Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Indifference to Usability

Convincing IT and business that usability is important can be difficult: the notion that the customer is in control, and can click away to a competitor at any moment if he finds your application to be confusing or difficult, seems self-evident, but my sense is that it goes against decades, even centuries, of past experience.

From the IT perspective, usability was never an issue before the Web because of the way in which their business model worked: by the time the user encountered any difficulty with a software application, he had already handed over his money and had to deal with the product. In the consumer markets "no refund if the box has been opened" was a standard; and in the business market, it would be difficult for an executive to admit he had made a very expensive mistake in buying software that was no good.

As such, consumers were faced with a choice, learn to deal with the user-unfriendly aspects of the software they had purchased, or pay out again in hopes that another product would be better. Most chose the former, and as such the software industry came to take it for granted that they could turn out a mediocre product and customers would accept it.

The business perspective is little better: until the industrial era increased competition, the consumer's choice was to buy from the one-and-only purveyor of a good or do without it. So long as they were willing to pay the price, retailers had no reason to believe it was too expensive, and so long as they were willing to suffer poor service, retailers had no incentive to do any better.

Even after the industrial era, retail remained notoriously customer-hostile. Once a customer invested the time and effort to travel to a retail location, he faced a choice between accepting poor service or taking the time and effort to go somewhere else - and generally chose the former, as there was little chance of getting better treatment.

The Web largely changes this: if a Web site is flawed, either in terms of its core functionality or the level of service it provides to the customer, the competition is just a click away. The customer is no longer constrained by a lack of options, or the difficulty of leaving the "store" and going elsewhere if anything about the experience is not to their liking.

And yet, these two factions remain mired in their traditional mid-sets - in spite of the consequences, and blind to the fact that the sites that lead the field in every category are those that are customer-focused.

Given that the consequences of indifference are now visited upon the indifferent, perhaps it's only a matter of time before they realize the consequences of their complacency. However, it's taking much longer to sink in than one might expect.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Abandonment Issues

While shopping online, a Web site attempted to mouse-trap me - something that hasn't happened in quite a while. What makes it worth noting is that they did so because I had added an item to a shopping cart, then saw that they wanted an outrageous amount for shipping and handling, so I decided to leave. Immediately, a JavaScript window popped up.

There are items in your shopping cart.

I clicked "OK" - as if to say, "Yes, I'm aware of that, and I want to leave anyway." But I was stuck on the page. So I figured clicking "cancel" was the correct thing to do. I was still stuck. So I removed the item from the cart and tried to leave. Nope. In the end, I had to disable JavaScript to close the window and get away from the site.

Skipping past the notion that mouse-trapping a user is evil, I had a sense of the reason they were trying to do this: studies suggest that a very large percentage of shopping carts on e-commerce sites are abandoned - people leave without completing the sale, and this upsets and perplexes online merchants, who are desperate to find a solution.

My sense is that in trying to remedy a short-term problem, an online business is creating a far more serious long-term problem: they are damaging trust. In this instance, I don't think they are gaining much by doing so - there may be a few people who accidentally closed the window, and would be thankful the site prevented them from doing so, but far more people intended to leave - and hijacking the browser will only serve to ensure that these same users won't come back.

In my case, I was able to find the item elsewhere - at a slightly higher price, but free shipping - but had I been unable to do so, I don't expect I would have gone back to the same merchant, even if I was resigned to pay the shipping price. Chances are, a company that resorts to mouse-trapping to force a user to complete an order is going to behave in other ways that are offensive and self-serving. Or maybe not, but given the experience, I'm not willing to take the chance.

It occurred to me that users may visit a Web site to research product information before making a purchase. I've found a few sources that suggest a number, but none of them present a credible case for their estimate. I suppose there aren't any reliable statistics on this behavior, as it would be difficult to determine if a first-time buyer had abandoned the site previously - which is rather a shame, because if merchants were aware that "a person might visit your site five times before making a purchase," perhaps they would be a bit less distressed buy shopping card abandonment, or at least they would realize that it isn't the end of the world ... unless they mistreat the customer.

Or more likely, merchants would still see this as a problem, and seek out a consultant who could promise them a solution that would reduce the number of visits before purchasing. But my sense is, this would still result in an infinitesimal improvement to short-term sales, and it would still come at the cost of damaging the potential for more long-term engagements with customers who weren't ready to buy immediately, but who might return at a later time.

