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Amazon nearly ruined my Christmas Spirit: A Lesson in Error Handling

Recently, I've been praising Amazon.com to anyone who would listen. Around the office, I've been bragging that I was able to do 75% of my Christmas shopping off of Amazon wishlists. I found that when I combined the ease of wishlists with Amazon's smooth checkout process Christmas shopping no longer seemed like a chore.

The other night, however, my feelings towards Amazon cooled, and I was chagrined to discover how frustrating it can be to checkout on Amazon.

Two nights ago I realized that I still needed presents for my grandmother and one of my uncles. I was able to find two books quickly and, with my cart full, I clicked on checkout.

amazon31.png1. I knew that I needed to input my Grandmother's address (both packages were being sent there). After double checking her address, I clicked submit only to discover that Amazon was convinced she didn't live in Hamilton, MA but South Hamilton, MA. I chose the original address and moved on.
Automated address correcting is found on plenty of E-Commerce sites. It can be a really helpful tool, but it's important to keep the filter turned on pretty low. If it flags a genuinely bad address - great - but in my case the address was correct and Amazon's "help" felt more like a big-brother/rise-of-the-machines type burden.

amazon21.png2. After choosing gift wrap, I wrote two quick notes to go with the gifts. I am long winded so, inevitably, I went over the 240 character limit. After clicking submit Amazon popped up with an error message asking me to shorten one of my messages. Unfortunately, there was no clear indication of which message needed fixing. Amazon tried to help by placing an asterix in the errored text box but I couldn't see it. So I ended up shortening both messages slightly, twice. The end results of my gift messages read like I am out of breath (on a side note, its hard to spread Christmas cheer with 240 characters).

amazon1.png3. Finally, I had to enter my credit card. Easy enough - but not when you forget to select whether it's a Mastercard or Visa. Amazon popped back an error and deleted all of the credit card info I'd just entered. Ouch.

Individually, these three error handling issues wouldn't have been that bad. But when you combine all three into one checkout it's really frustrating. Had it not been the holidays, I would have been another lost conversion in a checkout funnel report.

Today, I shared this story with some other members of our WebEff team. We are into books at RKG and we buy plenty of them through Amazon. As a result, most of the gang here have "one-click" shopping set up. So, they hardly ever see any forms on Amazon. Me, I still use the retrograde system of typing in my information and selecting the right address. So I experience a totally different Amazon experience than the other folks here.

Perhaps the designers and developers at Amazon.com focus more on their most valuable shoppers, who probably use one-click shopping. However, we all want sites which function effectively for all visitors, even those visitors on less-used or less-profitable paths.

When we consult with online retailers we stress the importance of "blocking and tackling" - getting the basics right. Error handling is one of those basics. Retailers have to make the problem clear to the user and have to make it easy to fix. This idea is even more pertinent when the error happens in the shopping cart.

No matter what size the online retail outfit, error handling should always be clear, easy, and friendly.

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