Last year the story of a man who duped investors into purchasing Chuck E. Cheese coins, by claiming them to be Bitcoins, went viral as readers marveled at the smartness of the scam. The story was a hoax, albeit believable because it is almost hard to imagine Bitcoin without thinking of a gold coin with a ‘B’.

Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash

Ever wondered why Bitcoin got associated with the image of the gold coin even though it is far from a physical coin? An interesting design concept called skeuomorphism might be the answer.

Simply speaking, is the idea of representing digital concepts in forms similar to their physical counterparts. For example, the phone icon in the iPhone displays a picture of a traditional phone; and the email app icon contains a picture of an envelope. These subtle hints help users associate new technology with past experiences to be able to know where it fits in. While the phone icon is helpful for customers who have used analog devices in the past, does it add any value for customers who were born in the iPhone era?

In his best selling book The Internet Of Money, Andreas Antonopoulos explains that Bitcoin’s technology was so disruptive that it warranted a frame of reference for people to understand how it could fit into their lives. Our brains look for metaphors for understanding new concepts, and Bitcoin’s nomenclature and associated image were crucial in creating associations between the new crypto-technology and currency.

As Antonopoulos explains in his book, Bitcoin is a great example of skeumorphic design, not only in how it created a frame of reference, but also in demonstrating the caveats of such a design. While Bitcoin became the hottest newcomer on the currency scene, the image of the coin stuck and created confusion about whether someone could actually purchase a physical coin that represented its digital counterpart. This initial perception as an investment vehicle greatly influenced the direction of the technology. Bitcoin started to be perceived as digital gold, which required miners to be able to mine new coins. In 2017, Bitcoin prices went up from $930 to $20,000.


Everybody had an opinion on Bitcoin. Warren Buffet said

“If you buy something like a farm, an apartment house, or interest in a business you can do that on a private basis and it’s a perfectly satisfactory investment. You look at the investment itself to deliver the return to you. Now, if you buy something like Bitcoin or some cryptocurrency, you don’t really have anything that has produced anything. You’re just hoping the next guy pays more.”

…or the Greater Fools Theory, which states that the price of an item is not determined by its intrinsic value, but irrational beliefs and expectations that a ‘greater fool’ will purchase it at a higher price.

When Satoshi released his Bitcoin Whitepaper in wake of the 2008 market meltdown, Bitcoin was meant to be a peer-to-peer electronic cash system. What if Bitcoin was instead projected to be a superior peer-to-peer alternative to Western Union? How would an alternative frame of reference have influenced Bitcoin’s perception and helped endeavors in easing the challenges of sending money across borders?

CoinDesk (Western Union parody post from Reddit)

The concept of skeumorphism is so interesting because we are surrounded by elements which were designed as metaphors to their predecessors, but have been so ingrained in our habits that we limit ourselves to the said metaphors. There is also a reason why these ideas stick for so long — partly due to a cognitive bias called the status quo bias. Why fix something that isn’t broken?

One such skeumorphic design is the eCommerce shopping cart. When the first e-commerce capabilities were introduced, customers needed a metaphor to relate the online experience with something they were accustomed to. The concept of a digital shopping cart helped consumers connect the online shopping experience with an in-store experience. When in store, shoppers added items to the shopping cart and went to the checkout lane to pay for their items. The workflow is similar on an eCommerce website where customers browse the shop to add items to their cart, and finally proceed to the checkout phase of the process.

There are a few reasons why this workflow hasn’t changed over all the years:

  1. It works! Status quo bias — it really works, why change it?
  2. Changing the work flow would require user training, which could lead to confused customers, translating to lost sales — big red flag!
  3. Most e-commerce websites are not built from scratch, but through platforms (e.g. Shopify) which abstract the technical details away from businesses and let them focus on their core competencies. These platforms provide a standard checkout experience, and businesses are bound by the capabilities offered by the platforms.

The online checkout experience is a pretty daunting one, with average checkout abandonment rates as high as 75.6%. While the ‘shopping’ part of the eCommerce experience has evolved significantly over the years, the checkout experience remains merely ‘transactional’. The cart is still a glorified invoice with thumbnails.

Baymard Survey

Shopping carts are abandoned because of surprises (extra costs, extra steps) that the customer was not prepared to expect during the pre-checkout phase. These stats further demonstrate how disjointed the ‘shopping’ and ‘purchasing’ aspects of the online experience have become. Successful retailers strive to make this process seamless.

One of the most notable innovations in making the process seamless has been 1-Click checkout — which was patented by Amazon in 1999, and expired last year (2017). In essence, the 1-Click feature eliminated the cart checkout phase of the shopping experience. According to estimates, the 1-Click feature increased Amazon’s sales by 5%, resulting in additional revenue of $2.4 billion annually. In fact, Amazon has been leading the shopping cart innovation in physical stores as well with Amazon Go — by creating an experience that eliminates the cart checkout process as an explicit last step.

If in-store experiences shape our digital expectations, we need to look no further than in-store experiences to get some pointers for enhancing our end-to-end digital shopping experience.

Seamless checkout — Amazon Go demonstrates that we can do without an explicit checkout process.

Partitioned carts — In an interesting experiment, researchers found that when shopping carts were partitioned with duct tape into separate sections for fruits and vegetables, shoppers bought more fruits and vegetables compared to those whose carts were not partitioned. A similar study by Ghent University suggested that partitions create ‘nudges’ that influence shopper behavior. Retailers like Nordstrom, for example, can implement partitioned carts by manifesting the cart as an outfit selector with empty slots for certain outfit pieces; the sections act to nudge the customer into filling in the slots along with add-ons like accessories and shoes to complete the outfit.

Nordstrom Outfit Suggester — possible cart implementation

Avoid unexpected surprises

One of the most explicit difference between an in-store and online shopping cart is that the contents of a shopping bag are always visible to the customer, whereas most eCommerce platforms hide the contents of the shopping cart unless the user either hovers over or clicks to view the contents. It should be no surprise that when it comes to online cart abandonment, the inconsistency between the pre-checkout and in-checkout experience is the biggest reason why customers abandon carts.

When customer shop for clothes their end goal is to create an outfit — either completely in the store, or using mental projections from items they have at home. The digital shop has a great opportunity to create an immersive experience that helps them see how an outfit will look post-checkout, effectively moving them ahead of the checkout process cognitively. The customer should be able to see how their cart shapes throughout the process rather than at the very end.

The possibilities with such an approach are endless, but effectively aim to close the gap between the shopping and the transactional elements of the experience. While we rely on concepts such as skeumorphism to understand new concepts, it becomes crucial to understand how the very same concepts can anchor us into a corner. Now that its physical metaphors are themselves being updated, maybe the digital shopping cart deserves one as well.

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