How do we help customers handle the steps between browsing and buying?

Audit infographicAudit infographic


The Situation

The online shopping experience has a familiar browse to buy flow. Generally, we land on an e-commerce site, do a search or look for what we're interested in category pages. We collect information about individual items. When we’re ready to buy, we add the items we liked best to a cart, shopping bag or a bag. But there are other states besides the cart and checkout: the wish list, favorites list or save for later. These lists give shoppers more time to find complementary items, compare and decide on alternatives, or to simply to watch an item over time. For many retailers, the intermediate wish list or favorites list is a valuable use case, often given equal hierarchy to the cart in top nav bars.

Across online retailers, this intermediate states before the cart didn't follow a standard pattern. Having several areas on a site with the same function runs the risk of adding a cognitive load that requires effort to recall where items are saved. The expansion of the shopping experience to multiple devices (app and web) also adds additional complexity.


Action and approach

My goal was to come up with a simple pattern that didn’t break the browsing flow and gave customers a quick way to add to a single list for review at the end of a browsing session. I was inspired by the drag-and-drop interaction. (Happy to share the prototype upon request.)

Because physical engagement, according to Susan M. Weinschenk can be an influential part of the decision-making process, I wanted to add a more involved physical action of the drag-and-drop to allude to the physical aspects of taking something off a rack or putting something into a cart.

I explored ways to simplify this experience and design a new interaction paradigm that doesn't break the browsing flow. I focused on the web experience with the presumption the app or mobile experience had comparable features.


What's out there today

I started by looking at the top-10 US online retailers along with some niche shopping sites and did a content audit of pre-cart states: favorites lists, wish lists and save-for-later lists. 


Content audit results

It became clear there wasn't a standard way sites treated the pre-cart, pre-purchase state. Amazon had the most options, where shoppers can create lists, heart exclusive items, and interesting finds, add things to an Alexa shopping list or to Dash buttons. The many-option strategy gives shoppers more ways to save items. It’s not a bad strategy because shoppers think choice equal control, but runs the risk of reducing confidence in a purchase by adding search costs of finding where items were saved. 

Asos and Farfetch kept it simple with a single favorites list placed on the same hierarchy as the cart. Asos and Farfetch had a seamless add to favorites from cart and back to list and vice versa. These same options were available to signed-out and signed-in customers.

Kohl’s had the most functionality for wish lists, including shoppers being able to set budgets and add dates for important events like birthdays and anniversaries. 


1. Words matter

Many retailers require naming lists (Home Depot, Target, Costco) before you can add items. This requires shoppers to have an idea about a category or theme. But categorizing after you’ve collected items might be easier. Users aren't always sure what the categories are until they start adding things and often start with generic list names: "likes" or "my stuff."

Naming can also befuddle, like the case at BestBuy where "Saved item" lists and "Save for later" in the cart were not the same thing. Saved items did not appear in the cart like save for later items, as you might expect. 

Sign-in prompts presented to non-signed-in users who may wish to add items to a list tended to put the onus on the user. An example from Gap:

“Don’t see your favorites. Check your devices to see if you saved Favorites without signing in. If so, sign in on that devices and hit refresh to access all of your saved Favorites.”

A better option might be: “Keep track of what you want in one easy place. Sign in to create lists.”


2. Sign-in pages break browsing flow

The majority of retailers required users to sign in before they could save to a list or save for later. The sign-in interaction was typically a takeover sign-in page. 

Sephora had a good example of a less intrusive sign-in flyout "to add to Beauty Bag."

Design choices impacted sign-in consistency. Like Sephora, Rei has a less intrusive sign-in modal pop up when a shopper attempts to add an item, but if the shopper scrolls down and the top nav is no longer visible, they are taken to a separate sign-in page. This breaks the browsing flow in a heavy-handed way. 


3. Business logic driving user options

In the Costco shopping experience, business logic isn’t transparent to the user. It’s not clear why some items can be added to a wish list and some to a registry, while others can't be added at all:

  • Shoppers can add a $49.99 Kettle to Wish List and to Registry
  • $1299.99 Chase Lounge Set to Registry only
  • $42.99 Diapers to Wish List only
  • $42.99 not member only towel set can't be added to any list


It was also common to see "Save for later" restricted to items already in the cart. (Amazon, Walmart, Nordstrom)

It was less common to see an option to add to a list or wish list from the cart (Madewell, do). Apple and Barneys require shoppers to go to the product page from the favorites list to add to bag because it’s not possible to add an item from the list directly. This seems like a lost opportunity to get a shopper to the shopping bag quicker. Similarly, Gap allows shoppers to favorite from product and category pages, and search results, but not the cart.

Except for Amazon, Farfetch and Asos, the ability to go from one pre-cart list to another, no matter where shoppers initially saved an item, is uncommon. It's not a two-way street.


4. Validating choices

Sephora and Target show how many other shoppers also favorited/saved an item. Target has the most consistent "other shoppers also liked" number across their registries and favorites lists. Target is transparent about likes feeding into shopper's recommendations. 


What I learned

A content audit helps uncover different approaches used to meet shoppers' goals to save an item pre-cart. It also tells us there isn't a standard pattern for this behavior. Overall, there appear to be too many options for this single, relatively simple user need to store items for evaluation and consideration before committing to buy. There's a risk of eroding customer confidence when there are too many, non-standard pre-cart states.