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Monday, Jul. 23, 2007 at 1:11 pm

Better “Usability” Isn’t Always the Answer

By Howard Kaplan
July 23rd, 2007

Focus on people first...About a month ago, I had the opportunity to speak to a group of Usability professionals. The theme of my talk was getting them to raise the bar within their industry; to become true advocates for consumers like they should be. Yes, consumers, not “users”. B2B, b2C, self-service, e-commerce, video, web2.0, no matter the focus of your site, or whether a nickel changes hands, your audience consumes the content you provide and engages with the experience you’ve planned.

Perhaps the grandfather of Usability, Frederick Winslow Taylor, could have called his audience such a thing — they were factory line workers, using a tool to do their job — but today’s consumers are anything but “users”. They’re volunteers, and they’re empowered; they do what they want, when they want because, most importantly, they want to. The “why” is up to them, not you.

I often challenge people to come up with positive associations with the term user. I’m still waiting for one positive response. Sure, I’ve heard “Mac user” and even that falls flat given the very real problems with technology — yes, even with Macs — that rear their ugly head at the most inopportune of times.

While at the event, my favorite Usability-pro-at-sea, Todd Follansbee, offered one of the best jokes I’ve heard in the industry about a man and woman on a first date. The punchline from the woman, upon hearing that the man was a Usability Engineer, was that she hoped he knew sometimes “task completion” and “time spent on task” weren’t the best measures of success! PG-13 material to be sure, but you can see why we like Todd so much. ;)

I digress. Haven’t we all walked past a homeless person, panhandling for change and not reached into our pockets and given a buck or two? Perhaps in your town it’s students asking for donations for new uniforms. Surely not everyone who walks by contributes, or they wouldn’t have to stand out there for weeks on end! Is anyone willing to offer their reason for not supporting either the cause, or the homeless man’s jones for a slice of pizza — at least in NY — that they simply didn’t know how to complete the task successfully? If the task got easier, without him removing the change from your pocket himself, would the conversion rate magically go up? Of course not, because the choice not to give was explicitly made — or implicitly, but it was a decision nonetheless — and was based upon an individual’s motivations.

Contrived example? Maybe. But it’s important to note, without the desire to take action — something your audience controls 100% — it doesn’t matter how easy the task is to complete, or how efficient a process it is.

So, here’s my advice should you find yourself in the unenviable — but let’s face it, all too common — position of trying to determine the best course of action for improving your business online: Stop. Take a step back. Consider that while you want more revenue, more revenue requires more people taking action. But people only do what they want to do.

You have to give them what they want in order to get what you want. Your job is to understand what your customers truly want and help them get it. Then, and only then, does it make sense to try and smooth out the process by removing the stumbling blocks from their path. Remember, 99% of our challenges online have little to do with technology but, rather, with words on the screen before them.

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P.S. – What brought on this little rant? Our friends across the pond at E-Consultancy came up with a list of their hall of fame “User Experience gurus” based on a survey of their audience. Our esteemed founders, Jeffrey and Bryan, were selected for the list. Flattered as Jeffrey and Bryan were, those who’ve followed our work over the years know our collective disdain for the casual use of the “guru” label these days.

In case you didn’t read Robert’s post from last week, where Jeffrey suggests that we marketers need to “get over” ourselves, it should give you some context. A few days later — while, as Jeffrey put it, the woman behind the counter at his local Starbucks still didn’t know who he was despite all the publicity ;) – another list came out with an amendment to the E-Consultancy list where both Seth Godin, and Eisenbergs were left off. This new list was created by David Armano, who runs the widely popular Logic + Emotion blog. (If you haven’t read David’s stuff, his manifesto is what converted me into a regular reader. Although I often disagree with his approach, Logic + Emotion comes highly recommended.)

David’s perspective in removing Seth, Jeffrey & Bryan was that they’re too much in the marketing camp to be considered “User Experience”. My question, though, is this: “Would you prefer to have the experience designed by a top Information Architect but never planned with a deep understanding of the audience’s needs? Or would you prefer to plan the experience according to human motivations, then adjust the architecture to match?”

