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ISSUE 06 - Q3 2003


Supporting customers' decision-making process

When people buy things, they engage in a decision-making process. Research shows that one of the major problems with commerce sites is that they fail in supporting the customers in this process. By understanding their needs and concerns as they progress through the decision-making cycle, we can build better and more successful commerce sites.

The consumer decision-making process

The consumer decision-making process is the process we go through when we decide to purchase something.

Imagine having to buy yourself a new cell phone. The first step in this process is of course to recognize that you need a new cell phone. Though you may have an idea of which phone you would like to purchase, you probably want to do some research in order to narrow down a few alternatives.

You go online to investigate manufacturers, resellers, and independent consumer organisations, you ask friends and colleagues for advice, and you visit a few stores to "kick the tires." You compare you options and finally decide to purchase what seems to be the best alternative, based on different criteria such as design, features, price, and trustworthiness of the supplier.

Once you have the phone in you possession, you assess whether it lives up to your expectations. You might find that the phone is able to do what the manufacture promised, but that the user interface suck, and decide that you will never buy this brand again.

A decision-making process like this can be described as five different stages:

The customer decision-making process and its five stages
The customer decision-making process and its five stages

Depending on the consequences of making a wrong decision, the complexity of this process can range from careful analysis to pure impulse. While an impulse buy, such as buying a packet of chewing gum, can take place instantaneously, complex purchases mostly stretch over a long period of time. This buying process is an iterative process, where people collect information from different sources and repeatedly return to re-evaluate and compare the information they have found.

The customer sieve

The Web is a great tool for information research, and studies, such as the Paw Internet & American Life Project, show that the Internet is becoming the primary means by which people get key information. This counts for commerce in particular. People expect to be able to find information about products they are considering buying, even if a company doesn't sell its products online.

Considering peoples' high expectations about the information and services available online, it's disturbing to see just how bad commerce web sites are at selling.

From their tests of consumer commerce sites, researchers from the usability consultancy UIE have discovered that the online buying process acts as a sieve, where customers are inadvertently filtered out at each stage of their decision-making process. UIE's studies show that out of 100 purchase-ready customers completely intended on buying a product, only 34 will accomplish their goals.

"Commerce sites simply fail in supporting the consumer decision-making process, by not taking their customers' information needs into account."
Results from UIE's studies show that the online buying process acts as a sieve, where customers are inadvertently filter out at each stage of their decision-making process.
Results from UIE's studies show that the online buying process acts as a sieve, where customers are inadvertently filter out at each stage of their decision-making process.

At the information search stage, 9% wasn't able to find the products they were looking for because they couldn't identify the right product category or find product options using the search facility. 8% of the shoppers who succeeded in finding products gave up because the product lists didn't provide enough information to identify purchase options, or because they were confused by going back and forth between product lists and product description pages in order to decide if the products would fit their basic needs.

UIE's researchers found that the major problems occur when customers want to evaluate their product alternatives. Only 25% of the shoppers who reached this stage proceeded to the next. Some stopped because they realized that none of the products would fit their needs, but most because the product information was so inadequate that they couldn't tell if the products they were interested in satisfied their needs.

At the purchase stage, 13% dropped out because they didn't want to go through the required registration process or because they where disappointed by poor shipping charge policies.

UIE also found a surprisingly high amount of problems in the purchase evaluation stage. 11% percent of the shoppers where either so unhappy with a product that they returned it, didn't receive the product at all, or got the wrong product. Some of the shoppers told UIE that they returned a product because it wasn't what they expected, which suggest a failure in setting up the right expectations in the product evaluation stage.

Knowing the customers' decision-making process

The most interesting thing about the UIE study is that while they observed critical usability problems in the design of the sites, such as users not being able to find products and bad design of checkouts, the majority of dropouts happened because of inadequate product information:

  • Customers couldn't identify purchase options from the products list
  • Customers couldn't decide if the products would satisfy their needs
  • The product presentations and descriptions raised wrong expectations, which made customers return their purchases

Commerce sites simply fail in supporting the consumer decision-making process, by not taking their customers' information needs into account.

