The Perception of Registration

Every so often I’ll see a Tweet or similar along the lines of this:

If any e-commerce site forces me to register, I automatically go somewhere else! Yeah!

When I read this kind of thing, my first thought is “Man, it must really suck not being able to purchase on Amazon”. Then I sit back and envisage this poor soul sat at a desk, looking forlornly at an absolute auction bargain on eBay as the timer ticks down, knowing that they and the item in question can never be joined in a perfect union. And why not? Simply because eBay have the incredible audacity to make you register if you want to bid on an auction lot. What a poor soul indeed. In fact, come to think of it, how did this person even manage to register on Twitter to post a tweet?

Now, whilst there are clearly people who hold this view in the world (just like there are people who walk around with aluminium tin foil on their heads to prevent government mind control), it’s difficult to overlook the fact that Amazon and many other e-commerce sites who force registration still manage to make a shit load of money. If you’ve read as many identical CRO blog posts as I have, you might well think that all these e-commerce sites are working hard to offer a guest checkout option. This is not the case. In fact, many major sites are actually moving from optional registration to forced.

I should say before getting into the meat of this that it’s not escaped my attention that this post may portray me as a pro-registration fanatic; I’m not. You’re better placed than me to decide what’s right for your particular e-commerce website visitors and if 17 checkout paths including a guest checkout option works for you, then great. But whilst there are multitudinous blog posts stating how horribly bad asking your poor users to register is, I’ve seen very few explaining why so many sites choose to do this. I felt I could offer a little bit of much needed balance on the subject.

What does everybody else do?

I’m UK based so for me a good starting point is to see what approach the largest e-commerce sites over here take to registration. Below is a table of the top 10 UK e-commerce sites by traffic in December 2012, courtesy of Hitwise. I’ve combined mobile, other TLD and subdomain traffic where necessary to order the list correctly. The relevance of some of the columns will become more apparent as you read further into this post.

No. Site Name Forced Registraion? Register Button Label Paths Screenshot
1 Amazon Yes Sign in using our secure server 2 View
2 Argos Yes Continue 2 View
3 Tesco Yes Register 2 View
4 Next Yes Register Your Details 2 View
5 John Lewis No Continue 2 View
6 Marks and Spencer Yes New Customer 2 View
7 Debenhams No Checkout 2 View
8 Yes Create account 2 View
9 Currys Yes Register 2 View
10 ASOS Yes Continue 2 View

Eight of the ten top e-commerce sites in the UK force registration; do you really think these sites are collectively losing hundreds of millions of revenue per year because of it? I really don’t.

Why should you care?

This is a fair question; you’re probably not Amazon and as the old UX get-out-clause goes, what works for an established brand site won’t necessarily work for you. Now I’m not suggesting any of those 10 sites offer a perfect user experience, but those same sites accounted for nearly 25% of all UK e-commerce traffic in December 2012. That’s a heck of a chunk and incidentally more traffic than sites 90-100 from the same list combined. Customer familiarity and expectation are important influencers and there’s a very decent chance that if you run an e-commerce site, your customers will have visited one of those 10 sites in the not too distant past and will therefore have certain expectations about what is “normal” and what is not.

Why so much registration hate?

So with so many successful e-commerce sites forcing registration, why is it constantly portrayed on 99% of blog posts on the subject as a major conversion barrier? I guess I could summarise a pretty common theme with the following statement:

But my customers don’t want a relationship with me. (Bwah bwah bwah, sniffle sniffle)

Let me share with you a little and often overlooked secret about e-commerce. Your customers may indeed not want a relationship with you, but you sure as hell want a relationship with them. The most recent figures I read were that 70% of sales on Amazon come from returning customers. Seven zero. Sick of Amazon examples? Well how about Fab, who shared that two thirds of their sales from Black Friday to Cyber Monday last year came from repeat customers. Are you starting to see a pattern here? So many UX pieces I read focus solely on the new customer journey; when you actually think about what makes any e-commerce business successful, taking such a new-customer-only approach is clearly a chronic error. If you want to succeed, you have to make it easy for people to come back and you have to give your customers a reason to do so.

