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Amazon and The Book Depository logosIf ever a retailer could get away with having exceptional cross-selling and up-selling functionality, yet provide a new visitor checkout process and web forms that break many usability rules, Amazon is certainly one of them. On the other hand one of Amazon's competitors, The Book Depository, certainly appears to focus more on providing better usability throughout the buying journey, especially for new customers.

Following the recent e-commerce training course I delivered for Econsultancy, the usability benchmarking that is part of the course threw up some really interesting market insights. Although many retailers are featured in the course, providing examples of good and bad e-tail usability and best practice, I purposely refrained from including Amazon.

The simple reason was that as they are one the largest and most recognised online retailers, with the vast majority of their customers repeat buyers (I suspect), shoppers are much more likely to persevere during their shopping journey, even if there are more usability barriers than other 'smaller' retailers.

This isn't to mention the fact that their user experience is highly familiar to their regular and long standing customers as they only ever tend to make slight tweaks, rather than big overhauls.

The Book Depository is one of the many e-commerce websites featured during the training course, and I've taken a look at how it compares to Amazon when it comes to providing good usability, especially in the latter stages of a customer's shopping journey. It is worth noting that the comparisons are mainly based on the user experience for first time shoppers rather than regular shoppers of either retailer.

Product page usability

Both Amazon (77%) and The Book Depository (83%) score very highly when it comes to following best practice guidelines for their product pages with The Book Depository coming out slightly on top.

Product page benchmark graph

A few recommended areas for improvement would be:

  • for Amazon, providing a clear way back to the page you were last on ie. a sub-sub category page, or list of books that you have filtered out, would mean that shoppers aren't restricted to just having one option to go back via the back button
  • also for Amazon, keeping visitors on a product page after adding the product to their basket could encourage interaction with the 'frequently bought together' product suggestions, as these specific suggestions are lost on the interim shopping basket page that is displayed

Cross-selling and up-selling

As expected Amazon (94%) perform exceptionally well when it comes to providing product suggestions, with relevance, intelligence and persuasion being 3 words I would use to describe how well Amazon's shopping engine delivers these. The Book Depository is not far behind on 83%.

Cross-selling and up-selling benchmark graph

Some key reasons why both retailers perform so highly in this area include:

  • integration of add-ons into the buying process
  • using sales volumes to use what other people have bought to cross-sell
  • integration of user reviews to add a layer of persuasion architecture into the product suggestions
  • using words/headings which accurately describe how the recommended products relate to the product you are currently considering

Shopping basket usability

It is at the shopping basket that the usability, especially for new visitors, begins to diminish for Amazon (33%), reducing significantly compared to how well the product page is presented and how well the cross-selling and up-selling engine works.

It's a much different story for The Book Depository (78%) who follow most of the primary best practice guidelines to encourage visitors to proceed into the checkout process with full confidence and intention to purchase.

A couple of areas that The Book Depository do well in terms of encouraging visitors to proceed to checkout include:

  • making the total price to pay absolutely clear, with no hint of sudden delivery charges that might be applied during checkout
  • highly prominent payment options featuring the cards accepted and the recently added Paypal checkout option

Shopping basket usability benchmark graph

Checkout process usability

This is where it gets really interesting. It is important to note that for returning shoppers, the checkout process (especially when using 1-click ordering) for Amazon will work superbly for them in delivering high conversion rates.

With the brand credibility and market share of Amazon being so high, and with the majority of shoppers (I strongly suspect) being returning shoppers, it is clear that Amazon don't worry too much about providing a highly usable 'new shopper' checkout process experience.

For their new customer checkout process, Amazon (32%) perform extremely poorly. In comparison The Book Depository (70%) certainly follow more of the best practice recommendations which retailers should be looking at.

I suspect that Amazon won't particularly be losing sleep over the potential frustrations and security concerns of first time shoppers, but if a potential customer had the option of ordering through Amazon or The Book Depository, their user experience would certainly be more intuitive on the latter and I would expect that The Book Depository have a lower checkout abandonment rate for new visitors.

Checkout process benchmarking graph

A few of the areas which are either damaging the usability of Amazon's checkout process or slowing down the process for first time visitors include:

  • not providing prominent security assurances throughout the process
  • not providing a prominent help service, especially just an 'email us' facility which is currently hidden away in the footer
  • forcing new shoppers to register in order to place their order
  • not providing a postcode look-up facility to both speed up address input and to help provide them with cleaner customer data

Checkout web forms usability

Alongside usability best practice guidelines for the checkout process as a whole, when looking specifically at the web forms used during the checkout process, Amazon (46%) once again perform very poorly. There is much written about form field best practice and Amazon certainly don't appear to be too concerned about following recommendations and guidelines.