I think you know my answer.

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Comments (6)

  1. “Would you prefer to have the experience designed by a top Information Architect but never planned with a deep understanding of the audience’s needs?”

    Howard, who do you think are the individuals best equipped to understand a user’s wants, needs, desires, and emotional states?

    Hint, it’s not one person and often times it’s not a marketer (though marketers are no doubt part of the process). Designers, ethnographers and planners who understand not only brand strategies—but the intricacies of human behavior are often times the ones who help bridge insight with experience. I’m not excluding marketers—point in case, Seth is beyond brilliant and certainly understands how people think.

    But also point in case, I still have a hard time using Squidoo and I’m still not sure exactly how it works—though the service may be doing fine, I abandoned the lens creation process because I couldn’t make sense of it. So I guess this is where a deep dive in user experience plays a part. The lines are blurring for sure (and I talk about this all the time) but I don’t always find marketers to be the best designers or “experience people”. When the rubber actually hits the road. Marketers didn’t design the iPhone. Designers did,and marketing helped deliver the story. Actually, together the software, hardware, distribution, service and marketing all tell the complete story—but the interface is still created by planners and designers from a variety of backgrounds (my guess).

    PS, I just posted the results from my Poll.

  2. [...]I’ve been reading a lot of posts (example) recently about how usability isn’t the answer to every money-making venture on the web’s every problem[...]

  3. The answer to the question is that both plumbers (economists) and persuaders (ideologues) are required in this process, often in equal measures. Depending on the need, plumbers can move the needle faster and farther than persuaders, because broken processes and awful design can be more glaring turnoffs than poorly tuned communications.

    On a separate note … no positive connotations for the term “user”? What about this: http://www.computeruser.com/about/indexabout.html

    And all of the 100′s of (albeit legacy) acronymic fellowships ending in “UG” – all those local computer “user groups”. User is in fact more open-ended and supportive of the Internet as an interactive user interface, than the explicitly transactional concept of “consumer,” IMHO.

  4. @David- I agree wholeheartedly, it’s almost always more than one person (and more than one role) who are best equipped to advocate for the needs of the audience, though I’ll argue understanding “brand strategies” is highly overrated in this process. What these people, regardless of role, need to have an over-abundance of is empathy. I stand by my point that people who so easily cast labels such as “user” are not likely overly empathic people.

    As for your point about Squidoo (and thank you for using a concrete example- it benefits the audience to have a clearer focus of what we’re talking about), what was your motivation for trying the service in the first place? I’ll bet if it was really high, it was a legitimate felt need for you, you’d have been far more willing to put up with friction in the process. Chances are, it wasn’t, and the experience wasn’t optimal, so you bailed. That’s my larger point (and issue with many IA’s perspective)- the web is a gravity-less environment. Your personal motivation is what fuels your ongoing momentum. Reducing the friction (or planning an optimal experience with as little friction as possible) is great, and is always worth striving for… but should not be expected to deliver an audience that’s willing/motivated to take action- that’s a job for persuasion (and marketing, sales and communication).

    @Andrew- “user group” applies just fine… in the world of software tools, something I’ll argue vehemently the internet is most definitely NOT. I also have a hard time crediting customer-centric empathy from the profession who so easily coined the terms Master and Slave.

    On your earlier point about “plumbers” moving the needle faster than persuaders, it’s a wise observation however worth noting it’s reflective of how low the bar is currently set. Sad, after transacting business online as long as we have.

  5. [...] Last week there was a surge of conversation about the term user. Here are some links. [...]

  6. Not true. Many people would give money if the “slide was greased”. If they could give money behind the scenes instead on in public, they would.

    In fact, we do pay taxes behind the scenes and expect somebody to properly distribute it behind our backs.

    Many people use Credit cards because it’s easier to slide the money across the counter. From $2 to $2000. Ease of use is a huge factor.

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