There are of course some obvious caveats to this; if you don’t want customers to come back then you don’t have any reason to ask them to register. I guess one example would be if you’re a software site that only sells one product. However for the majority of e-commerce sites out there, repeat custom is going to be absolutely crucial to your success.

User testing is TERRIBLE for this!

User testing makes up a key part of a lot of UX projects and will often provide you with some pretty invaluable insights. One thing you have to realise though is that when it comes to the issue of registration, you’re highly unlikely to get a real world response from any of your participants. Why? Simply due to lack of real intent. If I’m being paid a few quid to go through the checkout process of a site I’ve never heard of and will never visit again, of course I’m going to be pissed off if I have to create an account, you don’t really have to be an expert on the human psyche to understand why.

Even better than that is when UX companies benchmark major e-commerce sites and the participants have to create a new account, even if they already have one! How could anyone not be annoyed at that? I have an account at Amazon, I’m very happy with it, I really wouldn’t enjoy having to make another account and then figuring out at a later point how to remove it.

Of course, you’ll typically expect the participant to pretend they really do want to buy something from you in that session, but genuine intent is impossible to actually fake. Sure, you can ask a participant to pretend they really have intent, but it’s kind of like your 16 year old self asking that really hot girl from your school, who didn’t even notice you existed, to pretend they really like you. She might be able to say the words, but deep down, you’d just know it wasn’t true :)

Making registration work

Making it easy for customers to come back to you is a blog post in itself (which I’ll probably write after this one) but I wanted to cover a couple of crucial points about the sign in stage which you might not have already realised.

Two is much, much better than three

If you remember nothing else from this post, please remember that having two sign in paths is much preferable to having three. And what exactly do I mean by this? Well, put simply, if you offer accounts then you should have an option for your customers to sign in during the checkout. If they do not have an account, there should only be one other option to continue the checkout process. The good news is that all of the top 10 e-commerce sites in the UK have figured this out; I think from memory Debenhams were fairly late to understand this, but by the time I wrote this post they had.

One company that hasn’t yet figured this out is TK Maxx and they provide a pretty good demonstration below of what I mean by three sign in paths:

TK Maxx

You see the issue? Either you have an account or you don’t; why would you even mention the terms guest checkout or registration? You might reasonably think that any customer who enters their details is going to assume registration is taking place, regardless of the wording you use and how you label your buttons, but just changing wording at this stage can actually result in some significant improvements. I’ve seen other posts where people actually think ASOS doesn’t force registration, or even that it’s a “trick”; it’s really not, it’s just about creating the right perception. Outside of major e-commerce sites, the biggest culprits I see for additional path syndrome are stock Magento installs, so it’s something to watch out for if this is a platform you’re working with.

For God’s sake, please don’t hide your login box

Another pet hate of mine is sites that offer accounts for don’t make it easy for me to use them. A key commonality between the top 10 UK e-commerce sites is that on all of them, the login box is given equal precedence to the second sign in option, even for sites that offer guest checkout. When you remember the importance of returning customers I alluded to earlier, this really is a complete no-brainer and it’s good to see all these sites getting it right.

However, there are some sites that make it considerably more difficult than it should be for returning customers. This ranges from putting the login box an extra click away during the checkout process (why the hell would anyone do this?) to making it nigh on impossible to find out how to create and re-use an account at all. There seems to be some fear that if a customer sees a login box during the checkout process, they might suddenly shit their pants and hurl their computer out of the nearest window. This comes back to what I was saying earlier about the importance of familiarity and expectation; unless your site is the first site your customer has ever visited on the internet, they’re going to know what a login box looks like.

My most recent personal experience of this was Expansys which is a site I quite like, apart from this annoyance. I recently had to purchase a batch of Motorola tablets for a certain project; Expansys had the best price and were a site I’d heard of (even though I’d not used them before) so I was happy to make the purchase there. I wanted to buy just one tablet initially for testing, I knew it was highly likely I’d be coming back for more.

