93 percent of users have been frustrated with a website’s usability, while another 72 percent have been similarly stymied by a mobile app--and 87 percent of users say that these experiences lead them to feel negatively about a brand, according to EffectiveUI.
What’s at stake:
Customer perception and loyalty. Wasted investment in digital products. Losing out to competitors who provide better experiences.
Digital products that fail are frustrating to the user for multiple reasons. Users may be confused by the way that a product works, run into recurring problems around specific actions that the product enables and ultimately may not be able to do what the product is meant to help them do.
For companies, that frustration translates into unhappy customers, and presumably, decreases in sales as a result. Usability in the digital sphere takes into account not only the graphic design and navigational strategy, but more generally, the ease with which a customer can get what they are looking for out of a product. Even the president can’t get away with failing to do so: Just look at the outcry over the healthcare.gov website.
It’s clear that many companies -- especially in the start-up world -- understand the importance of good user design. In the legal battle between Apple and Samsung, 93 percent of the damages resulted from design patents around the user experience in iOS.
While investments into redesigns on top of the cost of maintaining and revising digital properties can make it tempting to de-prioritize user experience in product development, successful firms make those investments ahead of time, instead of being forced to spend unnecessary money once a product has already. Fidelity Investments spent $20,000 to fix a problem preventing customers from logging into their accounts through the automated phone system: The fix will save the company $4 million dollars annually. Other projects related to customer experience improvement bring Fidelity’s overall savings per year to $24 million.
So why aren’t companies paying more attention? According to Forrester, 58 percent of survey respondents said that their firms base customer experience innovation on what their direct competitors do, while another 72 percent copy companies in other industries. While 80 percent of companies surveyed by Forrester say that they focus on incremental change, 20 percent are looking towards radical customer experience innovations.
At Oracle, it’s clear that user experience features heavily into the process of product development. The company runs a Usability Advisory Board with representatives from over 100 companies, where members share best practices and exchange feedback on projects. Overall, their investment to usability has led to the formation of a five step process around designing products for users that involves significant time, money and effort. But their work often pays off: Oracle Fusion Applications, one result of this process, were found to improve productivity by an average of 26 percent.
“Understanding the behavior of the end user is what leads to success,” says Hans Neubert, VP of design at Frog, a product strategy and design firm.
Start with the user. “The core principle in this kind of work is really starting with the user,” says Philip Kim, founder and principal at Moment. “In these last fifteen years, the expectations are much higher. Users expect brands to be more responsive and actually deliver on tangible value.” A big part of figuring out what users want is actually going to the users themselves.
At Oracle, the UX team visits end users before designing anything, watching them at work, interviewing them, and getting a better sense of their process. This information is bolstered by surveys, customer feedback and other analysis. They also have an ongoing Customer Participation Program, which facilitates outreach to users for constant feedback. In developing Oracle Fusion Applications, they used over six years of customer research, which included 1,500 hours of observing customer interactions and interviews with another 800 customers.
Context is everything. Depending on the device a user is accessing your product with, and what they’re doing when they’re on their device, the way they use the product will change. “What mobile and other devices have brought into the design process is a hard conversation about context,” says Portigal. “Am I watching TV and sitting on the couch or am I in your store or in the car? Those contexts get really important.” Part of figuring out contextual use returns to user research and observation: When you can see the specific ways that people work -- whether they multitask, use multiple apps, and more -- the end product can better match those behaviors. “Experience is the brand,” says Neubert. “Rather than looking at one single idea, you look at the total experience: It’s more cross-platform, cross-functional. It’s more about meaning than it is about artifact.”
Pilot change before rolling out. “There’s a humane way to approach rolling out change,” says Steve Portigal, principal of Portigal Consulting, a firm that specializes in customer research. Think of Google’s various updates to Gmail, for example. The company lets you know that they will be updating a feature well in advance, and allows you to try it out (or turn it off) before it’s permanent. “You have to make clear what the changes are, why they’re there, how they’re better,” says Portigal. “It should be an honest dialogue instead of a monolithic kaboom.”
Oracle creates prototypes in advance of completing a product that are tested by recruited users who meet the profile for the desired customer and rate the products based on their usability. With their Fusion Applications, designs were tested by users in 18 usability labs across the world, gathering over 4,000 hours of feedback. “You really have to think about user testing as a way to inform design rather than validate design,” says Kim.
Remember the precedents. While copying competitors isn’t necessarily advisable, it doesn’t make sense to design, for example, a fly swatter that you use by swinging a string around with the flat swatter piece attached to it. People expect a stick at the end. “You can’t fail to acknowledge that there are precedents out there,” says Portigal.
“There’s some history about how customers are going to expect something to work. Everyone is a consumer so in an enterprise situation, we bring in expectations about how something should work.” If people expect that swiping left or right, double clicking, or other gestures will have a certain outcome, the lack of that outcome will be confusing. After Apple came out with the iPhone, for example, it became quickly clear that when consumers wanted a smartphone, they expected something fairly similar in form factor and function to the iPhone.
Users also have expectations about how a computer operating system should work. When Microsoft added a host of new features to Windows with the introduction of Vista, the company was widely condemned.
If customers don’t like the way your product works, they’ll probably stop buying it. Especially during an era where sharing discontent is as simple as typing a comment into your phone for millions of people to see, the costs of a sullied reputation are clear.
The opposite is also true. Think, for example, of research that suggests that a one-star increase in a restaurant’s Yelp rating can lead to a 5 to 9 percent bump in revenue.
The effects of poor performance suggest a more general shift in the way that people interact with brands today.
“Today’s brands are not only defined by physical artifacts, but by shared sets of behaviors,” says Hans Neubert, a VP of design at Frog. “Modern consumers do not evaluate the excellence of a brand by the shape of their logo anymore.”
The relationship consumers have to companies relies heavily on the experiences that they have with that company’s products, not just the company’s overall reputation. Neubert points to Zappos -- a company founded on the premise of good service -- as an example of one business built not around its products, but around the kind of experience it provides.
The influence of startups like Zappos has led to a consumer base that expects companies to evolve to match their own ever-shifting needs. Sometimes, that means coming up with a design strategy that leaves room for growth.
“What Twitter did that was cool is they created a platform that could be adapted and evolve as people use it,” says Steve Portigal, principal at Portigal Consulting, a customer-experience oriented advisory firm. “They watched what people did and incorporated that. It was designed so that people could do other things with it, and that’s where growth happens.”
And as customer attention spans shrink, the measures companies take to discover what exactly will keep them interested become even more probing. Currently, Oracle uses eye-tracking technology to help evaluate new designs. But for the future, they’re already looking into facial gesture analysis that will actually evaluate people’s emotions as they work.
Amy Lee is a business and technology reporter for CruxialCIO. She has written on technology for the Huffington Post and is a 2010 graduate of Yale University in English and writing.