Schemas & Concept Mapping

Essays in this ecommerce series:

Understanding Commerce Schemas

Schemas are exceptionally powerful because they are usually internalized and applied without conscious intent: we just expect certain things to behave a certain way and follow certain expected steps and processes. [To learn more about schemas, please read this general discussion of schemas and metaphor.]

Users build an understanding of commerce from traditional commerce -- a traditional commerce schema -- then bring that schema with them when they try online commerce. Clearly, all users will not have identical commerce schemas, just like all users won't have identical desires or agendas, but many points will be similar across most schemas. Every user will have a point in the schema where they agree to a price or hand over the payment to the seller.

What I expect from a commerce transaction is basic adherence to the following schema.

+ a buyer + a seller + authentication of the seller (Do I know him/her? Is it a company I want to do business with?) + something I want to buy + help finding the product I want to buy, if necessary + courteous, professional, helpful service (but I also want to be left alone to shop in peace, so make help available when _I_ want it.) + if the store is interesting, I might want to sign up for a newsletter + an obvious method for purchasing (a line, a register, a checkout lane -- something. Don't make me look for somebody to take my money.) + an explanation of store policies, if necessary (is there a warranty? Can I return the product?) + a declaration of the amount due (Is that the correct total? Can I use this coupon?) + making the payment + authentication of the buyer (me) if not using cash + I take ownership of the product

These are the expectations I bring with me when I shop online; this list shows the needs I have when shopping, and my understanding of how shopping is supposed to be. Unfortunately, ecommerce simply can't meet these needs, at least not in this order, and often not even on a granular, point-by-point basis.

Using Schemas to Improve the Ecommerce Experience

Most commerce sites fail in one (or both) of two ways: first, they may fail to adhere to the user's schema for commerce; and second, they may violate the schema. The cause of the schema failure or violation may be bad site design, bad information architecture, badly designed commerce engine, rushed implementation, unfamiliarity with the audience...whatever the cause, I believe the blame can usually be assigned to somebody not understanding what the user expects from a commerce transaction. The most elemental rule for designing a quality site is understand your audience.

The most common type of problem with ecommerce sites is failing to adhere to the typical user's commerce schema; interestingly, many of these problems also end up being user interface and usability problems. While these problems vary in severity and scope, keep in mind that ANY deviation from the user's expectations will disturb the user; disconcert the user enough and they may decide that they were lied to. And, as Jakob Nielsen remarked on his 31 January 1999 Spotlight, "On the Web, credibility and trust are everything because your company exists as nothing but glowing pixels on the user's screen. Lie to a user even once and you have lost that customer forever."

The list below shows some common ecommerce failures.


   Commerce Schema      Ecommerce Failure*
   a buyer
   a seller
   Authentication of the    Anybody can create a commerce

   seller (Do I know him/her?   web site.

   Is it a company I want to

   do business with?)
   something I want to buy
   Help finding the product     Can't find the product on

   that I want to buy (if I     the site; either the interface

   need help).          is unhelpful or the catalog

                architecture is flawed.
   Courteous, professional,     Email is impersonal,

   helpful service (but I also  especially when sent by

   want to be left alone to     autoresponders. No phone

   shop in peace, so make help  numbers for "live" help, no

   available when I want it.)   context-sensitive help; only

                generic help that ALL

                users don't need to read.
   If the store is interesting, Personal information is

   I might want to sign up for  required in order to make

   a newsletter.        a purchase, but will the site

                SELL that information? Is a

                user's privacy guaranteed?
   An obvious method for    Some sites don't make the

   purchasing (a line, a    checkout function obvious,

   register, a checkout lane    or don't provide  a link to

    -- something. Don't make    checkout from an item's

   me look for somebody to  description.

   take my money.)
   An explanation of store  Many sites don't post this

   policies, if necessary (is   information at appropriate

   there a warranty? Can I  points in the navigation flow.

   return the product?)     Many Sites have prohibitive

   A declaration of the amount  Is the math correct? Are

   due (Is the total correct?   multiple tender types allowed?

   Can I use this coupon?). Are the tax policies clear?
   making the payment       Is the credit card charged

                correctly? Is the transaction

   Authentication of the buyer  By nature of the medium tender

   (me)if not using cash    options are limited.
   Taking ownership of      Slow shipping, bad delivery

   the product.         estimates, bad order tracking

                functionality, and the

                possibility of damage while

                in transit.

Violations of the schema are potentially the most disturbing problem for ecommerce users. These violations go beyond just improperly handling some expectation, they jarringly confront the user with an unexpected and threatening event. Two unfortunately common violations are the requirement to register in order to use the commerce site, and any ambiguous error within the actual ordering flow.

Registration is a major sore point with commerce sites. Users do not expect to authenticate themselves before they are ready to purchase. If a user cannot flag a product for later reference -- for example, adding the product to a shopping cart or wish list -- without registering and/or logging, the typical user will be frustrated and will possibly get angry: this authentication barrier occurs at a point in the shopping experience that doesn't reasonably require authentication. If the user is not at the point where they are ready to lay down their money, experience tells them that there is no reason to prove their identity.

Ambiguous errors within the ordering flow are perhaps even more annoying. Commerce sites routinely fail during the final order submission: the user clicks on the submit button, and boom -- they receive a message that says there is a problem, but they don't receive the information essential to them, which is a.) the order was processed, and b.) their credit card was charged correctly. Online transactions are entirely mediated by technology, so a failure of technology at the critical point of purchase leaves users in a feedback vacuum.

[ Read the next essay in this ecommerce series, The Roles Within Commerce.]