The "shopping cart" is a ubiquitous part of our culture. In the supermarket, where they are most commonly used, they are a convenience factor to distract customers from over purchasing. The main purpose they serve is to hide the fact that we are buying too much unnecessary "stuff" and to make us forget how much money we are spending. Sales people love them, and we hardly ever think about how easily the risk/reward calculation of a rational man can be thrown off balance. And that's not to mention how a loose cart in an empty parking lot on a windy day is a car mechanic's dream come true.

The shopping cart also found its way into our digital lives, where we spend increasing amounts of our time and money these days. A digital shopping cart started out just like its physical counterpart: a convenience tool for collecting desired items. It aimed to make the online shopping experience mirror the reality we were used to. Going beyond its traditional application, electronic shopping carts also add a total of included items, collect a shipping address, and provide other simple features—ones that a supermarket sales executive would never be able to obtain.

Not all shopping carts are created the same

Searching for a shopping cart solution online provides us with a myriad of results. Off-the-shelf versions that can be added to any kind of platform are widely available, and custom-made shopping carts can be bought from many independent vendors. As with many digital products, these out-of-the-box solutions end up restricting the sales process to fit within the constraints of what the shopping cart's developer or marketing team were able to think up. You can find several studies that investigate the effectiveness of these types of shopping cart solutions.

By now, a digital shopping cart is an essential part of the e-commerce ecosystem. It has evolved to include additional features that a customer can truly appreciate: it increases privacy by requiring a username and a password, it accurately computes fees and taxes, and in the case of shippable products, it provides us with a simple interface to enter shipping and billing addresses, calculates shipping fees, and estimates delivery time. It is even able to remember us, so that when we return for additional purchases, it can speed up the process.

A shopping cart can even talk to our bank and handle the financial details. It validates our identity and helps us obtain the products and services we need in a digital world.

To accomplish all this, designers and developers have to integrate a variety of fairly complex processes. From the display of inventory to the search and selection of products, all the way to the checkout and payment settlement steps, the transaction has to be as seamless as possible. The "promise" that human-centered design delivers has to succeed for every single customer, without fail.

The human-centered shopping cart

Consider our collaboration with California State University, East Bay (CSUEB): by designing and developing the simplest and fastest workflow possible, the entirely custom solution now delivers a great enrollment experience to students. To get there, we aggregated a variety of disparate services that used to make up CSUEB's enrollment process into an integrated solution that's easy and smooth for students. With clear and concise messaging, detailed course descriptions, and an elaborate confirmation email system that doubles as a receipt for payments, we are able to provide an efficient solution by applying human-centered design principles.

At CSUEB, students enroll in classes in a similar way they would shop their favorite website

At CSUEB, students enroll in classes in a similar way they would shop their favorite website

From the school's perspective, this efficiency leads to increased enrollment, while greater levels of engagement become an excellent tool to measure effectiveness and demand for programs and individual courses as well.

Most importantly, from the students' perspective, the shopping and registration processes are now much more intuitive. What would have taken days to accomplish within a regular setting now takes a mere moment. The shopping cart in this case serves more than just a convenience factor. It validates the student's identity—ensuring privacy and accuracy—and it allows for a quick search for courses, whether it be by program, term, or by location. Once one or more programs are selected, several payment options are available to the student. Finally, after submitting payment, the student is provided with a combined receipt/schedule confirmation email. This short feature list can already demonstrate how our solution is much more than just a vehicle for someone to overindulge on education. While more education is always encouraged, to obtain the most benefit from it, one should choose wisely and take on only as much as she can handle.

Our approach now demonstrates these important benefits, and both CSUEB and its students are better for it.