What is the Ideal Checkout Login?

When planning a conversion rate improvement project, it’s a great idea to start with tweaking your checkout process.

But where in the checkout process do you start? Many are tempted to begin by shortening the number of steps in the checkout process. While this has improved conversion for many sites and is a good idea to test, it shouldn’t be the first thing you optimize.

More important is getting the customer into the checkout process to begin with. Typically, there is a gate between “Proceed to Checkout” and Shipping/Billing information in the form of a login/guest checkout screen. This is most likely presented in 1 of 5 formats:

1. Login screen (no guest checkout option)

2. Login screen with guest checkout option

3. Login screen with guest checkout plus account creation option

4. Default to guest checkout flow, with option to sign into account

5. “The Amazon” (single email field with radio buttons for password)

The problem with all of the above except for the Amazon approach is customers must decide between input sections. This requires the customer to read and make a choice. Sadly, you can never count on everyone to read instructions, meaning you will always have a segment of customers who will trip over login screens like this. Here’s an example from Jakob Nielsen’s usability blog:

In our study, a person who was already a registered user on Kayak had great trouble logging into the site on this screen:

How can that be? The distinction between “sign up” and “sign in” is clearly marked! Sure, if you read the blah-blah. But users don’t. Their eyes and mouse go straight to the field where they can type.

That’s what people want to do: they want to get things done. They don’t want to read.

The golden rule of usability is “don’t make me think,” and the more options you give the more you make the user think. Using Amazon’s approach, Sears streamlines its login screen, with even less instructions text to read than Amazon:

Only when the user selects “No” does the text “You will have a chance to register after checking out” appear, saving existing account holders from extra reading and thinking.

A second runner-up in the simplicity category is the default guest checkout (skips the login in screen) with optional account login box. We tested this approach against our original 3 option process with the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Store and achieved a 21.8% lift in checkout completion.

I challenge you to test your existing login screen against “the Amazon” and the default guest checkout first, then look at other points of friction (like presence of a progress indicator) to further improve results after you’ve determined the best login approach for your site.


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17 Responses to “What is the Ideal Checkout Login?”

  1. Jon says:

    I’m a little bit in love you you Linda.

    What a fantastic blog.

  2. matt says:

    Most retailers are not Amazon. Most can not afford the technology nor need to store years worth of orders, multiple credit cards, multiple addresses, etc. We started with the Amazon login model and a multi-page checkout. Once AJAX came into widespread use we eliminated the need for a login or creation of a guest account. In addition we went with a one page checkout screen. We still give customers the ability to login although it’s much more hidden than the example above. We give them the ability to create an account after we have the order.

  3. This is a great compilation of various types of entry points…excellent job. My question to you (and the readers) is regarding the email field that Sears is using. I’m assuming they are asking for the email up front so in case you don’t check out, they can re-market to you later. Brilliant, right? What if a 3rd party service handled this for Sears, and basically captured all of the emails who did not check out, and sent a tally to Sears at the end of every day. And let’s say this 3rd party service even went so far as to handle all of the email for the re-marketing as well. Is this ethically OK? Or does having a 3rd party handling that violate the site’s terms of use and privacy policy? Or maybe being transparent about the whole thing form the beginning is OK too. Would love to know what other people think.

    • Great entry, Linda, and perfect timing for us as well.

      Ryan, you ask some good questions. Most privacy policies will permit the website owner to share personally identifiable information with third parties working on behalf of the site owner. For example, even if the site owner was to do the remarketing they would probably do so through a tool like Constant Contact, Real Magnet, etc. and would have to share the email list with that provider.

      Where it becomes not ethically OK is if the third party uses the collected information in connection with a promotion for someone other than the original site owner. If I buy something from Sears and a third party marketing firm sends me information on an upcoming Sears sale that’s fine–I’m a customer of Sears. If the same third party sends me information for an American Express card, that’s generally not OK.

      All that being said, Sears is notorious for including third party offers and promos in their customer contacts. Their credit card statements usually have about 5-10 inserts for stuff that’s not directly from Sears.


