The holiday season tends to be a stressful time for most of us. It’s a time when many families travel to spend time together. Others get ready to welcome guests. Regular routines are disrupted. Many users have to buy presents for different people in their lives: family, friends, coworkers, etc.

Users expect to find great presents that arrive on time—without breaking their wallets. And they expect to accomplish this on top of their hectic schedules and busy lives. Wouldn’t it be great if their online shopping experience wasn’t another source of stress? What if we could make their online shopping experience less stressful by saving them time, money and making sure they find great gifts for the people they care about?

With this goal in mind, I set out to discover potential sources of stress and potential solutions. I explored three online e-commerce stores—Macy’s, Amazon.com, Kohl’s and JCPenney—trying to find presents for different family members to see what the experience was like. From this experience, I’ll provide several unique UX tips that e-commerce sites could activate to help make users’ online shopping experience stress-free and more enjoyable overall. Here we go…

The Stress-Factor Friction:

Now, first off, let’s take a look at which factors tend to increase stress levels during online holiday shopping. Then, let’s look at different ideas to help users deal with those factors. For my part, I’ll illustrate these ideas with specific tasks and scenarios that your users may go through this holiday season. My intent is to help you empathize with your users and the context in which they may be doing their online shopping.

Factors that increase stress during holiday shopping (listed in no particular order):

Time. Most users have busy lives and are short on time. The more your site can help them buy the gifts they need in an efficient way, the less stress they will feel.

Trust. Users have to trust that your site can deliver on its promises because there’s a lot at stake during the holidays. Some things that your users have to trust you with are: item availability, prompt delivery, quality and security.

Certainty. How certain can the user be that they are buying the right item? The site can help increase certainty by offering users useful information about its products’ makeup either via reviews, social proof, or product detail pages.

Number of available options. A user might become overwhelmed by how many different items they can buy. What if they have no clue where to start? Many users end up procrastinating and leaving their shopping until the last minute to avoid feeling overwhelmed. Others end up buying items they are not truly satisfied with. Your site can help by, for instance, giving gift suggestions and making sure filters are helpful to narrow down a search.

Pressure to find a unique gift. This is a societal and family issue that many users have to deal with. While your site cannot help change those expectations, it can help increase the user’s chances of finding a unique gift for their loved ones. We’ll look at some ideas later.

Money and/or Value. Some users focus on spending a specific amount of money. Others focus on value. Your site can help address both issues. Are your prices comparable to the competition? Do you offer free shipping? Is the price higher, but the quality is superior? If so, is this clear on your site? Have the information the user needs to determine the answers to these questions readily available. Don’t make the user go to other sites (like your competitor’s) to look for the answers.

The Friction-Busting Solutions

Now that we have looked at the core issues that increase stress and anxiety during the holiday shopping season, let’s look at some ways to help reduce that stress and increase satisfaction.

Each suggestion addresses more than one of the core issues mentioned above.

1. Efficient Search—Save their spot.

Can the user use a 10-15 minute window efficiently? Can they get interrupted without worrying that they will have to start all over again?
Imagine users searching your site in these scenarios: during a break at work; while waiting at the doctor’s office; and a few minutes before their baby wakes up. Now imagine these users’ searches are suddenly interrupted and their browsers are closed for different reasons. For example, the user closed it to hide a surprise present from their boyfriend. Or someone else closes their browser (like this toddler in the photo down there).
What can we do so that the search time is not wasted? After all, these users did spend those minutes searching on your site. How can we help them make those minutes count?
One idea is to have your site automatically save the spot where the user was the last time they searched (as long as they were logged in). For instance, let’s say your user narrowed down a search to four pages (20 items per page). And he was interrupted while looking at the third item of the first row on page 2. Wouldn’t it be great if he could go to the site later and continue where he left off instead of starting all over again?

Digital Telepathy’s INSIDER TIP!

Brought to by Jamie Hamel-Smith (in-house, sr. developer)

Local Storage: Modern browsers support local storage (see can I use for the details). Local storage allows a developer to store details about the user’s interactions or current state for later (without saving anything to a remote database). This means that if a user was searching or scrolling, then we can store some of this data in their browser to make the experience seamless when they return. Examples could be restoring their position on a long article, or saving a list of recently viewed items.

History State: When you navigate between pages (by clicking on links or submitting forms) the browser adds these to your history. This is how it knows where to take you when you click the back button. There’s a relatively recent capability of modern browsers that allows us to append to or replace the current history state–it allows us to change the URL without reloading the page. This opens up many possibilities for remembering where the user was when they saved or shared a link.

