinking at every stage of the experience? It’s rarely ever black or white.


2019 was a productive year for EdTech in MENA, as the industry witnessed more deals (29) and total funding ($20M) than any previous year. Access more data and trends in our new 2019 MENA Education Venture Investment Report.