      • I believe it’s only okay to capture that email address for remarketing for the purchase in question, never with offers and newsletters without expressed permission, and NEVER for 3rd parties.

  4. G’day linda,

    For the life of me I’ve never been able to understand why sites even bother to make users “register” before proceeding to the checkout.

    There is simply no need for it.

    The “gate” concept is unbelievably stupid and totally unnecessary thing to do.

    All that information they collect in the registration process, they will collect in the order process anyway, so there’s absolutely no need to duplicate it.

    In other words customers will get registered by default. I repeat, there’s simply no need for a registration process.

    I’ve been doing it this way for over ten years. It’s a lot simpler.

    Similarly, forcing existing customer to login again is also unnecessary.

    You should just let them place the order, and then when they get to the checkout either ask them if they are an existing customer, and then allow them to login, or even let them fill in their details and use some smarts to recognise an exiting email address or name, and then offer to log them in.

    The Toysrus screen looks like it’s closest to this model.

    • Agreed, there *usually* is no need for registration first. There may be cases where it is absolutely necessary from a business perspective, for example, Costco requires an account to exist, or telecommunications companies.

      • Giannis says:

        Agreed – if you’re selling any form of subscription or account based service, then signing up for an account is pretty crucial. Optional sign-in for those that want to, but also smart recognition to check for an existing account if they use guest checkout.
        Another option I didn’t see mentioned are services like PayPal Express Checkout whereby no login is required and accounts are created automatically for a new customer upon payment completion.
        Similarly, if you accept payment services such as paysafecard then anonymous one-time checkout should be permitted

        • @Gianni,

          yeh, that’s what I was trying to get at.

          There are obviously lot smarter ways to approach the whole login/registration issue, but most sites seem to fall back on what’s been done for the past decade.

          Just on that, Amazon is a case in point. I never seem to have to login, or if I do it already seems to know who I am and pre-populates the login fields. I know it’s just cookies and JS, but it’s still smart. (makes taking my money off me very easy.)

          It makes up for the diabolical registration process they have. Took me several days to get properly signed up the first time. (Actually longer ‘cos I gave up a few times before.)

          @Linda, as for telecommunications companies, sometimes I think they overdo the sign up process. In the past year I’ve signed up for four different mobile broadband plans. Most of them required the usual pages of details, except the last one.

          I just bought the modem from the shop, plugged it in, it asked for my ccard details and I was connected. I couldn’t believe it, it was so quick.

  5. eydryan says:

    here’s a question: why even have that password radio button? have a server side script that checks the email address against a known list of account email addresses (or straight out of the database) and automatically prompts for the password in case it finds a match. this can all be streamlined using ajax so that as soon as the user finishes typing (or while typing the .com) the page already confronts them with a nice jquery animation showing a password prompt pop up.

    as for privacy concerns, this is no more revealing than the already existing forgot password prompt which informs anyone whether this or that email address owns an account on the website

    • The radio button simplifies the form so if you don’t have a password (ie this is your first purchase) you’re not shown the password box (which some might just fill in with their actual email password – ouch!), if you select Yes then the box appears. I really like that approach. You *could* do it another way, but I think this approach is good.

  6. Lena says:

    Linda I LOVE your blog :) It’s so useful. Keep going!

  7. John Hyde says:

    This is a great place to start for anyone trying to boost their e-commerce results.

    It’s also got a strong message for everyone designing any kind of transaction:

    Don’t ask a question if you (the site owner) already know the answer

  8. Paul says:

    Interesting article and comments. Linda, if your customer-base were predominately one-time or first-time customers, would you then suggest using some version of the Toy R Us checkout page? It seems, at least for new customers, they pose the fewest obstacles to checking out.

    Thoughts? Thanks!

    • Hi Paul, we loved the result of our test with the Vancouver2010 Olympic store – the default guest checkout with optional account sign in box converted like crazy. Even returning customers tend to go through guest checkout to avoid remembering login information, so it satisfies both. Out of all the above, I like Sears and Toys R Us’ approach best.

  9. Jamie says:

    Excellent advice. Very good insight into the best practice usability for the checkout process. Often overlooked.

  10. makeonlineshop says:

    Amazon really is a model !

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