Right now, in a far off cubicle, someone is designing an e-commerce checkout application. It’s not unusual. There are thousands of existing e-commerce sites with their own checkout applications. And I can bet in the future there will be thousands more.

A checkout application usually has the following elements:

    1. A shopping cart displaying the products to purchase
    2. A request for shipping information
    3. A request for billing information
    4. A request for the payment instrument information
    5. A confirmation before executing the transaction
    6. A receipt after executing the transaction

That's it. Six easy steps to executing a purchase -- that's all there is to a checkout application. If it's always that simple, why do we have to continually design new ones? Why can't someone just make an off-the-shelf checkout application that we can plug into any e-commerce site?

We Are All Individuals. Just Like Everyone Else.

Off-the-shelf won't work for a simple reason: every e-commerce business is unique. While the steps will likely be the same, the devil is in the details. More accurately, the devil is in the specific business rules and the customer needs.

Businesses must be unique, even if they are in the same industry, selling similar products. Let me restate that: especially when selling similar products in the same industry. The uniqueness of the business helps customers choose where to buy. Do they want the low cost provider? Or are they the best at delivering service, even at a higher price?

What makes a business unique bleeds into their checkout application. It happens at every step:

  • Does the business offer special "buy two, get one free" deals? If so, the shopping cart needs to support that.
  • Does the business offer gift delivery options, such as including a nice card? If so, you need to add that to the shipping information.
  • Does the business offer corporate accounts? That'll affect the billing information screen.
  • Does the business accept pre-paid gift cards? That'll influence the payment instrument functionality.
  • Does the business schedule delivery and installation times? That may need to show up on the confirmation page.
  • Does the business offer digital downloads for some products? You'll need to have a follow-up page, after the transaction, to tell them how to get their purchase.

These are just a few examples. Organizational initiatives, such as product upsells, loyalty programs, repeat customer accounts, saved payment information, purchase-order handling, supply-chain management, and lead generation all work their way into the application. A team might start with an off-the-shelf application, but the customizations would quickly outnumber the original features.

The rules, policies, and practices of the business have a strong influence on any web-based application. The best designers seek out these business requirements and create a solution that makes the requirements seem natural. Most important, they balance the business requirements against the users' needs.

Preventing A Business Takeover of the Experience

It's not news that airlines are looking for new ways to increase their revenues. As expected, these creative moneymaking opportunities are seeping into their own web-based applications.

Like most other airlines, United Airlines’ passengers can check in to their flights using a web application on the airline's site. In this application, the folks of United have inserted several upsell opportunities.

One of these is their Award Accelerator. United's loyalty program members can spend a little more money to earn additional miles, thus getting closer to the program's benefit of free flights.

United Airlines