When viewing a gallery in Dropbox, the URL changes as the lightbox opens. This means that when you send the URL to a friend, it knows which image to expand in the lightbox when they view the link. In this case, Dropbox is using the History API to make the user’s experience a bit more seamless.

2. Efficient Search—Help them sort.

Another idea is to use a feature that Macy’s and Kohl’s already offer: the ability to add items to different lists. This is great because it allows the user to label different lists where they can place items. For example, they could label lists based on how certain they are about buying an item (“maybe”) or based on the person for whom they are buying the item (“Aunt Maggie”). This feature can help make searches more efficient by narrowing down which choices they have to look at later. Kind of like when you clean up your closet and use different piles of clothes to decide what to do with them (donate, keep, or undecided).

Shown here is the Add To Your List feature.

These lists can also help the user avoid making mistakes, such as : accidentally purchasing the same item twice; or buying the same (or very similar) gift for the same person. You might save your user from hearing the family joke about how she always gives her father scarves every year.

If your site doesn’t have the “lists” feature yet, consider adding it. And if your site already has this feature, try to give your users suggestions on how to use lists to help them keep their searches efficient and organized.

3. Increase Certainty—Order history and reminders

Few users take the time to go to their order history to see whether they have bought an item before. The information is there, but it would take extra steps to access it. And many sites don’t have detailed order histories. For example, some order histories list the item name but not the size purchased. Or they don’t show that the item was later returned.

Shown here is Amazon.com's Order History feature in action.

Here is an idea, borrowed from Amazon.com, to help the user have information from their order history ready when and where they need it most. If you search for an item on Amazon, they will show whether you’ve bought it before and when.

For instance, I recently purchased food for my guinea pig. Amazon shows I bought this on Nov. 7. This info can help me by preventing me from accidentally buying this when I don’t need it. Let’s imagine I misplace the bag and I try to buy another one. The site reminder saves me from making that mistake.

The same mistake of accidentally buying duplicate items could be prevented in other e-commerce sites if they had this feature. But I would suggest taking this feature a step further and adding even more information. What if the user could read something like this, when searching for a present for their aunt Amanda:

“You purchased this item on 12/15/2014 for your aunt Amanda”

It would be even more user-friendly if the consumer could access the actual order for more information by clicking somewhere on that sentence, like on the date perhaps.

4. Help Them Remember—Taking notes

Consider having a field where the user can add notes next to an item. For instance, if the user returned an item, maybe they can write why they did this as a personal reminder. I know I’ve purchased items that looked cute online but were not so cute once I got them. If I return the item and a lot of time passes, I may not know exactly why I returned it. Maybe it was because of size, or the wrong color or maybe the material felt itchy.

Being able to write a quick note to myself about that item, right on the site, could help me save time and money down the road by preventing me from accidentally re-ordering the item and having to return it again. And if the item was for someone else on my holiday shopping list, I could make a note to remind me whether they liked the item or not for future reference.

5. Increase Trust—Item availability

Remember that your users need to trust you with many things. One of those is counting on your site to give reliable and accurate information about item availability. Do not show items as available, only to give the user the (bad) surprise that the item they want is actually unavailable.

For instance, I applied three filters to my search for women’s tops at JCPenney’s website: medium (size), brown (color), misses (size range). I ended up with 5 results.

Reduce shopper's stress by increasing trust in your brand's e-comm experience by making certain that the item's that are unavailable clearly show that they are indeed unavailable.

This looked promising. I decided to click on the one I liked. This is what happened:
They didn’t have it in brown—this color is marked with an X—even though the previous page said they did.

This violates the trust I had on their search. How can I trust that my future searches will produce reliable results? What if after spending several minutes narrowing down other searches through the use of filters they still end up not having an item? OK, maybe their search isn’t great. But can I trust them with other things they promise, like estimated shipping time or value?

Remember: trust can be easily eroded and it can take a lot to build it back. Make sure your user feels they can trust your site with their shopping needs and they feel your site is reliable and delivers on its promises. There is a lot at stake for many users in the holiday season and a deadline looming to have presents ready by their celebration date.

These are just a few ideas to help you start improving your user’s experience of your ecommerce site. Each idea is meant to inspire you to do more UX research and test more ways of making your users’ experience less stressful this holiday season.

How can you create a delightful holiday e-shopping experience? What else can you think of to turn your e-commerce site from naughty to nice?

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