How to Ensure Simplicity in Your Customer Experience

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While shopping, consumers are intuitively aware of their constraints that limit them. Simplicity for shoppers is the inverse of all of these constraints, extending to all aspects in the purchase process – not just the design of your website. Alongside motivation to purchase and intertemporal choice (such as whether to postpone the purchase or not), simplicity is one of the most important considerations in shaping the customer experience.

Consider a time when you came close, but didn’t buy from a website. Odds are, this was due to complexity introduced near the end of the purchase. Your payment may have been declined, or additional shipping costs pushed the price above what you wanted to pay. To make the purchase you would need to invest more time or money into the purchase than you wanted to.

The odds are also high that you were annoyed by this. A commonly used negotiation tactic is to put less significant points at the end of a discussion, seemingly as an afterthought, to force the other party to concede those points or risk reopening what they felt was a done deal. These kinds of tactics are rightfully viewed as underhanded. $20 shipping presented at the end of a purchase feels the same, even if it was caused by a technical or process limitation, such as requiring an address before calculating shipping costs.

You may wonder how other people react in this situation. The response of users to simple processes differs greatly from processes that introduce complexity in the shopper journey.

The Emotional Effect of Simplicity

Don Norman’s Emotional Design: Why We Love (or Hate) Everyday Things introduces a model for cognitive and emotional processing based on three levels – visceral, behavioural, and reflective processing.

  • Visceral processing is intuition and snap judgements; whether things are good or bad, safe or dangerous.
  • Behavioural processing manages most daily activities and acts as a middle-ground between visceral and reflective processing.
  • Reflective processing involves a high degree of consideration and reflection on past experience. It creates meaning and value through repeated association.

Simplicity is experienced on all three levels (depending on personality and information processing styles), but when the shopper’s journey is interrupted this is seen as a deal breaker. These might be unexpected costs, too many forms on the checkout page, timeouts, or declined payments, the effect of which can be seen here:

Cart Abandonment Statistics
Image source

As mentioned before, there is a visceral feeling of ill will when a shopper is surprised by high shipping costs late in the process. A different shopper, however, might not be phased by the high total cost, because money is not her main concern – she is willing to sacrifice the money to save time.

The factor that most influences the decision not to purchase is the most limited resource of the shopper at that time.

A simple customer experience is one that lacks adversity – a frictionless behavioural machine, Pavlovian in its simplicity – in which your shoppers receive greater value than their costs and return repeatedly. Brand loyalty emerges via these repeat positive associations.

Understanding how your shoppers deal with these limited resources adds depth to your personas. It can help you to tailor the design and functionality of your website, the marketing mix of your products, and the copy you use on your pages. It can also help you develop advanced targeting for your PPC campaigns to stop investing in traffic that will not buy.

The building blocks of simplicity are the shopper’s resources, and the prerequisites for a simple customer experience.

The Building Blocks of Simplicity in Ecommerce



If purchasing on your site requires time that the user does not have available, then the behaviour cannot be considered simple.
– BJ Fogg, A Behavior Model for Persuasive Design

Time is an extremely important factor in decision making and a large part of what dictates the behaviours that are considered simple. The perception of time dictates intertemporal choice (the decision of what to do, when), discounted utility, and information processing styles. Information processing styles are loosely clumped into “hunters”, who quickly narrow down and find a product to satisfy their needs, and ”gatherers”, who will attempt to maximize their utility by gathering as much information as possible on the products.

For both of these types, unexpectedly high time commitment increases the transaction costs and friction associated with the purchase. Only the time they expect to spend will differ.

A few indicators of a lack of time are:

  • Hurrying through the process. The user is unsure whether they will have time to make a purchase, so they try to get what they need as soon as they can.
  • Aimless browsing or stalling. The user knows they won’t have time to make a purchase, so they research the product so they can continue their session at a later time.
  • Uses timesavers like “two click checkouts” or services like Dollar Shave Club.
  • Reliance on heuristics such as browsing the most popular products in a category.

How can you help these users? A few ideas:

  • Provide timesavers for checking out, logging in, repeat purchases, etc.
  • Offer a quick way to checkout and pay.
  • Visualize how many steps are left in the checkout process so they aren’t surprised.
  • Trigger shoppers to purchase the items in their cart if they’re aimlessly browsing.
  • Send abandoned cart emails and store carts for later purchases.
  • Provide a “clear winner” for users without time to thoroughly research.

More importantly though, how do you come up with your own ideas to test?

