Usability vs. Marketing

I’m a zealot when it comes to making things as easy to learn and use as possible. But I’m also practical. I know that “usability” is not the only driver for a business. Other factors often compete against the desires for improved usability. Time, cost, and complexity are often factors that can trump usability issues on a project (though hopefully only temporarily). One of the main areas that often competes with improved usability is marketing. And this competition has fueled many listserv discussions over the years. “What’s wrong with eBay, or Google, or whomever?” someone will invariably ask. “Why don’t they fix their usability problems?” “Because they make so much money with what they have, they don’t feel they have to spend time, money, or other resources to fix it” is the common retort.

The next time you walk through a clothing store, notice that it’s hard, if not impossible, to walk straight through the clothing. Every few feet there is another rack of clothing in your way. This isn’t good usability. Good usability would have racks of clothing in a clear array that creates paths of travel similar to a grocery store arrangement of shelves. But marketing people know the less usable arrangement causes you, the shopper, to notice other items you may decide to purchase. (Don’t get excited. Grocery stores also work hard to get you to notice goods at the cost of being able to get through the store quickly and efficiently. They just use different techniques.)

I once arranged the client list on our website by length of their name. I thought it was eye catching and would encourage people to notice other client names better. This was intended as a means of advertising the range of clients we have served. It bothered one of my staff so much, she took it upon herself to put them in alphabetical order (without even telling me).

I recall a discussion about a website that had a drag-and-drop trick to get into the site with no instructions. Usability-oriented people objected vehemently to the lack of intuitive design (as well as the lack of accessibility). But the site was advertising creative software solutions (and was a great example of that).

I recall a discussion with a client about disputes between their UX and marketing teams about designing for productivity for registered users, versus the need to upsell registered users to additional products and services.

I recall a discussion with a client about the pop-up ads that annoyed site visitors, but sales people insisted on keeping them since they were a major driver of first-time sales.

In the 1990s, Nikon, the camera manufacturer, created an advertisement that contained the famous “Nessie” photo.

Grainy 1930s picture of Loch Ness Monster

Below the photo was two lines of text that read: “Some people look at this picture and see a monster. We see improper metering, poor lens selection, and a total lack of composition.”

We all see what we’re trained to see and we don’t realize what others see. Many years ago, I shared the stage with a colleague of mine. We were presenting to the Qualitative Research Consultants Association (QRCA). He was to cover market research (his field) while I was to cover usability (my field). He and I prepared our presentations separately and we saw each other’s presentation for the first time when we presented to the QRCA.

He concluded his presentation with a video of himself conducting what market researchers call an individual interview. He and a participant went through tasks on a website and discussed things as they occurred. Sound familiar? At the end of the video, he discussed all the things he learned from a market research perspective. He discussed issues of brand placement, sales messages, missed sales opportunities, obstacles to conversion, etc. I had not seen his presentation or his video until that moment, but I asked if he minded if I told the audience what I saw. There was no overlap in our findings. (Had a visual designer been in the room, I suspect they would have discussed things like screen density, mixed font families, and the use of negative space.)

Yes, we all see what we’re trained to see, but that doesn’t make our vision better than others’ or more important. However, lacking an appreciation for what others see and care about can cause real problems for project teams. We need to appreciate what others see and weigh our needs for improved usability against them. We have to strike a balance among all the possible perceptions and opinions to create the best possible user, and customer, experience.