Once again, perhaps as a reflection of the greater importance that The Book Depository (79%) place on encouraging 1st time shoppers to make a purchase, they again perform much better than Amazon.

Web forms usability benchmarking graph

Some key areas where Amazon's web forms could be improved include:

  • making it clear to first time shoppers what character length and format their password needs to be in, before submitting the form
  • giving context to their submit buttons, rather than just using the word continue
  • explaining why certain information such as their mobile number is being requested, rather than the shopper becoming wary of the potential of getting unwanted marketing text messages
  • making it clear which fields require completion, rather than having the visitor make presumptions and then potentially see an un-expected error message

Benchmark overview

Using PRWD's benchmarking application I have been able to provide an overview of both Amazon and The Book Depository across the key areas of the customer journey described above. It also includes an average score for both retailers, with Amazon (56%) coming in a distance 2nd to The Book Depository (78%).

Amazon usability benchmarking graph

The Book Depository usability benchmark graph

Summary

Much is made of the likes of online giants such as Ebay and Amazon when it comes to good versus bad usability and customer experience. What is clear is that for these brands, making big changes to their customer experience (with the aim of providing a more usable experience) would in fact damage the current confidence that existing customers have in using these websites.

For Amazon they can rely on brand credibility to offset the fact that they may not be providing as good a user experience as other online retailers, although I would encourage them to ensure that they do more to make the checkout process more user friendly for new visitors.

From what I understand having had a few insights directly from them, The Book Depository adopt very much a usability design led approach, and from this short benchmarking exercise it is clear that this approach is paying dividends throughout their customer journey, especially when it comes down to the checkout process.

For any retailers interested in gaining much greater insights and a better understanding of the usability and best practice guidelines which have been used for this benchmarking article, take a look at the training course I deliver for Econsultancy.

Paul Rouke

Published 7 May, 2009 by Paul Rouke

Paul Rouke is Founder & CEO at PRWD, author and a contributor to Econsultancy. You can follow him on Twitter or hook up with him on LinkedIn.

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Comments (13)

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David Hamill

David Hamill, Usability Specialist at Freelance

You make some interesting points here. I have to admit that I'm not a fan of assessing usability by scoring and benchmarking against characteristics of what of considered to make a usable system.

You see, one characterstics will have an entirely different impact than another. So the numbers are merely an indication of the extent to which one site follows best practice. This doesn't equate to one site being more usable than the other.

over 7 years ago

Will Jones

Will Jones, IT Director at The BookDepository

Paul, I love it when you review our site.

You are spot on, our approach is very much userbility and design led. We couple this with our agile development approach where we are free to experiment and iterate. Combined we hope this delivers a great user experience.

However we can always do better, so its thanks for the feedback on areas where can improve.

over 7 years ago

Paul Rouke

Paul Rouke, Founder & CEO at PRWDSmall Business Multi-user

Thanks for your comments David. You've made a really valid point with regards how different characteristics can and will have an entirely different impact than others.

In addition to guidelines/recommendations having varying degrees of importance and impact, the same guidelines/best practice recommendations will have a different degree of impact based on the type/size/age of retailer.

A good example of this would be Ebay - they can rely on their brand credibility and worldwide recognition to provide 1st time visitors with confidence as to the levels of security that their site provides, whereas a new to market auction website that no-one has heard of would have to work a lot harder at assuring wary users that their site is totally secure and trustworthy.

With all the above in mind I can confirm that our benchmarking application that I used during this article caters for both:

  • weighting of different recommendations as to thier impact on usability/customer confidence
  • weighting of different recommendations based on the type/size/age of business - ie. high street brand, pureplay retailer, start-up

In terms of the 2 sites featured in this benchmark review, from what I understand The Book Depository do have a very strong conversion rate compared to the book industry standard, so this would suggest that their performance in the usability benchmark study does reflect the fact that they do have a very usable e-commerce site that does deliver commercially.

over 7 years ago

Paul Rouke

Paul Rouke, Founder & CEO at PRWDSmall Business Multi-user

Thanks for the insights Will.

In addition to my comments above are there any insights you can share with regards your conversion and checkout abandonments rates, especially knowing how much emphasis you place on having a usability and design led approach?

I'm particularly interested in how well your site performs for 1st time visitors with your very usable, 1 page checkout process?

I totally understand if this isn't the platform on which to share these insights!

over 7 years ago

David Edmundson-Bird

David Edmundson-Bird, Principal Lecturer in Digital Marketing & Course Leader MSc Digital Marketing Communications at MMU Business School

My instinct makes me say that its not brand credibility that's keeping Amazon up in the stakes but Book Despository's relative lack of mindshare amongst the broader UK buying public. Sometimes us professionals forget that outside the industry, a lot of don't know a lot of the examples.

