The $300M button and other lessons

How defaults shape user behavior and change power dynamics

The story of the $300M button made a big splash over a decade ago when it was first covered in a book called Web Form Design: Filling in the Blanks. I recently stumbled upon it and was immediately captivated.  

It’s a great example of how designs can impact a business, in this case to the tune of $300M. It’s also a reminder of how defaults matter, shape user behavior, and even influence the balance of power between brands and platforms.

A simple button change

There were only two buttons: Login and Register. What could go wrong? In isolation, the buttons were innocent enough. But the first red flag was they showed up right after a user clicked “Checkout”. 

The company, rumored to be Best Buy, hired a usability researcher. In the tests, users happily added stuff to their cart, made their way into checkout… and then froze. The first-time users were annoyed they had to register to complete their purchase: “I’m not here to be in a relationship. I just want to buy something.” The repeat users were also annoyed. Most of them couldn’t remember their login and password. Some used the forgot password flow, but struggled to remember which email it was under. 

The improvement they tested was simple. They replaced the “Register” button with “Continue as Guest”, and included some comforting copy on what would happen next:

The results were eye-popping: the number of ordering users went up by 45%, resulting in an extra $300M that first year. Even better, 90% of the ordering users chose to make an account as part of the checkout completion process. 

Hidden lessons

This isn’t an ode to the invention of guest checkout. While that was the solution in this specific instance, the more universal lessons behind this story are: 

  1. Understand user expectations — asking someone to “register” after they just spent energy creating an order is poor timing and poor framing. The best time to make a big ask is when you tie it to something very rewarding (e.g., getting access to a special feature) or when it’s already integrated into an action they want to do (e.g., filling out an address to receive their purchase). You don’t want disgruntled users because they won’t trust you and stick around. 

  2. Track click data — this company was not tracking any clicks. When they finally started logging events, they found that most users bailed after seeing “Register” and “Login”. The usability study saved them, but measuring conversion would have sounded the alarms much earlier. 

  3. Being user-centric is good business — the most fascinating plot twist was that nearly all the users were happy to register at the end when they saw value in doing so (e.g., receiving shipping updates). The best path to capturing sustainable business value is to create a lot more user value.

Defaults matter

There’s a reason why Snapchat opens to the camera, TikTok opens to the For You feed, Instagram places Stories at the very top of the feed. They are making a statement about what’s important to the product, but more importantly, they know it shifts behavior. Most users stick to defaults, and defaults get better the more they are used.

Search has been the default for the internet. It was the first solution to make sense of this new world of abundance. Amazon uses search as the portal to its mighty everything store. But could there be a better solution? 

This week, I ordered boba ice cream on Instacart after watching a rave review on TikTok. I’ve also been tempted to book an idyllic hotel in Switzerland after seeing it on TikTok. All of this sounds comical, but it begs the question of whether there’s a new, powerful default in the room. 

Search gives you whatever your heart desires and asks for. Browse has the potential to give you whatever your heart desires… before you know to ask for it. Search is still the fastest path to manifesting what you want at any given moment, but we’re now in the early days of what life is like when products know you better than you know yourself. 

In many ways, browsing is more akin to the offline world where you have serendipitous conversations and discoveries that inspire you beyond your expectations. Trader Joe’s turns a mundane grocery run into a delightful treasure hunt for cauliflower gnocchi. Pinduoduo, an $87B company based in China, has also taken this to heart, creating a social ecommerce product based on browsing a feed of products and sharing with others to lock in savings.

Amazon, on the other hand, caters to people who prefer to avoid shopping altogether. You type into the search box, use one-click checkout, schedule recurring order, and you’re done. No romance required.

Those who actually enjoy shopping are left with a million different websites of varying quality. This is a massive aggregation opportunity that a number of players are eyeing from Instagram to Shopify. Whoever takes over TikTok’s U.S. operations will be sitting on a treasure trove of e-commerce potential.

The balance of power 

You search for the known, you stumble upon the new. Search helps the rich get richer. After all, most users do not venture past the first few results. Browse opens the gates to meritocracy. Of course, the experience can still be rigged to favor certain players, but there is more room for true discovery of new things. 

In the pre-internet world, brands had all the power because they were the gatekeepers. When the internet arrived, the search bar became the de facto gatekeeper. You can still search for brands, but their power is a shell of its former self — they’re entirely dependent on you remembering their name. In a browse-based world, brand power vanishes entirely and shifts to the player that captures the demand. 

That’s not to say great brands can’t break through. If they receive high engagement (or whatever metric the aggregator deems to be best), they will still prevail, but exclusively relying on the name will no longer be a viable option. All this to say that quality is more important than ever, and if you’re really serious about maintaining your power, you should build a direct relationship with your users. 

A great product is like a well-organized orchestra where all the instruments complement each other, from product design to the business model and data model. Silly designs and no data analysis can cost you millions and the trust of your users. Selecting your default can shift user behavior and even influence the balance of power. Choose wisely. :)

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