Losability vs. Usability
Published on July 11, 2005
The rules of Web design can be summed up in two words: Whatever works.
In other words, if your Web design is based on a strong business strategy, it sets its own standards. It’s like the siphon effect—you prime the siphon by drawing a little water through, then it starts flowing to you on its own.
That’s not to say you shouldn’t test designs on end users and establish some criteria to evaluate your results. As a user experience designer, I often use the term “usability” as a catch-all for what I’m trying to achieve with a Web site so that it’s effective for the end users rather than just convenient for the developers.
In fact, the growth of user-centered design practices has signified an important shift in the business goals of technology so that critical decisions are driven by the impact on the front end (user interface) instead of the back end (IT and development).
Doesn’t that seem like a reasonable assumption? Many organizations adhere to this customer service syllogism:
- User-centered design satisfies the end user.
- If the end user is satisfied, our business will succeed.
- Therefore, user-centered design will make our business succeed.
Like all fallacies, however, you can tear this one down by picking apart the premises.
Premise #1: “User-centered design satisfies the end user.”
If you measure satisfaction by performance metrics and conversion rates, this sounds like a given. How can you argue with success? But what happens when your well-designed, user-centered Web site peaks, then starts losing traffic to a competitor? You’re not doing anything wrong, so what’s the problem?
Or what if your site is user centered but has lousy customer service support behind it? There’s a clever cartoon strip on the OK/Cancel site. The main character goes to a “great Web site” with the “perfect user experience” but gets caught in a frustrating sales support loop where he can’t get the information he needs.
Premise #2: “If the end user is satisfied, our business will succeed.”
What does your Web site really deliver in terms of your core business objectives? If your Web site is only tangential to the success of your business, or if a core business activity is supported by it but not reliant on it, then ultimately the satisfaction of the end user is moot.
Your user-centered site could be achieving results that are impressive in terms of sheer traffic, but your conversion rates may be too low. In other words, it’s popular with users, but it’s just not achieving the business results you need.
Another factor is the cost to support your user-centered site. What if your sales objectives are being met, your end users are satisfied, but you can’t achieve a reasonable return on investment for the costs of the technology you’re using?
Practice Usability Instead of “Losability”
Many corporate Web sites are designed or redesigned before the owning organization has signed off on a corporate Web strategy, which should act as the governing document for all Web initiatives. If Web development isn’t driven by an alignment of sustainable technology, user-driven content and business-driven goals, the corporate Web presence will either fail to meet your business goals, be troubled by expensive technology challenges or simply alienate your core users. That’s losability, not usability.
As illustrated by the diagram below, the critical Web objectives of a solid strategy are found at the confluence of:
Business and Strategic Goals
Does the Web site support and/or advance your core business objectives or the objectives of one of your strategic initiatives?
Targeted Core Users
Does your Web site attract, engage and retain the kind of users you want (for client support, marketing, conversion, etc.)? Is it providing the level of customer service they expect? Is it giving them the added value that makes them want to refer your site to friends and colleagues?
Is the technology integrated, sustainable and scalable? Are your technology and IT support staff capable of delivering what you want to deliver online? Can the costs of IT development and maintenance be justified by what you're achieving in objectives #1 and #2 above?
A sound corporate Web strategy should be led by business drivers, not by narrow user testing and limited study groups. End users can only tell you what works based on their current experience on the Web. Your heuristics are in the marketplace. As we’ve found on the Internet over the last 10 years, the innovators in Web design are often the rule-breakers, and those sites spawn imitators in the Web community (my 100/25 rule of thumb is that 100% of original content on the Web is created by 25% of the content developers).
As a user experience designer, you should be privy to a thorough understanding of the business strategy of the organization, and should play a key role in helping shape the Web strategy as well. If not, bring the above diagram to your next project meeting and ask questions about the Web strategy to ensure that usability discussions are balanced with other critical business and technology requirements.