A web search about a potential new electronics purchase, such as a digital camera, blu-ray player, or television can uncover numerous reviews that include commentary not just on the physical specs (megapixels, screen resolution, etc.), but also on the ease of navigating the menu screens, usability, and overall user experience.
Those of us in the industry who get a view inside companies' process for creating products like electronics, software, or websites aren't surprised when their usability is criticized by reviewers.
This is because most organizations use the wrong methods to understand their users.
Although products like consumer electronics or software are used widely, the web has become so ubiquitous, and such a natural part of the fabric of getting things done in modern life, that methods used to understand web users deserve special attention.
Part of the reason is that unlike a digital camera or software, where a consumer buys first before actually experiencing usability, on the web, the consumer experiences usability first - and then makes the decision to
- buy a product
- Renew their insurance policy without calling the call center
- Change their address on their own
- Open an account with a new bank
- Post a listing or classified to sell their car
- Upload pictures and start an auction
Is usability the only factor that contributes to the decision? Obviously not. I've watched users go to great lengths and overcome serious usability obstacles to accomplish something they're very passionate about, or to get a product at a significant discount.
However, in most cases, users have many options, and they will go elsewhere if they get the sense that a particular bank's websites are always going to be a disaster. And in the case of an impulse purchase, any added hassle or distraction caused by a tough-to-use website can easily interrupt or stall what was limited motivation anyways.
So the important question is: how do site owners avoid that outcome?
When bad web usability happens, part of the reason is that site creators use the wrong methods to understand users. Whether website creators have a formal "methodology" drawn up in a fancy diagram and posted on the wall or not, they are using an approach to understand what is going on.
One common method is to rely solely on analytics. While essential, analytics is inferential data that should not be your sole source of understanding users. With analytics you get the "what" (where did users enter the site, what pages did they visit, what links did they click), but you have to guess at the "why."
During a recent engagement, we observed users adding items to the cart of a major shoe retailer. A "mini-cart" deployed, but it retracted on its own without the user having to click a "CLOSE" button or otherwise consciously tell the system "OK, I've seen this; now make it go away." One outcome observed during that study was that users would then add the item to their cart multiple times, have trouble editing quantity, and then remove it altogether. Hardly the outcome the site owners were looking for.
The company had used analytics for years, but never knew that users were placing items in their cart without ever seeing the cart deploy and retract.
Had they relied solely on analytics and never done usability testing, they would never have known.
In the end, there is no substitute for watching actual users try out a product. Whether it is a printer, a digital camera, or a website, watching real people do real things with the product is key to discovering problems.