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Designing an eCommerce Workflow: Gathering Requirements


It seems today that most people look to out of the box solutions when considering augmenting their sites with eCommerce features. Maybe it is because there are a lot of small businesses who just want to get started with eCommerce and a template site or open source solution is really the best way to go for them. This articles is intended for those whose responsibility is to service the smaller portion of companies where eCommerce revenue accounts for a large part (if not all) of their revenue to the tune of millions of dollars. To these companies it is necessary to have a finely tuned, customized and heavily integrated eCommerce solution, and sustain a high enough volume of business to benefit greatly by investing in more complex eCommerce features. In this case, the teams in charge of designing the intricacies of this system are faced with a myriad of options, standards, expectations, business requirements, restrictions, etc. At this point we need to take a close look at the details of the business requirements – work-flow likely being primary.

When designing an eCommerce work-flow, there are a few important aspects to consider:

  • complexity / budget
  • demographic
  • platform

We’ll go into the details of each section and discuss related specifics such as applying industry standards, meeting user expectations, and defining affordable deliverables. When we talk about the “work-flow” on an eCommerce site we’re generally referring to the path a customer takes from entering your site to successfully checking out. Our goal in designing this work-flow is to ensure that the user has not only a successful experience but also a positive one which lasts well after the sale is completed.


This experience is based not entirely, but heavily on the usability of the interface design of each of the pages of the checkout path. To many users, the interface IS the product (as opposed to the technology behind it) so its necessary to consider the design as a primary driver of success. In addition to properly designing the core elements of the work-flow, in more complex systems we can implement features to further increase our sales success rates (“conversion rate”) using a number of methods including using advanced page optimization (or split A/B testing), front and back-end anayltics, heat-mapping, and other tricks and techniques. We will discuss these in the next part of this article.

Let’s answer a couple of the questions we posed earlier:

What level of complexity do you need?

The answer to this will be largely based on your budget. However you can get started by asking the following questions:

  • Do you just want to accept payments via PayPal?
  • Do you need to manage your products and users?
  • How complex is your product offering? Do you sell a single product or multiple products? tangible or intangible? subscriptions? one-off, recurring, or usage based services?
  • Are you looking for a highly usable work-flow optimized for maximum sales conversions, minimum cart abandonment rates, and maximum up-sell rates?

The further down the list you answered ‘yes’, the more costly your system is going to get. The difference between the lowest and highest level will likely be substantial. If you’re the business owner you may want to create a list of absolute requirements, and “nice-to-have”s whoever you’re working with can easily provide you with a tiered cost-based proposal. Here are some examples of features which may end up in either your requirements list, or “nice-to-have”s list:

The following list represents requirements and features based on cost with the lowest cost first:

  • Basic shopping cart functionality
    • No user account management
    • No shipping, tax, or other calculations
    • Hard coded product details
    • Simple link to payment processing system (ex: PayPal’s base level offering)
  • Basic shopping cart with some usability enhancements
    • Intelligent progress bar interface elements [insert image] – wireframe of progress bar
  • Mid-level shopping cart
    • Information stored in database
    • Customer account management
  • Advanced shopping cart
    • Basic product management
    • Integration with USPS, UPS, or FedEx shipping APIs
    • Integration with analytics and BI tracking software
  • Enterprise level shopping cart
    • Full customer account management
      • Customers can access order history, order status, shipping status, return status, interact directly with customer relations staff via live chat, email, or direct internal messaging
      • Admin can view usage and order statistics per user, facilitate returns, track historical communications, etc.
    • Full CRM system
      • restricted access level features for managing a customer service center
      • historical communication tracking


    • Full product/inventory management system (promotions, discounts, variable multi-tier customer based pricing levels)
    • Linked front-end analytics and back-end Business Intelligence integrated with custom reporting software

What platform are you developing for?

Any site can be designed to work properly on the majority of platforms however, platform flexibility comes at a cost. The cost calculation is fairly straightforward: the more interfaces you design for, the more rounds of QA testing and development that’s required. With so many new technologies emerging it’s easy to choose one while excluding certain platforms. For example, CSS, JavaScript, and Adobe Flash is not supported on all mobile devices. If your site relies on JavaScript for advanced features like animations or Ajax based interactions, your site will not necessarily be accessible on a mobile device unless the JavaScript is implemented in such a way that allows it. Doing so requires additional work and thus costs more. Researching your demographic will reveal information which can help make the decision to justify developing for either platform or both.


To clarify:

  • Developing for a PC allows more flexibility with regards to usability, and asthetic components such as animations and Adobe Flash/Flex usage.
  • Developing for a mobile platform includes developing for handsets such as the iPhone, Windows Mobile, Google Andriod, or the BlackBerry OS.

So now you have the information you need to build your requirements list. The next part of the process involves designing how your users will interact with and progress through the system. This includes defining the specific pages necessary, usability elements such as an interactive checkout progress bar, business elements such as promoting related products, user account integration, and data collection processes for validating and standardizing billing, shipping, and payment information.

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5 Comments. Leave new

Monica Betonstahl
January 19, 2011 7:19 pm

Thats what i was looking for a long time. I have to make a presentation at a congress in germany and this informations was what i need. Thx a lot.

Good article.. thanks

what is ecommerce
June 21, 2013 4:44 am

This is very informative post, specially ecommerce web design. Here are some suggestions and important points which are very necessary at the time of web design for ecommerce business. The most 2 important things are budget and platform. What is your budget and which platform you selected for your ecommerce business website.

Please provide links to part 2 and part 3

Woah!!! looked everywhere and finally arrived at right place

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