A Business Case for User Experience Design

2003-02-20
Reprinted from The Triangle Technical Journal

In a time of cost cutting and budgetary constraints, companies are focusing on maximizing investment returns with fewer resources. A Web investment is no exception. And a superior user experience is critical to its success.

User experience is the sum of all your users' interactions with your company, its services, and its products. User experience refers to everything felt, observed, perceived and learned through awareness and interaction with your company's online offerings. Simply put, user experience is the virtual equivalent of an individual's customer experience at a real world place. Whether that experience is positive or negative is up to you.

A positive user experience is critical for business survival in the online world as the initial buying decision depends more and more on the accessibility and presentation of the products or services than on the products or services themselves. To illustrate, it has been determined that the single largest predictor of call center volume is Web site usability with each call averaging a cost of $22 - $30. Worse yet, if customers find your site unusable and resort to call center support, they are extremely likely to become repeat users of phone-based problem resolution driving the actual cost per support call even higher. And worse than that, statistics show that a poor user experience may drive your customer directly to your competitor with no thoughts of stopping for support because online switching costs are virtually non-existent. According to Userlab, Inc. (ULI), 40% of people never return to a Web site after a negative user experience. To reacquire the remaining 60%, you will spend $100 for every dollar you spent originally acquiring them. In some settings such as online banking, the reacquisition costs may be so high that they are prohibitive.

So what determines a good user experience? A good user experience:

  • Anticipates needs before customers have to ask for something
  • Demonstrates ease with which customers can accurately perform useful tasks
  • Allows access to relevant information
  • Is interactive and content-rich
  • Provides a consistent look and feel that effectively communicates value propositions and differentiation

The hard benefits of a good user experience cannot be denied. It delivers profits to the bottom line by increasing the rates of customer acquisition, retention, and migration. And with $20 billion being left on the table each year due to poor usability, the potential financial returns of improving user experience are undeniable. According to a recent study, e-commerce conversion rates could be increased by 40% and average order sizes by 10% by enhancing the user experience.

But how do you know if your users are having negative user experiences? According to Jakob Nielsen, Web usability expert, 90% of Web sites are poorly designed with respect to the user's perspective, and as a result, people spend only about 10% of their time on them. You may be fortunate enough to have an active user base that shares their frustrations with you. If you get customer complaints such as, “I couldn't find what I was looking for" or “I found what I was looking for, but couldn't figure out how to purchase or complete a task" or “I waited forever to have the pages load and was then referred to a 1-800 number", then you know your business is being hurt by poor user experiences. For most companies, poor user experience isn't so obvious and methodologies such as heuristic evaluation, usability testing, and goal mapping through task analysis identify and prioritize user experience improvements.

But a poor user experience is not a terminal sentence and previous Web development is not a sunk investment, companies can always implement evolutionary changes that will enhance their user experience. Randy Souza, a Forrester Research site design and development analyst, recommends making targeted, prioritized, business-specific user experience fixes that can be broken down into measurable chunks. By doing so, companies can expect to see a payback in three to six months, and be armed with information for continuous improvement.

But it doesn't happen on its own, and it isn't easy to pull off. The quality of the user experience must be consciously, meticulously evolved through an iterative process of assessment and refinement that begins in the strategy phase and that continues through launch and beyond. A superior user experience is about speed, ease of use, relevance, and clarity. And when it's done right, it pays for itself many times over.