As designers of commerce web sites, we have little chance of knowing exactly which information needs customers have when evaluating specific products. To support the customers' decision-making process, we have to do research in order to learn which needs and concerns they have when making a purchase decision.

Research of customer needs can be done in several ways. An effective and economical method is to collect information during a workshop with salespeople who are in contact with customers on a daily basis. Generating user profiles and scenarios is a great way of collecting this information. With a more extensive budget, interviews with customers and observations of their shopping behaviours can be conducted, in order to validate the generated profiles and scenarios.

No matter how we choose to conduct our research, there are some basic things we need to know about the customers in order to be able to support their decision-making process.

Information search

As we saw from the UIE study, the basic prerequisites for customers to make their way through the information search stage is that they are able to find products and that they can easily identify purchase options from the product list pages.

In order to support the customer decision-making process at this stage, we need to know:

  • Which words will customers use when browsing and searching for purchase options?
  • What basic information do customers need in order to identify purchase options?
  • What educational information do novices need in order to decide which product criteria are important to them?

Evaluation of alternatives

The problem with the web is that there's no one to ask if you have a question. In the UIE study we saw how a large number of customers dropped out at this stage simply because the product information was so inadequate, that they couldn't decide whether the products they were interested in would fit their needs. A commerce site should act as a skilled salesperson, and have answers ready to any question or concern that the customer might have.

Some of the critical questions that we need answers to are:

  • What detailed product information does the customers need when evaluating product alternatives?
  • Which product evaluation criteria will customers use and which are most important to the customers?
  • Which concerns will the customers have about the products and how can we address them proactively?
  • How can we encourage customers to contact the sales and support department if they have further questions?

Purchase decision

At this stage emphasis should be on providing the easies possible way for the customers to carry their orders through. In the UIE example, we saw how required registration and poor shipping charge policies made customers leave. If the products are sold online, we should remove any such obstacles. If products are not sold online, customers would want an easy way to find out where and how to buy, or an easy way to contact the sales department.

Purchase evaluation

The outcome of the post-purchase evaluation stage is a level of customer satisfaction or dissatisfaction, which is determined by the customer's overall feelings about the product and buying experience.

Besides not receiving the product at all or getting the wrong one, UIE experienced that many customers returned their purchases because the products didn't live up to their expectations. This problem is a consequence of not encouraging accurate customer expectations at the product evaluation stage. In order to avoid this, we have to make sure that the content presenting the products set up the right expectations.

Designing for customer decision-making

Once we feel confident about customers' needs and concerns, our next challenge is to decide how to present the information to the customers in a way that supports the decision-making process. Some products will benefit from comparison charts, some from interactive product demos, some needs lots of detailed product images. If you want to learn more on how to design for each stage of the customer decision-making process, I can recommend Andrew Chak's book Submit Now - Designing Persuasive Web Sites.


The Internet has turned into a fundamental channel for businesses. More and more people turn to the Internet first, when they want to know more about products they are considering buying, and when they want to find trustworthy suppliers.

When confronted with the poor state of commerce sites, no one can argue that in-depth research of customers' needs isn't worth the money. At each step of the buying process, these sites lose customers, because the designers never considered their actual needs.

Commerce sites should support the customers no matter where they are in the decision-making process. They should address their needs and concerns at every point. Understanding the decision-making process, and how specific customers engage with specific products, is a prerequisite for any site with an ambition to turn visitors into customers.

Text: Henrik Olsen



Posting added before you last visit at GUUUI The Internet has become a mainstream information tool
Posting added before you last visit at GUUUI Submit Now - Designing Persuasive Web Sites
Posting added before you last visit at GUUUI Andrew Chak on persuasive design
Posting added before you last visit at GUUUI The customer sieve
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