March 15, 2006
It can be very difficult to sell usability, as Jared Spool notes in this 2004 interview:
I learned quickly that business executives didn't care about usability testing or information design. Explaining the importance of these areas didn't get us any more work. Instead, when we're in front of executives, we quickly learned to talk about only five things:
- How do we increase revenue?
- How do we reduce expenses?
- How do we bring in more customers?
- How do we get more business out of each existing customer?
- How do we increase shareholder value?
Notice that the words 'design', 'usability', or 'navigation' never appear in these questions. We found, early on, that the less we talked about usability or design, the bigger our projects got. Today, I'm writing a proposal for a $470,000 project where the word 'usability' isn't mentioned once in the proposal.
If you can't talk about usability, what do you talk about? How many customers you're losing. In the internet era, the cost of switching to a competitor is approaching zero. If your site is more difficult to use than your competition's, you're in trouble. A recent A List Apart article highlights the dramatic results of a usability overhaul:
We tested a subscription route that [..] asked for a lot less information on the subscription page.
The outcome? An increase in conversion rates of over 500%. That is to say, of the people who arrived at the subscription offer page, we increased the number who actually signed up by over 500%.
And while we sold a little harder -- and offered an incentive at the back end -- the primary cause of the increase was almost certainly that we reduced the friction during the sign-up process. We offered more and asked for less.
With another partner we cut back on the number of pages involved in signing up for a paid subscription service from nine to three. (Yes, a nine-page process was more than excessive.) The result? An increase in sign-ups of 293%.
You may have trouble selling usability improvements-- but I don't think you'd have any trouble selling a three to five fold increase in sign-up rates.
Posted by Jeff Atwood
"An excellent post. It's too bad that executives won't listen to this message"
Matt, I don't think the message is to executives.
Developers are like everyone else, we expect other people to see the world the same way we see the world.
Unfortunately, geeks tend to hate capitalism, leaving them largely incapable of communicating with upper management.
When you sign up to www.reddit.com, all it asks for is a username and 2x a password. It's the absolute minimum for a web service and it takes around 10 seconds.
Indeed. Is there any reason why so many sites NEED to know my name etc., and then aparently never use it?
An excellent post. It's too bad that executives won't listen to this message. Unfortunately, it probably has a lot to do with the fact that everyone seems to trumpet it regardless of how usable their system is. Too many sales and technical people claim to have an "easier to use interface" without any real proof. Easier than what? An old DOS interface? In this day and age, claiming you have an easy to use interface just because it is a Windows app doesn't cut it any more.
I can also say that I had a real wake up call after reading through some of Microsoft's "Inductive User Interface" guidelines. I had to hang my head in shame when I realized that I was just another developer using "data-centric" designs instead of "user-centric" designs. I could go on and on about this topic as it has definitely changed the way I look at software design. But it's too bad that selling usability is so hard because it really is one of the most important design considerations and very few developers "get it" (including me).
A quick story to put it all in perspective:
My wife is a pharmacist who works for one of the biggest drug store chains in the world. They have 5000 stores! Every pharmacist is required to spend 40 hours training on the system when they are hired. They are also required to spend 20 hours a year on additional training. Now assuming that each store has a minimum of 3 pharmacists, the one-time cost of training them all is (3 * 40 * 5000 * approx. $50/hr.) = $30 Million! That doesn't even count turnover or any of the other employees in the store! And the ongoing training costs (including the development and documentation of the product) is just mind boggling. If you can't make a case for improved usability in a scenario like this then you are really missing the boat. But you don't have to have 5000 stores to benefit from improved usability. And that's the message that you need to sell...
And yes, my wife's employer is one of the pill bottles on "In Praise of Good Design". But you probably didn't pick their bottle. ;)
The conversations with execs will rotate around the 5 items that were listed. That's what their job revolves around. The hard part is putting what we do in those terms. Examples like you gave would speak louder to execs because they have numbers to back up the design.
We as coders don't do this part well (I know I don't). To be honest, when I had to take business classes in college I didn't care much about them and I now know I should've paid more attention to them. We could all do better in this area for sure.
"In the internet era, the cost of switching to a competitor is approaching zero."
Respectfully suggest that the cost might be lower, but it's not heading for zero.
Even if you assume the new user interface is absolutely perfect, and has zero training time associated with it, the actual transition cost is more about the cost of getting your data out of the old system, and into the new.
If you had a massive investment in an online email service, and you wanted to switch to a competitor - how easy is it to get all that email from point A to point B?
And that's email - with a relatively standardized format; what if we were talking about online CRM applications? Online databases? Suddenly, your investment in the service parallels investments in legacy applications - only you don't actually have your own copy of the data available.
It freaks me out.
Speaking of usability, I notice lots of websites use light grey text on a while background. Personally I think that is a bit hard to read...
Some even seem to use FONT tags with SIZE=-2, because they apparently think that I like reading text which is 2 sizes smaller than my preferred size. Weird world.
You're right on the money (no pun intended) with the five points you list with regard to executive-level presentations.
But I disagree that necessarily means the other factors are of no importance. Clearly, usability and all the usual engineering best practices contribute directly to the five business drivers you mentioned. How can you possibly increase sign-up rates if your solution is hard to use?
It's a no-brainer - at least, at some levels in the corporate hierarchy. I wonder if the issue here is the audience. Talking about usability etc. to executives is pointless because they don't relate to things at that level of detail.
One level down in the management hierarchy you might find the CIO and other senior IT management. They must understand the relationship between engineering discipline and business results. As you get closer to ground level, you should find more and more people who understand the connection. If not, then there are more serious problems in the organization than you will be able to address with a proposal.
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