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Is e-commerce thwarted by usability issues?

Even with knowledge about e-commerce, novice web-users remain shy about e-shopping. Why? It may be "usability problems" that hold users back. Let's contrast e-commerce usage among experts versus novices in one important survey.

The Spring, 1998 GVU 9th WWW User Survey covered over 10,000 US (84%), European (6%), Canadian (5%), and Oceania (2%) self-selected web users. New users with less than one year on the internet constituted 18% (novices); 45% used the internet for 1 to 3 years; 37% had 4 or more years experience (experts). Generally, users were fairly experienced: 88% used the web daily and 26% used it more than 20 hours per week. Connections were adequate: 87% used
28Kb/sec or faster. Of those who made purchases on the Web, 33% spent between $100 and $500; 30% spent over $500.

Buyer reluctance – GVU reports that 60% used the Web to seek product purchase information. However, in most product categories, less than 40% made a purchase in the last six months. Respondents gave these three top reasons for abandoning a Web site during e-shopping:

  • Could not find the item: 56% - personal shopping (62% - professional shopping)
  • Site disorganized or confusing: 54% (61%)
  • Pages downloaded too slowly: 53% (60%)

These three reasons clearly reflect usability problems.

Experience counts – but novices shop less than expected

During the 6 months between the 8th and 9th GVU survey, users collectively ordered more frequently – probably because of more experience as well as increased product offerings and advertising. After finding the item, users placed an order...

  • most of the time (increased from ~14% (8th survey) to 27% of respondents (9th survey))
  • half the time (increased from 12% to 19%)
  • never (reduced from 27% to 13%)

Among Web users who find the item they want, 43% of expert respondents order all or most of the time, while only 26% of the novices do. Note that both experts and novices had found the item they wanted, but novices order less. This may reflect a lack of ease-of-use. Experience compensates for low usability.

Given a Web context, optimal usability design will reduce the need for experience and expertise. In contrast, the current survey shows a considerable range of usage frequency among levels of user experience. 80% of experts indicated they used information searches in quest of all or most of their professional purchases, while 65% of intermediate users did so, and only 50% of novices used such searches. With better usability, we should see greater use of information searches among novices and intermediates. Experts may also increase their usage.

Collective experience also counts in the category of "time spent searching." From the 8th to the 9th survey, about 5% of users moved from the 5-15 minute search category to the less-than-5-minutes category. However, we see that the six months between surveys accelerated expert performance better than novice performance. More experts than novices moved to the under-5-minutes category, implying that interface design has not reduced learning effort for novices.

Strong demand for e-commerce

The same GVU report offers this insight into the perceived value of Web-based shopping across all levels of user experience. Respondents gave these motivations for personal shopping of products and services. Most categories offer usability design challenges above and beyond just providing the functions.

  • Get detailed information on products: 87% - personal shopping (92% - professional shopping)
  • Make price comparison: 80% (83%)
  • Learn availability of products and services: 78% (79%)
  • Convenience: 78% (76%)
  • No pressure from sales person: 66% (58%)
  • Saving time: 64% (62%)
  • Get vendor information: 61% (75%)
  • Get reviews and expert recommendations: 31% (43%)


Is e-commerce thwarted by usability issues?

Depth versus breadth in the arrangement of Web links, Zaphiris, P. and Mtei, L., (1998) original paper.

Experience counts – but novices shop less than expected

Web page design: Implications for memory, structure and scent for information retrieval, Larson, K. and Czerwinski, M., CHI 98 Conference Proceedings, 25-32, (1998).

Strong demand for e-commerce

Web page design: Implications for memory, structure and scent for information retrieval, Larson, K. and Czerwinski, M., CHI 98 Conference Proceedings, 25-32, (1998).

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