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Often on sites of an ecommerce nature, a shopping cart icon will display in the site header/toolbar together with a quick summary of the users activity.

This will usually be in the form of either:

  • Number of items added to cart
  • Current cart total cost

I'm looking to gain an understanding as to which is the better approach in the following circumstances, and if there are any supporting papers/research available.

  • Which is most intuitive for the user
  • Which is better performing for the host
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    Not UX, but marketing... telling the user "you are going to spend $$$" maybe is not the best way to incentivate the user to keep searching for more stuff to buy. I would use just the number of items (and that, only because with it the user can check that the item he has clicked on has been effectively added to the chart). – SJuan76 Oct 22 '14 at 11:17
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While I can't point you to research, it seems pretty obvious that companies don't want customers to always see the running total. Seeing the total is likely to make customers more aware of the cost and reduce spending.

As a user, I would actually prefer to see the number of items, anyway. I use the shopping cart information in the navigation as a visual indicator that the website has remembered all of my items, and that an item has been added when I click on it. The number of items is better for this purpose. I also tend to make decisions based on the cost of each individual item, not the grand total. (Of course, this is just a sample size of one.)

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I would say that the answer to your question is It depends...

It depends on a number of things:

  • What are you selling?
  • Who are you targeting?
  • Are visitors likely to show up with a budget in mind?
  • Are visitors likely to just purchase one thing and leave?

Amazon.com is highly successful and they only show the total quantity count of the cart. This works very well for me personally because if I'm putting it in my cart then I simply need it and have settled with my rational for paying the price displayed when I added it to the cart.

On the other end of the spectrum I absolutely love shopping on Newegg.com and their shopping cart provides a running total which is excellent when I am pricing out a custom PC because 10 out of 10 time I have a budget in mind. Newegg allows me to do "window shopping" and add things to my cart at-will and once I see that I have reached/exceeded my budget then I evaluate my cart and swap/remove items until I am in range of my budget. I do not price out PCs on Amazon.

Now to answer your direct questions:

Which is most intuitive for the user?

See explanation above.

Which is better performing for the host

Don't worry about it unless you are using an inept programmer. If you are successful and selling a lot of products then won't you buy better hosting?

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  • Thanks @MonkeyZeus, my reference to the 'host' wasn't actually in terms of Web hosting (Sorry, I should have worded this differently), instead 'host' refers to the retailer. – Daniel Meade Oct 23 '14 at 11:54

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