On landing on the site I saw a “My Account” option; this was good news for me as I wanted to save my details so therefore assumed I would be able to during the checkout process:

Expansys 1

Yet for some reason, during the actual checkout process, there was no option anywhere to sign in or create an account, even once the purchase was complete:


I’m there on your site, you have all my details, I want to come back, you have some kind of account functionality, I’m a customer you really, really want, why are you not letting me create an account?! It’s madness, total madness and I still to this day have no idea how that sign in box connects to the checkout process, if at all. But I can really understand why this would happen and it comes back to what I said earlier about the chronic UX error of focusing all your attention only on the new customer journey. An hour of testing with repeat customers would have identified the above issue I’m sure, but like so many other sites, the huge value associated with keeping these customers happy has been inconceivably overlooked.

The benefits of registration

Ultimately, no e-commerce site would offer customer accounts if there weren’t some serious benefits to doing so. To finish off this post, I just wanted to cover a few of these both for an e-commerce site provider and also for their customers.

Benefits for the retailer

For you as an e-commerce site, the benefits of having customer accounts really revolve around being able to collate customer behaviour. You might think you can do this without accounts, but nowadays customers can use many different email addresses and other details even when visiting the same site, so having one point of data for each customer is a real benefit for you.

Once you have this data, the opportunities to monetise it are pretty endless. The easiest e-commerce task in the world is to sell more to people who already buy lots. It’s fruit so low that you’re in danger of trampling over it with your cumbersome feet if you don’t pay attention. With accounts, not only can you see who your biggest customers are and manage them accordingly, you can see what they buy, send them stuff they actually want to read and personalise their on-site experience accordingly to great effect.

In addition, you can also see when your customers buy, so on a very basic level you can exploit this to send things like win back emails, e.g: “We’ve not seen you for 6 months, you used to buy lots of blue widgets, here’s 10% off blue widgets until Friday”; it’s easy money. Just being able to maintain some relevant contact with your customers will do wonders for their frequency of ordering.

You can also get a bit more creative with increasing your revenues; Moonpig for example offer an incentivised feature where I can pre-add money to my account. They get cash for nothing and I’m instantly tied in to using them again in the future. It would be extremely difficult to offer this kind of feature without customer accounts.

Benefits for the customer

OK, so you probably get why retailers want you to hand over your details, but what you might have  thought less about is the clear benefits it gives customers as well. Being able to view account history is such a crucial one for me; if I couldn’t see this screen when I logged into my work Amazon account….



…. I would find that extremely annoying to the extent that I’d probably go somewhere else. If every time I wanted to track an order or print off an invoice I had to root around in my email for an individual order number, I would get really pissed off really quickly. Please don’t make your customers do this!

In addition, do not underestimate the benefit to your customers of not having to type in all their details. I used to shop regularly with a fairly large sportswear retailer called M and M Direct. Around 18 months ago, I stopped. Why? Quite simply, they had one sign in path, no accounts, just a guest process every time. I got so sick of having to type in my details every time I ordered that I just stopped using them. When I revisited the site recently with a view to featuring it in this post, I discovered they have ditched their no accounts checkout and move to forced registration. Given the benefits of this, I can’t say I was surprised. I signed up and have already ordered a couple of times since, all because I know I will no longer have the tedious task of having to type in all my details every time I want to purchase.

There are also more creative benefits as well; being able to personalise a customers experience based on account data is not just good for the retailer, it makes life easier for the customer too.

In conclusion

I believe forced registration is here to stay and with major sites like Argos recently moving from optional to forced registration, it’s reasonable to assume this situation won’t be changing any time soon. I hope if nothing else this post has given a deeper explanation to the reasoning and benefits of asking customers to register, rather than the stock “forced registration is bad m’kay” I see on so many other posts on the subject.