Do fewer conversion steps lead to higher conversions?

Sam examines the use of friction in design, building Krug's seminal "Don't Make Me Think".

An illustration of a snakes and ladders board.

When optimising online experiences, our most immediate thought is likely to be: where are our biggest pain points and how can we fix these?

Removing friction is often the cheapest, and fastest, way to start your optimisation journey. However, there might be occasions when removing friction is actually harming your overall conversion.

When you reduce friction, make something easy, people do more of it.

Jeff Bezos

Don’t make me think

Firstly, what do we mean by friction? Typically, friction occurs when it takes too long for a user to complete their goal or action. For example, the proposition might be hard to understand, there might be broken links or forms, or even confusing copy that is difficult to grasp. Naturally, these are the sorts of things that need addressing.

One of the best and most recognised examples is Amazon. Amazon is focused on reducing friction in order to get more people to buy. With their ‘Buy now’ button Amazon has effectively removed the entire checkout journey from the buying process.

Removing friction can extend to the offline world as well; think, Amazon Go and their removal of the checkout process in stores. Everything they do is all about reducing friction, making it as easy as possible for their customers to buy.

Another more general online example is form filling. We see a drop-off at almost every question and additional step. Surely, by removing questions and steps we will see an improvement in conversion? A worthwhile experiment, but make sure you keep an eye on your full funnel metrics - you may be inadvertently losing customers elsewhere. Multi-step forms, that actually increase the number of steps, that use progressive disclosure, have been known to improve conversion rates.

In short, removing fields or layers of experience won’t necessarily work for all of us, we aren’t all Amazon.

Do make me think

Way back when Principal Consultant, Neil Pawley, offered us an alternative perspective on Steve Krug’s industry-defining ‘Don’t Make Me Think’. Neil’s article goes on to suggest that “we [as designers] must educate and must ensure that not everything can be accomplished in seconds – some things should make us ‘stop and think’.”

When buying expensive, high-consideration products and services, confidence, and not necessarily speed, is key.

Users want to be confident in their decision. Think insurance, mortgages, loans. When buying these products online we should be made to stop and think with some level of friction - ‘good’ friction, perhaps. These are the types of products users need, so getting things right requires time and mental effort.

In a retail context, Amazon’s ‘Buy now’ button works as they work to instil confidence, ensuring customer expectations are met. For example, next to the call-to-action buttons you’ll see reassuring content such as ‘free returns’, playback of your selected delivery address, and the number of items you’re buying; all of this gives users the confidence that once they hit ‘buy now’ all they need to do is wait for it to arrive. When this is combined with quick delivery and easy returns, confidence extends beyond digital but adds to why optimised flows are successful.

Of course, there may be trade-offs to implementing these features, for example return rate may increase. However, the success of highly tuned journeys ultimately comes from understanding your users’ needs and motivations, which you can gain through user research and experimentation. Of course, we could debate if Amazon has passed their business needs onto people as structured ‘user needs’ but we’ll leave that for another day.

In reality, the only way to truly understand this kind of impact, is to measure everything.

Do you know me?

The more you know about your users, the better you can communicate with them. The amount of ‘good’ friction a user might need will vary. Amazon is able to offer a ‘buy now’ experience because they know their users are signed in. This experience isn’t available if you’re not.

Returning customers are likely to be more familiar with your brand compared to new visitors and will benefit from a more frictionless experience to buy again. New customers should be given the time and capacity to think through their purchase, where it makes sense to.

When to make me think

I encourage you to think about friction outside of reducing time to purchase, or the number of steps to get through. Making it too easy may be disconcerting. Focusing on these metrics can lead to the opposite of your intended impact of helping a customer complete their task. Instead, improve clarity and confidence. Validate your solutions with research to avoid dead-end ideas, and experiment at scale to make sure your plans to reduce friction are actually benefiting the customer and your bottom line once implemented.

Hopefully, by now you’re clear that ‘friction’ can both harm and aid conversion. An effective optimisation programme, built on data, will help you understand exactly where you need to keep things simple, and when to make people think.

I leave you with another quote from Neil. Make sure you give the article a read.

Through multiple digital interactions, consumers have come to expect everything to be simple and that nothing should take more than a few seconds to complete… As consultants or designers, we are all trying to make interactions simple, but maybe not everything is, or should be, simple.

Related articles