Skip to content
Field Reports

Check out my checkout

Shopify's Emma Craig uncovers what makes us playful and what makes us stressed when we shop online—and why making room for human moments is key. 

Words by Carrie Neill, Visuals by Delaney Gibbons

Emma Craig isn’t one to shy away from a challenge. Craig, a Senior UX Researcher at Shopify, wanted to see if she could make the checkout experience—that dreaded phase of online shopping when consumers are asked to part with their money—a less stressful moment.

Consumers, Craig had noticed, seemed to be getting stressed at the checkout, and not just because they were forking over dollars. So she launched a research project to see if there was a way to make checkout a calmer, more enjoyable experience—and did it during the holiday season shopping rush.

“I actually thought, ‘What better time to do this?’” Craig says. “Not only were people buying gifts for others, post holidays I knew they’d also eventually be returning gifts, and maybe shopping for themselves. It seemed like the perfect time.”

She began her investigation with a diary study using dscout, asking shoppers to give feedback on the checkout experience. (Since Shopify actually designs the checkout phase of the platform itself, unlike other aspects of the shopping experience which can be customized for individual businesses, she was able to get feedback from a wide variety of customers.) Using that feedback, she developed the second phase of the project, a card sort exercise which asked users to arrange the various elements of the checkout experience in the order they’d like to encounter them. She’s even hopeful there will be a Phase 3 of the project—which may involve biometric screenings. In this Field Report, Craig breaks down for us the hidden, surprising, and playful motivations at work when we shop—and why allowing people human moments is still one of the most important factors in retail.

Notes from Emma Craig...

On the impetus for the project...

Right now, one of the things that a lot of stores are doing is trying to make online checkout more personal for people, and ultimately quicker. I think most stores generally think of that as a good thing, allowing you to go through checkout as quickly as possible. But by speaking with people, I started to realize that speedy personalization can optimize a checkout experience, but only when other shopping touchpoints gave customers the time to think about their purchase. The idea behind the project was to see if there was a way to make that online checkout experience more calming for shoppers, to retain some of the fun of the retail experience. Or if ultimately, because it’s a financial transaction, it’s inevitable that there’s some amount of stress.

Structuring the study with two phases...

The project started in December, which was holiday shopping season—it actually seemed like a perfect time to do a diary study and ask people about their shopping experiences, because people are doing a lot of online shopping during that time. So that was the first phase of the project, which was done with dscout. I set it up the pretty flexibly, so people could make anywhere from one to ten entries. What Phase 1 really told me was that there’s a wide array of buyer behavior. And it helped me hone in one the key elements that comprised the checkout experience and develop Phase 2, which is where I got most of my insight.

In Phase 2, I used an information architecture approach. I created a series of cards that represented the different facets of the checkout process—everything from product reviews to customer support information, how many of a certain item a store has left in stock, the store’s return policy, the amount of loyalty points you might have at a store, the option to have something gift wrapped, anticipated delivery date, fields to enter a discount code, etc. I asked people to sort them sequentially, in the order they’d like to see them appear as they’re going through the online shopping experience and checkout process. I did the exercises in person to start, sitting down with eight people and asking them to walk me through why they chose to put everything where they did. Then I opened it up to a larger population online in an unmoderated card sort exercise with twenty people, to generalize the findings.

The surprising way she discovered people are entertaining themselves...

Because it was the Christmas season I expected a lot of people’s purchases to be functional—gifts they needed to buy, needs they needed to fulfill. And there were some people who were shopping functionally, but a lot of people were shopping for fun, daydreaming about an outfit or a vacation, or making a wish list. And they’re much more playful than I expected, especially in the cart. I’d expected that people might browse playfully, look through product images for fun. But people actually use the cart as a place to play around. They’re trying to figure out: can I get up to free shipping? What would this discount look like with this many items in my cart?

In some ways, It may have been a sign of the self-selecting nature of the study—people who are able to fill out a diary survey probably have a little more time on their hands, so they may not have been shopping as functionally as other users.

How what you're buying impacts how you think about paying....

One of the things that became clear during the card sort phase was that, pretty much across the board, people wanted a more in-depth understanding earlier in the checkout experience. Especially when it came to things like cost, or shipping zones. Any element that required cognitive thinking, they wanted that to happen well before the checkout. Where exactly they wanted it to happen related to the kind of shopping they were doing, but people wanted to do that work earlier on, and then by the time they got to the checkout, they'd already made up their mind, and they didn't want to think anymore. They just wanted to get through checkout as quickly as possible.

The two major points in the process where people generally wanted to spend more time really came down to the kind of shopping they were doing. People who were shopping functionally and were more straightforward about their purchases wanted to do their thinking as early as the product page. If they could find out what their total price would be, with taxes, shipping, discounts, as early as the product page, then they felt much more relaxed and in control of their checkout experience. People who were browsing or looking around, playing a bit of make believe with what they could or couldn’t buy, they wanted to do the bulk of their thinking on the cart page. But no one wanted to focus their attention on the checkout form. They don't want to guess where they're supposed to put information, they don't want to get up and get their credit card, they don't want to track down discount codes. They want to get through the checkout as quickly as possible. The checkout is like an ugly cornfield that people just want to speed through.

On knowing what work the UX can't do for a customer...

One of the major takeaways was really around cost clarity. Ultimately shoppers have to do a cost benefit analysis. We know what a product is worth to us, and we have to compare that to the total cost the store is giving us. That’s math the store can support, but ultimately the consumer has to make that determination for themselves. 

A store can give you all of the information, the product sales, shipping information, let you know what your discount will be, but it can't actually do that internal value calculation. At a certain point, the buyer has to put forth the cognitive effort to think through, “is this purchase going to be worth it for me at this cost?”

And stores need to make it easier for customer to make that calculation. At no point in the checkout process did anyone want to enter their payment information before knowing the total cost, and how much things like shipping, duties, or import fees were going to add to their total. That seems pretty obvious, but you’d be surprised by how many shops will ask for payment information before they’ve given people cost for things like shipping. For stores, they want their products to seem as cheap as possible, until the buyer commits to buying it. That’s pretty obvious. But if customers are getting stressed out when they have to pull out their wallet, because they don’t understand what’s going on and they aren’t clear on that final cost to do that internal valuation, then they’re going to abandon their cart anyway. That's the anxiety and the stress that needs to be removed from online shopping.

Remembering to let people have human moments...

Sometimes I think in our efforts to make things as easy and simple as possible when it comes to online experiences, we forget that people actually want opportunities to think.

Sometimes I think in our efforts to make things as easy and simple as possible when it comes to online experiences, we forget that people actually want opportunities to think.

They need to sit down and digest and think about what's going on—especially with something like a checkout which is a financial transaction, and relatively complex. We need to give users those moments.

A possible Phase 3...

One of the great things about Montreal, where I’m based, is that that there are some incredible  university and research facilities close to our office that have all of the biometric testing equipment a researcher could dream of. Things like heart rate monitors, eye tracking devices, galvanized skin response trackers to measure moisture or sweat. It’s equipment that can help us detect spikes or changes in people’s emotions or well-being. The hope is that we can bring people into the lab, and have them go through a simple shopping exercise. We’d sit down with them afterwards and take them through the various moments when they had physiological responses, so we’re not distracting them during the testing by asking them questions or having them think out loud. It’s an exciting prospect and may be a way to get even more insight.

Carrie Neill is a New York based writer, editor, design advocate, bookworm, travel fiend, dessert enthusiast, and a fan of People Nerds everywhere.

Subscribe To People Nerds

A weekly roundup of interviews, pro tips and original research designed for people who are interested in people

The Latest