I've had meatspace encounters that are roughly analogous, generally with high-ticket items (cars and major appliances) where commissioned salesmen, in their attempt to pressure me to buy immediately, behaved in such a way that I didn't come back when I was ready to purchase.

If there's any larger lessons to be learned, it's that customer trust isn't a guarantee and, depending on the cost of the item or the convenience of switching vendors, it may take a few visits before a prospect will be comfortable enough to make a purchase - and until they reach that point, any action on your part to "make" them trust you enough to give you their business seems likely to have quite the opposite effect.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Still Waiting for Mobile

In 1999, I went to a conference held at San Francisco's Moscone Center where a few thousand practitioners in the new Internet channel, just over five years old at the time, gathered to share information and learn from the cutting-edge gurus. I went to a session on "mobile computing" and left with the distinct impression that the speaker was out of his mind.

He was cartoonishly enthusiastic about the mobile channel, at a time when display capabilities were limited to two rows of text, sixteen characters wide, and the input was limited to twelve buttons. Even so, he insisted that within two or three years, the computer would no longer be the device through which people accessed information: it would be the cell phone.

Fast forward to the present day, and such a claim seems quite a bit more credible: the "smart phone" and wireless data networks have transformed the cell phone into a viable computing device. It's still limited in its capabilities, but it's gained considerable ground and is continuing to evolve. Even so, I'd say that "two or three years" is aggressive, and there are a lot of obstacles that need to be overcome.

The device remains primitive, but my sense is that will be addressed soon. There are no reliable standards for mobile device development - so development is costly because a separate application for each platform (iPhone, Android, and Windows) must be built, and I don't sense that will change in the near term. And the cost to users is still high (it can cost $1,500 per year for a phone with a reasonable data plan) while the benefit is too low to justify the occasional and frivolous benefits of ownership - and the cost is not decreasing at the same rate as previous technologies (in fact, it doesn't seem to be decreasing at all), so it will be a while before it's worthwhile to the mainstream.

All things considered, the mobile channel has come a long way over the past decade - but I maintain that there remain a number of challenges to widespread adoption that will take several more years to overcome.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Backward Approach to UX

I recently abandoned a book in which the author referred to the approach to deriving business requirements should be done "from the inside out" - that the operator of a Web site considers their objectives first, and then decides what the site visitor must do to serve their interests. The author's take is that this is an efficient method for determining software requirements, as it eliminates all the "bells and whistles" that are not necessary to develop a site that delivers its core value to the firm that operates it.

Something about this notion strikes me as being fundamentally wrong - or more aptly, everything about this noting strikes me as being completely wrong, and completely backwards from the way the task ought to be done.

I can't argue that a great deal of complexity is added to a development project by the demand for additional "nice to have" features that, while extraneous to the bare-bones functionality, are nonetheless valuable to the user. And especially when it comes to Web sites, where the user has the option of leaving the site and turning to another that better serves their needs, bare-bones functionality is not only insufficient, but detrimental to the long-term success of the site.

Were the same principle applied to any other aspect of business, the result would be disastrous: determining what the company is willing to deliver, then paring away everything else that the customer might want in the name of efficiency, is not an approach that is likely to result in success.

In effect, this advice is merely a rehash of an outdated business model that hearkens from a time when goods were scarce, and the customer had little choice but to accept whatever the (single) provider of a given good or service was willing to provide.

It's simply not suited to a competitive environment, or even a service mentality. Success in online business is not achieved by limiting what the customer is able to do on your site, but in discovering what the customer wants to do, and empowering them do so.

And so, I've no intention of reading any further - but take from the experience one valuable lesson: don't let IT professionals drive user experience design ... they simply do not "get" it.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Industry Standards

Lately, I've been assaulted from several angles with the phrase "industry standard." I have heard this phrase uttered at least a dozen times in the past few weeks by people who either are utterly lacking a sense of irony, or who believe that being "industry standard" is something they feel gives them a sense of pride, rather than a sense of shame.

To proclaim that your product meets standards would seem to be a claim of quality, but my sense is that customers have largely learned that "our product meets government standards" or "industry standards" is nothing impressive. In effect, a claim of meeting standards is a declaration that "we are doing the absolute minimum we think we can get away with."

