Design & Development

Ecommerce Know-How: Making Use of Use Cases

Developing clear and concise use cases when you design or redesign your ecommerce website, can improve user experience and satisfaction, potentially leading to more sales and more profits.

Use cases have their beginnings in software engineering, where they were used to visually or textually describe a system’s behavior as it responds to queries, input, or other actions from external systems or “actors.” But marketers have adopted use cases to provide descriptions of how users will perform specific tasks on a website.

In the case of ecommerce, we know that customers are generally going to be researching products or services, searching for products or services, or ready to purchase products or services when they visit our site. But developing use cases can help us clearly understand how these interactions take place and may help us streamline the experience for our customers.

Video: Two Examples of Using Use Cases for eCommerce Site Design

Words of Caution

Having worked on many website design and development projects, I am a big fan of use cases. But sometimes talking about how a user will interact with a website can descend into a discussion about user interface (UI) too quickly. While UI is vital and can be informed by use cases, it is important to first understand what the site must do or provide, before deciding how it should look when it does or provides those things.

Second, case studies are not a replacement for site testing. During the site development process, it is a good idea to have a variety of users actually test your site. You can even give them goals from your use cases and see how they actually accomplish those goals. Use cases are a beneficial step in website design, but, again, they are not a replacement for usability testing.

Building Your Use Case

Building a use case is really an exercise in focused thought. By forcing you to answer questions about who is interacting with your website, why they are interacting, and how they are likely to interact, you can gain good information that will, in turn, inform site development. The payoff comes once your site is up and users enjoy a better experience, which in turn has a positive effect on your sales and profits.

The Actor

In use case terminology, the “actor” is the user visiting your website. When you develop your use cases, you want to clearly define whom the person is that will be taking the action. You also want to understand the context of the action being taken.

First ask, “Who is the actor?” You can make some assumptions or use your sales data to generate a profile. Here is an example:

Actor: Jack, a professional, who is generally a capable web user.

Context: Jack earns a nice living and has disposable income, but he prides himself on saving money and getting good deals. He is looking for a new laptop, but doesn’t want to wait for it to be shipped to him. Rather he wants to gather information online that he can use in a brick-and-mortar store to negotiate a better price and get his laptop right away.

The Goal

When an actor arrives at your website, he or she has a mission. There is something that needs to be accomplished. When you develop your use cases, you need to clearly state what the actor wants to accomplish. Also, if the actor’s goal is not in line with your goals as the site owner, you need to note this, too, because in some way you are going to want to change the actor’s goal. For example:

Actor’s Goal: Jack wants to browse your site for laptop price information that he can use to negotiate prices at a brick-and-mortar store.

Store Goal: To sell Jack a laptop right now.

The Action

The action describes the step-by-step process the actor goes through in an effort to achieve his goal. If there are possible forks in the road, it should describe what happens at each step of each option. Finally, if the actor’s goal is not aligned with the site goal, the action portion of the use case should describe how the site would seek to change the actor’s goal. Here is an example:

  • Actor arrives at site
  • Actor navigates using search, which leads to results page, which leads to (a) product category page or (b) product detail page.

If (a) actor encounters faceted navigation and can either (i) filter products or (ii) use a compare feature to analyze products or (iii) abandon site.

If (a) actor is shown a filtered list of products and can either (i) filter products or (ii) use a compare feature to analyze products or (iii) abandon site.

You get the idea.

Take Some Action

With a series of completed use cases in front of you, you can start to develop the site capabilities and interactions that will improve customer experience.

For example, if Jack’s use case is an important one, you may want to establish a “brick-and-mortar” marketing campaign, wherein you promise to meet or beat any price Jack can find at a brick-and-mortar store.

Summing Up

Use cases will help you think through how users interact with your site, potentially improving user experience.


Armando Roggio
Armando Roggio
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