4 Reasons Your Product Needs to be Usable

December 30th, 2008
Published on
December 30th, 2008

No one plans on making their product unusable. Still, so many companies end up with products that are difficult or impossible to use as intended. From unyielding packaging to tiny instructional text, unusable things exist all around us.

While creating an unusable product is never the intention, it often happens because the business owners didn’t prioritize usability. Designers who are still trying to convince their stakeholders that usability, usability testing, and a general UX focus is necessary, look no further. In this post I will detail four reasons to make usability the top priority.

Poor usability loses business.

Sometimes the truth hurts. Customers don’t care about our goals and intentions. They need products that work to accomplish tasks, and if they can’t find that with your product or service, they’ll walk.

One example of a place where usability and experience is key is in the stores themselves. Consumer Reports reported a year ago that people are better off finding a good deal on the digital camera they wanted online (among other gifts), rather than drive to their local mall. Their rationale was that online stores are more convenient for shoppers, cost less to maintain, and give shoppers the ability to read reviews and share their own experiences. In other words, online retails provided a more usable shopping tool than the physical store.

So my question to retail chains is: what gives? Retail chains have the tools at their disposal to make local shopping infinitely more pleasurable. From personal attention to the ability to pick up a physical gift and see how it works, the storefront has plenty of ways to improve the usability of their service.

The bottom line: if your business or product makes things easier and more efficient for people, customers will respond. If your product isn’t usable, they’ll go elsewhere.

Poor usability erodes trust

Nothing hurts a brand worse than damaging trust. When a potential customer is taking a look at a product or service, they are making all sorts of judgments (some of them subconscious) about the company. They’re constantly noticing or thinking:

  • Why was the logo clickable on this page but not on that one?
  • Why is there an advertisement taking over my webpage?
  • How do they expect me to click that if it’s moving?

Users equate familiarity, consistency, and usability with trust. If they see things that feel off or awkward, they lose trust in the company’s ability to accomplish their goals. If a product or service is designed to help the user accomplish things, then enable them: let them find what they’re looking for, and move on.

Poor usability creates new problems

Blank Slate is a UI Pattern that increases Usability
Blank slate give the user an impression of how the system will look once it is filled with data.

A usable product solves problems, but an unusable product creates them. For example, if a product has lackluster documentation, the company won’t only lose customers. They’ll need to spend time answering questions via comments, forums, phone calls, and other channels. Instead of working to improve the product, time and money will go towards supporting the poor product.

If a customer needs to ask for help, there are already two distinct (but related) problems: the product isn’t usable, and the customer is frustrated. That’s why companies like 37 Signals include features designed to do nothing but improve usability, such as their “blank slates.”

Blank slates are a tool to get users up-to-speed on how the product operates. Onboarding, or introducing a user to the apps interactions, improves usability by taking the time to teach users. Onboarding can tae the form of instructional videos, helpful tool-tips, or blank slates, that let the product speak for itself.

Poor usability taints the brand

Who wouldn’t want to be a company with the kind of clout Microsoft has?

But in spite of their well-known name and many loyal users, Microsoft has fumbled over the past couple of years. Products like Zune, Windows Mobile, and Windows Vista are a brick wall to Microsoft’s acclaim. What’s more, these walls are in market segments they dominated just a few years ago – and their memories will live on. The Microsoft brand will be forever tainted by these blunders.

Further still, Microsoft’s biggest competitor, Apple, has demonstrated a commitment to usability in their product designs. Think about the various ways Apple is sitting pretty right now with unprecedented success: iPhone, iTunes, iPod, and Mac. Each of these products are highly usable, down to the smallest details that make user experiences better–from the moment you unwrap your iPhone, you’ll fall in love with it.

Zune has only been around for 3 years, but the knowledge of Microsoft’s unusable music player has given Apple the upper hand.

Where do we go from here?

These are just a few of the key reasons that usability needs to matter to every business owner or stakeholder. Messing up something as simple as a login form is enough to lose business, but by paying attention to the usability of a product, an organization can really stand out from the crowd. Here are a few ways to call attention to great usability:

  • Use scenarios and user flows to think about all the steps the user will take when they use your product or service.
  • Conduct usability testing, to find and correct usability flaws before the public sees the product!
  • Give special consideration to onboarding. You only get one chance to make a first impression.

What are some other consequences of poor usability?