It’s Hard to Sell Usability Services

People have tried to define the ROI (return on investment) of usability services for many years with little success. There are certainly examples where the ROI of good design can be measured. The redundant, high-centered taillight in cars was shown to reduce rear end collisions by 50 percent. Allowing people to purchase online as a guest, instead of forcing them to set up an account, has been estimated to be a $1 million design change for one online retailer. But selling good usability below these extreme examples requires more of a sense of personal responsibility. It is typically done by arguing the potential cost savings or increased productivity by reducing seconds or steps from tasks. This has even lead to the infamous and completely inappropriate “three-click rule” for the web. But none of these formulas and approaches has proven to work in the real world. Humans are far too adaptive to fit into this robotic analytical approach.

Failing this approach, anecdotal stories are used. There is a lovely story that a colleague of mine tells all the time. The story goes that a person was in a store with his girlfriend when she spotted a sweater that she really wanted. It was too costly for her to buy for herself but it was near Christmas time, so he realized that he had solved one of man’s longtime problems—-finding the right gift. He then tried to purchase the sweater online, but the site asked him for his girlfriend’s chest size, which he didn’t know. And he didn’t know how to translate chest size into small, medium, or large, which he did know. According to my colleague, the store “lost the sale” because it failed to provide the information in the format this person could use, or a way to translate what he knew into what the site wanted.

This is a great story about the need for usability, and he tells it much better than I did here. It might even motivate people to seek out usability services. But I seriously doubt the ending. Had they actually lost a sale, and had they kept losing sales over this issue, then maybe they would have done something about it.

Word cloud, man scratching his head in front

Let me tell you two personal examples that offer a different perspective.

A few years ago my wife and I were remodeling our kitchen. We went to a local store and found “the perfect hanging lamps,” as my wife described them. But I assumed I could get them cheaper online. I went online and found the exact lamps at a significantly reduced price. However, to get this price, I had to have them shipped to my local store and then go pick them up. (If I had shipped to myself, the shipping charges would have made them cost about the same as buying them locally.) Ironically, the site wanted to ship the lamps to the very store I had found them in. However, when I tried to ship them to the store, the site generated an error. (Through some inspection of their code, I discovered that the site was expecting a numeric value for the store ID, but was being passed an alphanumeric value.) Having found the perfect lamp, my wife was not going to allow me to give up that easily. And I did not want to pay the significantly higher price. I contacted the store, informed them of the issue, and they honored the lower price.

In a more recent example, I was informed by the Board of Certification in Professional Ergonomics that it was time to renew my membership. I was sent a link to make my payment online. The link led me to a commonly used third-party payment system. The site asked me if I would like to pay my specific amount (the value of which the site knew) and if I wanted to use the credit card I had on file. After confirming both of those questions, the site took me to a page that asked me to register for the site. Of course, I must have already registered for the site since it knew how much I needed to pay, and that I had a credit card on file.

After recognizing that this was a registration page and not a login page, I found the link to log in. I was then taken to a page that asked me what credit card I wanted to use! After providing all the information required, the site did nothing. No confirmation; no error message. Nothing.

Not being sure whether or not it actually processed my payment, I contacted the BCPE and asked them to check on the payment. Sure enough, nothing had happened. I could have called BCPE and paid my dues or faxed them my credit card information, but I recalled from last year’s experience with this site that there was a way around the problem. Instead of clicking a link in the email they sent me, I went directly to the BCPE website, logged in there, and told the site I wanted to pay my dues. I was taken to the same third-party payment system but I got there through a different process, and I was able to make the payment. I have done the same thing and had the same problem for several years now.

So what about our friend with the sweater? Being a guy myself, I would propose that this ending is highly unlikely. No guy who found the perfect gift for his girlfriend or wife would be daunted by something as simple as this. It would be easier to pick up the phone and call someone, or even drive back to the store, than to try to come up with a better present idea.

If a product is truly usable, people will never notice it. Nor should they. This is design transparency and the ultimate goal of designers. So showing someone a good design and even explaining why it works is a hard way to sell usability services. So what about showing bad experiences and poor usability? The truth is that users deal with really bad interfaces and poor, confusing, or awkward user experiences all the time. And they do it almost stoically. Yes, if there is an option somewhere else, and they know about it, they might go there instead. But if users really want the product, service, or information, they’ll usually find a way to get past a bad design. They might complain about the experience to a friend, but typically, users don’t complain to the people who caused the problem nor leave in protest over it. But is that really good enough? Do we really care so little about our users that we don’t care if they struggle with the design as long as they are eventually successful?

Users even live with small usability issues that seem almost deliberately arrogant. In the county in which I live, I can pay my personal property taxes online. Each year, I go to the site and attempt to do this. Each year, it asks for my social security number and I invariably enter it as I’m used to thinking about it—-as three sets of numbers separated by dashes. Nearly always the site tells me that I entered it incorrectly, since the site requires that I enter it as a string of numbers without dashes.

The owners of this site could have made this field three fields for the three typical sets of numbers in a social security number. Or they could have written a few lines of code to parse the typical input. This might have taken an additional 30 minutes of work. Is it really the owners’ position that this 30 extra minutes of work, done once by their developers, is so valuable that all users have to stop and read the instructions or risk getting an error message and redoing their work?

Good usability can produce a large return on investment. And good usability can elevate a company. But good usability is a goal that requires passion and compassion. You have to believe in its value even if the return on investment is not directly measurable. Potential clients have to acknowledge this without being defensive if we are to sell our services. Otherwise, selling usability services is like knocking on someone’s door and saying: “Hi, I’m a plastic surgeon and you’re ugly.”