Government standards were put in place because of widespread problems in a given industry - to the point that their products were so shoddy that they constituted a danger to the public. And industry standards are little better - they are generally established as an attempt to prevent government standards from being created by setting a minimum level of quality to which individual manufacturers could voluntarily comply.

And further, compliance to industry standards creates commoditization of goods and services. If every company's product merely meets standards, none is better than any other, and the customer is left to choose on price or convenience. And while the intention of standards may be argued to have been ensuring products meet a certain minimum level of quality, the effect is that they also ensure that companies are discouraged from doing better.

With this in mind, it doesn't make much sense for a company to set a goal of merely meeting standards, nor does it make sense for customers to accept a product that merely does the absolute minimum that it is required to do in order to avoid being legally penalized.

Granted, that may be a political point rather than a practical one, but it does identify an opportunity for a firm to gain competitive advantage: the firm that breaks away from the informal cartel of standard-compliance has a distinct advantage over those that seek to merely comply.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Business and Personal Relationships

Four separate conversations with colleagues about my last blog post (customer neglect) took the same odd turn. It started out with a discussion of customer loyalty and, at some point, the conversation evolved or abruptly switched channels to a personal relationships - specifically, dating and marriage. And it struck me that there are many similarities, such that it is a natural metaphor.

A person who is unmarried and unattached puts a great deal of effort in making themselves appealing and announcing their availability and communicating their interest in pursuing a relationship. In the same way, companies spend a lot of money advertising their products and services to the general public, hoping to catch attention and get someone to pay attention them, as a precursor to making a sale.

After that, there is the first date, and the person goes all-out to present an attractive package and be on their best behavior to make a lasting positive impression that will lead to a second date, then a third, and so on. And in the same way, a company that has gotten the attention of a prospect will take pains to behave in a way that they feel will impress the customer that they will be well-treated if they enter into a long-term relationship with the company.

(And as one colleague was quick to mention, some companies are out for a one-time sale, much as some people are out for a one-night stand, with much the same consequences when the customer figures this out and tells other customers what will happen if they deal with this same company.)

Provided that all goers well on the first date, there will be a second, and a third, and so on, as the relationship develops to the point where the relationship becomes exclusive. And in business, the customer who is satisfied with the experience of dealing with a company will return to them, and decrease the amount of business they give to the competition.

And after a while, the couple's commitment to one another gets to the point where they are ready to make a formal commitment to a long term relationship: i.e., marriage. There doesn't seem to be an equivalent ritual in the customer-vendor relationship. Arguably, it could be the point at which the customer signs a long-term contract with a vendor - though this is sometimes required by the vendor even for a "first date" (and it's worth noting that many companies are abandoning term contracts in favor of pay-as-you go programs, with an option to sign a contract at a later time), or in other industries there is no contract at all (though a customer's repeated purchases over time might be considered to be the equivalent of a common-law marriage).

Problems can occur at any moment in a relationship: it may be that a person discovers that the other party misrepresented themselves in the early stages - they are not really the person they pretended to be when they were dating - or perhaps they merely feel neglected or taken for granted. The same can be said of customers, when a business makes promises it doesn't deliver on during the time when they're pursuing the business, or when the level of care and attention paid to the customer diminishes over time.

And in a troubled relationship, a person might consider whether they have made the right choice. The prospect of breaking up and starting a relationship with a different person (perhaps even someone who is pursuing them) becomes increasingly attractive, and they may eventually begin seeing someone else "on the side." In much the same way, a customer who is dissatisfied or feeling neglected is constantly subjected to the advertising of competing firms that seek to win them away with promises of better treatment, and they may eventually be convinced to try another product, and move some portion of their business to the other firm.

If the relationship isn't mended, it is eventually abandoned: the couple stops dating, breaks up, or gets divorced. From a business perspective, this is the point at which the customer stops purchasing from the firm. It is probably much less dramatic than the end of a personal relationship, but I expect that the ex-customer, much like an ex-spouse, harbors feelings of resentment.