Amazon aren't going to worry too much unless that changes - and then it might be time for them to make the requisite alterations.

Remember - my mum still thinks the way Amazon does "recomends" is the Devil's work :-) I don't think she's that different from a lot of people.

over 7 years ago

Paul Rouke

Paul Rouke, Founder & CEO at PRWDSmall Business Multi-user

I agree on your point on Amazon having the much greater mindshare David - from an online brand awareness perspective I would say they are the equivalent to the likes of McDonalds and Coca-Cola in the offline world.

I like your insight from your mum! I think the whole personalisation/recommendation/behavioural targeting arena is something that will continue to either make people nervous/wary (big brother watching over you type feelings) or alternatively make web browsers and online shoppers more engaged with and impressed with the accuracy of such recommendations.

Perhaps the retailers and content providers that provide these levels of intelligence without people realising it will get the best of both worlds..?

over 7 years ago

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Kevin Arthur

Could you explain your methods here a little more (or point me to a description)? What are these percentages based on?

over 7 years ago

Paul Rouke

Paul Rouke, Founder & CEO at PRWDSmall Business Multi-user

Hi Kevin,

In terms of methods and more description, the training course I deliver for Econsultancy on e-commerce usability and best practice should provide you with more information. In terms of percentages and what they are based on there are a number of factors and weighting taken into consideration.

As David Hamill pointed out there are many recommendations that don't have the same impact for every retailer, and I provided some more insights into how the percentages are formed in my response on an earlier comment for this post.

I hope this is useful, and thanks for your questions.

over 7 years ago

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Kevin Arthur

Paul - thanks for the clarification. I guess what I was getting at is: are these metrics based on some sort of heuristics (and the answer appears to be yes) or are they based on usability studies (and thus derived from performance measurements or questionnaire responses, etc.).

To be frank, I have a problem with presenting usability metrics the way that you have without any indication of uncertainty. There's a precision implied in numbers like 77% that can be misleading. Of course maybe I'd feel different if I had taken your course. :) It seems to me that you're also giving more interpretation to the numbers than may be warranted. For instance, you imply that Amazon is consciously breaking some of the rules for their own reasons, which I find highly doubtful.

I should say that I'm not coming at this from the marketing world and I'm not a regular reader of your blog. It has shown up on some usability aggregators which is why cranky folks like me are here.

over 7 years ago

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Kevin Arthur

Oh, and for the record, I don't have any affiliation with either but I've been a happy customer of both The Book Depository and Amazon (US). :)

over 7 years ago

Paul Rouke

Paul Rouke, Founder & CEO at PRWDSmall Business Multi-user

Hi Kevin, thanks for your further comments. To clarify the metrics used are based on both heuristics and usability studies.

I agree that the numbers presented won't be absolutely certain and, for instance, exactly the same if other usability consultants reviewed these sites against their own usability principles and metrics. On saying this best practice for online retailers is something that shouldn't differ too much between experienced e-commerce usability practitioners.
 
Regarding my comments and observations on the Amazon user experience, I'm not implying that they have consciously broken usability rules. What I'm implying is that if Amazon were starting from a complete blank canvas as a new online retailer, I would expect the user experience they would develop (following a user-centered design approach I am sure) wouldn't be an exact replica of what they have now. As I mentioned in my post they only ever tend to tweak their existing user experience that has become so familiar with shoppers across the world over many years.
 
If you get chance I would recommend you trying out the new visitor checkout process, ideally pretending that you had never heard of Amazon. As is highlighted in the graphs there are certainly usability barriers and issues, in particular with some of the forms, that could be greatly improved.
 
On a final note, I wouldn't say you are cranky at all! I'm glad my post has stirred debate about the validity of usability benchmarking and evaluation ratings, and I fully respect your opinions and comments.

over 7 years ago

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usabilitygal

I have to agree with Kevin. This looked like a really interesting article however I was lost already by the first graph because unfortunately there was no explanation of the methodology or what the percentages represent. Without the context, the percentages can't be meaningfully digested and understood. 

Interesting that the book depository comes out on top of Amazon though. Being an avid bookworm I'll have to take a look at the site, though I think it will take a lot to break through the relationship I have with Amazon ;)

over 7 years ago

Paul Rouke

Paul Rouke, Founder & CEO at PRWDSmall Business Multi-user

Thanks for your comments usabilitygal.

On reflection I realise I could have provided more explanation in my original post about my methodology and the ratings!

As you may have seen in the other comments I have provided more explanation on the methods used and the different weighting applied - as David rightly pointed out in the 1st comment different recommendations will have different impacts on different retailers.

Hopefully the article (and subsequent comments) were still interesting for you to read, and thanks again for your comments.

over 7 years ago

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