Maybe it’s because I’m not a true gearhead, but for all the talk about new architectures and business models (which I myself engage in and am excited about) the usability often gets shuttered to the sidelines when talking about enterprise software. And for the life of me I can’t figure out why. You can argue (and I will) that a usability should get at least as much attention as the QA function, but in reality, most R&D organizations spend orders of magnitude more on testing than usability.
Let’s start with a few statistics around usability:
- Usability engineering has demonstrated reductions in the product-development cycle by over 33-50% (Bosert).
- 63% of all software projects overrun their budgetary estimates, with the top 4 reasons all related to unforeseen usability problems (Lederer and Prassad).
- The percentage of software code that is devoted to the interface has been rising over the years, with an average of 47-60% of the code devoted to the interface (MacIntyre et al.).
- Ricoh found that 95% of the respondents to a survey never used three key features deliberately added to the product to make it more appealing. Customers either didn’t know these features existed, didn’t know how to use them, or didn’t understand them (Nussbaum and Neff).
- 80% of maintenance is due to unmet or unforeseen user requirements; only 20% is due to bugs or reliability problems (Martin and McClure; Pressman)
- A user-centered approach raised customer satisfaction with 40% (Gartner)
Perhaps usability gets downplayed because it’s all about soft and squishy feelings rather than detailed specifications, counter to the predisposition of most engineers. Usability is centered on psychology and physiology of the user. The goal is to make products that are more satisfying to use, easier to use, more efficient to use. But in order to achieve this you must first improve your understanding of the users’ needs: what are their actual goals, challenges and limitations with the existing alternatives? Are there any unique or unexpected ways in which they use the product?
And there are many examples of how usabilty helps attract and win customers inside and outside of the software industry. Think about how you choose products in your daily life. Cars, appliances, snowblowers (yes it’s almost that season). I just went through the process of buying a car and looked at a dozen different vehicles. It’s amazing the difference between the way each carmaker goes about creating their interior environment and which conveniences they leave in or keep out. How the layout makes you feel when you sit in the car and turn it on have as much if not more to do with your perception of the car then when you put your foot on the pedal. Acura and Honda make very nice cars, but time and again the reviewers pilloried them for one of the most confusing center stacks in the business. And for any of you who bought a BMW when their iDrive system first came out, did you buy a new BMW when the time came?
In the software industry Apple is the most obvious example. Usability is the basis for the aura that Apple has created around it’s brand and a large part of why Apple customers are happy customers. The iPod met tremendous success in large part to the simplicity of the wheel interface and now the iPhone/iPod Touch has reset the standard with touchscreens and cover flow technology. Even when Apple runs advertising, the attributes they tout are rarely features (other than ground-breaking concepts like ‘cut and paste’), but more on the experience and connection that customers have with the product. I mean, don’t you want to be as happy as Mac customers? Moreover, Apple has been able to get premium pricing for their products — with inferior raw specs (e.g. small hard drives) — because they are intuitive, easy to use and they work.
TweetDeck I think is another great example of superior user-centered design. It saw quick adoption and perhaps even quicker ripping-off of it’s UI. Some may say imitation is the sincerest for of flattery, but I think it’s the best indication of intellectual laziness.
And what I wish more software companies would understand is that it’s not just about a pretty interface. Most of the UI projects we’ve seen at my company, Symphony Services, are driven by clients who want to update their UI, but the focus is on simply modernizing the look of their application, not necessarily in making and significant changes to what they have today. Buzzwords like RIA and Flex abound in these conversations, but it’s all treated in a cursory fashion and does nothing to change the current user experience. The use of RIA’s may look nice and help in the marketing and launch of new versions of the product, but in the end it’s all lipstick on the pig and won’t move the needle.
In my next post I’ll dig into a few of the ways that a great UI can impact a software companies business and improve customer satisfaction.