You can do this by either visualizing yourself in a similar situation to these users or attempting to buy from your site when you’re actually tight for time. Play the role of a visitor to your site and map out your internal dialogue. Does the page lack the tools for you to deal with this constraint? Is this a common buyer scenario? Do you wish to target people in this situation?

If you answered yes, use your internal dialogue to construct scenarios and ways to facilitate the purchase. Chances are, you will have some ideas based on your internal dialogue. You can use this technique for each of these building blocks to come up with possible solutions to test.


Some people simplify their lives by using money to save time. Others are hesitant to spend any money, except for when they have to. These preferences for certain resources make up a person’s simplicity profile.

The effects of pricing and price perceptions are more well-researched than any other resource. If money is a real constraint for the users and the price is far too high for them to rationalize, then there is little that can be done beyond providing purchase financing or alternative forms of payment. If you cannot compete on price, then money must not be a limited resource for your target audience. It is a straightforward and real constraint.

Price and value perception is more complex. Shoppers will use heuristics to balance their need for a low price while reducing time and mental effort spent researching, to differing degrees based on their information processing style. This is a clear tradeoff that shows how a lack of one resource can lead to a shopper trying to use another in its place.

Mental Effort

The amount of mental processing required to make a purchase is another element of simplicity. This is what most people think of when they think of creating a simple experience. There is evidence that simple websites perform better and are rated as more beautiful.

About Face 3, a classic on interaction design, provides very succinct design commandments for creating simple interfaces:

  • Economy of form: Only use the elements that are necessary for the task. Use the smallest number of distinctions to convey the desired meaning.
  • Possess internal coherence: Good design is holistic. The use of scenarios (and corresponding personas) will help you to create a holistic user experience.
  • Appropriately stimulate cognition and emotion: Generating desire is too narrow a view – the design should reinforce the emotions of the user, and this differs depending on the products or services you provide.

“Necessary for the task” can be ambiguous unless you develop your whole store around scenarios, as the authors suggest. The risk of doing too little to overcome shopper concerns is equally as high of a risk as making the process too complex. Hence “trust seals” and other visual shorthands that create clutter; while they may seem unnecessary, they simplify the evaluation of a website’s credibility, which is part of the task for users that are unfamiliar with your store. Information availability and accessibility is extremely important in ecommerce and you should not make that tradeoff to reduce the number of elements on your pages.

“It’s worth noting that the quest for simplicity can be taken too far — reduction is a balancing act that requires a good understanding of users’ mental models.”
– Cooper, Reimann and Cronin, About Face 3: The Essentials of Interaction Design 

Decision fatigue is an example of using other resources when little mental effort can be given.

Physical Effort

Some online purchases may still require physical effort. The threshold and preference of other resources over expending physical effort contributes to the user’s simplicity profile. In some industries this may be a concern – for instance, if you sell furniture, in-store pickup may be a required physical effort.

Ecommerce has a lot of advantages in this regard over brick and mortar stores, and it can be used in your messaging to target more users that are unable to provide sufficient physical effort for the purchase task.

Social Non-compliance

Social non-compliance involves deviance from social norms, and is often an overlooked element of simplicity because it is usually not a limiting factor for shoppers. This includes illegal activity or fear of judgement, as well as less severe deviations such as replacing social experiences, such as shopping with your spouse, with their digital equivalents.

There is a social cost to any public action that must be considered when designing for simplicity. These social costs are highly contextual, but can be categorized in three ways:

  • This does not make me look like my ideal self. Example: Taboo products.
  • This does not support my beliefs or lifestyle. Example: A company embroiled in controversy.
  • This limits my social opportunities. Example: A person ordering pizza rather than going out to eat.

Think of ways you can overcome these by lowering or raising social visibility, developing your brand around an identity, and making the buying process more social.


Non-routine purchases involve extra friction and are inherently less simple than routine purchases. Each one of these purchases requires an exploratory commitment before purchasing. They are also influenced by intertemporal decision making, such as finding a time to make the purchase and remembering to follow through. People making non-routine, non-urgent purchases will sometimes procrastinate, increasing the effectiveness of reminders like cart abandonment emails.

Think carefully about what triggers the need or desire for your products and step in to provide the triggers and resources to perform the purchase.


It’s important to take a goal-directed approach informed by your shopper personas and scenarios. This allows you to consider how a shopper’s resources shape their experience, and how you might create a better experience for those users. From there you can design your customer experience for greater accessibility, improve your conversion rates, and narrow your acquisition efforts.

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