But on the brighter side, not all marriages end in divorce - many people remain happily married "for life." And in these instances, it's generally found that both parties have worked at maintaining the relationship and sustaining the romance - it doesn't "just happen," but requires constant attention and effort. And I suspect that, in the world of business, a company that has managed to maintain long-term customers often does so not because of customer complacency, but as the result of constant effort to ensure that the customer is happy with them, all along.


This has gone on a longer than I had imagined - and perhaps I'm chasing down a metaphor at this point - but because the exploration has sustained my interest and sparked additional parallels, I have the sense that it's an apt metaphor, and it may be worth looking into some of those insipid self-help titles on personal relationships with an eye toward their applicability to the vendor-customer relationship ... though it may be some time before I can muster the patience to undertake that task.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Customer Neglect

I can understand, or at least tolerate, that businesses are complacent about churn when it comes to new customers they're notoriously fickle: : a person who purchases a given brand could well be seeking a substitute because they are unable to purchase their regular brand "this time" and are not likely to become regular, loyal customers. However, when long-term customers churn out, it requires greater consideration.

A long-term customer tends to be less demanding and more forgiving. So long as the product, the cost, and the buy/service processes are consistent with their previous experience, they tend to be satisfied enough to repurchase, even if there are occasional or minor shortcomings. And even if there's a "major" problem, they generally will be forgiving if their supplier makes amends.

In order to lose a long-term customer, you have to have done something very wrong - or have at least done a lot of things poorly over a long period of time - such that the customer is shaken from their complacency enough to seek out a different provider (or to be susceptible to the overtures of a competitor).

The problem is not that this is a false perception, but that it is a valid one: vendors have the impression that existing customers can be taken for granted precisely because the customers will continue to give them their business, even when problems arise, and even when quality of service declines.

Said another way, the business is complacent because its customers are complacent. There isn't any need to work very hard to keep a customer, and doing "more" for the customer doesn't contribute a dime to profitability - from a cost-benefit perspective, it's wasted expense. And I don't have the sense that it can be argued otherwise, based on short-term financial results.

But over the long term, customer neglect leads to customer attrition - and attrition of the worst kind: the loss of long-term customers who are more profitable and more critical to the long-term success of a firm than the fickle "new" customers.

Research done in this area, whether surveys of new customers or lost customers, has been frustratingly inconclusive. Most defectors express that they were satisfied with their "old" provider and cite no specific reason for leaving. This would seem to reinforce the perception that customers are "just fickle" - which, in turn, reinforces the perception that there is nothing a company can do to prevent customers from defecting - so why bother?

However, I'd submit that this, itself, is the problem: companies are indifferent to their existing customers, take their business for granted, and do nothing to maintain their loyalty. And this is what makes it so easy for competitors to lure them away.

The example that comes to mind is the "low introductory rate" offered by credit card companies. It's a fairly common anecdote that the offer is sent to an existing customer, who calls the company to ask if the discounted rate can be applied to their existing balance - only to be told that the special rate is for "new customers only." Can there be any more blatant way of declaring that the existing customer is being taken for granted?

But of course, this would constitute one of the rare occurrences when the customer would leave their existing provider for a different one, and would be able to cite a very specific reason for having left. And it would also contribute to another common misperception: that customers are not loyal, but only care about price.

My sense is that most companies are savvy enough to avoid acts of such spectacular stupidity as to blatantly declare their indifference to loyal customers, right to the customer's face - but over the long run, neglecting the customer in lesser ways, on a more regular basis, can be just as damaging to customer loyalty.

As a result, the reasons for customer attrition are harder to identify. A customer can't cite a reason for being dissatisfied, but has a more deep-rooted sense of dissatisfaction that is more difficult to identify, assign, or quantify. It's more of a slow leak than an instantaneous blowout.

The quality of service customers receive from their existing provider isn't something that springs to mind when asked why they made a change - in fact, it was a "typical" level of service that they became accustomed to accepting. There's no specific reason they can give for being unimpressed, and they don't even feel it's fair to say that the service was unsatisfactory.

As such, it's more difficult for researchers to identify, and far more difficult for companies to address, than the few, obvious instances in which customers could cite a specific reason for leaving. So in the end, a company that seeks to retain customers for the long term will need to pay a bit more attention to the 70% to 90% of defecting customers who express no dissatisfaction with their service, and look a bit harder for a satisfactory answer to the problem of customer neglect.